Back to Old School, Dueling Review

Back to Old School: Pirate Week

Gentle Rogue by Johanna Lindsey (1990)

Heat Factor: It’s your standard old school fare—a couple of relatively descriptive scenes and then a bunch of interludes that fade to black.

Character Chemistry: Antagonism leads to love. 

Plot: Georgie is dressed as a boy but James knows she’s a woman. So he’s seducing her. And then they’re forced to get married. 

Overall: Slow. Then bonkers.


versus


Captured by Beverly Jenkins (2009)

Heat Factor: There’s a lot of blue balls, and then it’s just balls to the wall.

Character Chemistry: It was “NO!” Then, “YES, let’s do it.” Then, “Let’s get married!”

Plot: Dominic steals Clare away from her mistress and shows her a life of freedom, but Clare can’t rest easy until her children have also been freed from slavery.

Overall: High stakes, low tension. Very historically juicy.


What’s one key piece of information you think a reader should know before getting Gentle Rogue?

Erin: The first half is really, really slow. When they get to America, it gets interesting…slash bonkers. The bit on the boat draaaaggggged. The other thing that I think was a problem for me, was that the audiobook narrator had a really squeaky, girly voice for Georgie and a really grating, obnoxious voice for James, so it’s possible that me listening to an audiobook version influenced my enjoyment of the novel.

Ingrid: I actually like the slow part in the beginning, but I think I like slow burns better than you. For me, I’m like, “oh, it’s kindling!” 

Holly: This is one of those books where every single hero from this series shows up. It’s a fifteen book series. They don’t just have a cameo, we also get the backstory of their love lives…and as someone who doesn’t really love interconnected universes, I found that extremely tedious. But I will say that reading this book in the context of bodice rippers, I found Georgie to be a pretty refreshing heroine compared to some of the other heroines we’ve discussed this month.


What’s one key piece of information you think a reader should know before getting Captured?

Erin: Once again, the narration of the audiobook influenced my appreciation of the book. The narrator has a beautiful voice, but sometimes her intonation may have reduced tension and drama when more tension and drama would have made the story more engaging. Because Dominic is so considerate and respectful that the romance itself did not have a great deal of tension.

Ingrid: For a very gripping premise I found the execution to be kind of stale. And I don’t mean that in a judgmental way, it wasn’t quite…I don’t know. I think that because in the beginning, the hero is like, “Oh, I’m such a lady’s man,” but their tight bond becomes so obvious and so stable that all the other stuff that happens is taken in stride. So the things that should have been more gripping were like, “Eh, they’ll work it out.”

Holly: I think another key piece of information the reader needs to know about this is that Jenkins seems to be writing with a specific project of highlighting Black historical romance stories. The historical component is more highly emphasized than it has been in the other books we’ve read. At times, it verges on didactic. 

Ingrid: That’s a much more erudite way to say the same thing.

Holly: No, I also agree with what you’re saying about the tension. Like there’s all this high stakes stuff at the end and it kind of just…gets resolved.

Ingrid: At the moment of high tension, they bring in a new character who swoops in and solves all their loose ends very neatly, but the flip side is that the characters never have to make the hard decisions or takes the gruesome actions that we think the characters are going to have to make. 

I’ve noticed a trend in romance novels over time:

  1. More bloodthirsty heroes who are going to rip another man’s head off if he threatens the heroine
  2. The heroes are doing the bloodthirsty things but protecting the women from the knowledge
  3. The author bends themselves in knots to avoid having the hero be the one to pull the trigger on the bloodthirsty act

This one was #3, which I would have expected to see in publications in the teens, not in the aughts. He wasn’t very bloodthirsty, for an actual pirate. Dominic wanted to kill the slaver, but I was disappointed in the way it was executed, because I wanted to see Dominic do something about the situation. The rug just gets completely pulled out, and the emotional loose ends didn’t get tied up because of the way the action happens—like Dominic’s relationship with his brother.


Should we discuss how we selected these books since one was published in 1990 and the other in 2009?

Erin: I would like to note that we had so many pirate books on our list. It was a difficult decision, and we could have chosen a different Johanna Lindsey. Or we could have chosen a different Beverly Jenkins. We ultimately chose these because the clinch covers have the same pirate/captive pose. 

And because we didn’t want every single book we read to be by a white author.

Holly: Sidenote: I showed my husband the covers, and he said, “That’s a good way for Fabio to lose his hand,” because of the way he’s holding on to the rope.

Erin: The only thing I would add to this publication question is that we’re going to see some very significant content differences, and although Captured has real clinch cover, it is not a bodice ripper.


Can we see the influence of earlier bodice rippers we read on these books? What’s changing over time?

Holly: So, yes, I agree that Captured is not really a bodice ripper. It was published in 2009, which was after the heyday of bodice rippers. But there’s still the influence there–Clare is still sexually innocent even though she’s not a virgin. She’s innocent to sexual pleasure… But we don’t have the sexual violence; the book is much more interested in mutual consent than any of the other books. 

Ingrid: We have some of the more frivolous connections to bodice rippers like, “We have to share a cabin…I’m going to sleep on the floor.” “You have to wash my back.” “I sleep with lots of women in my cabin…just kidding I’m not going to sleep with you.” But we don’t have the level of coercion we’ve seen in older books. 

In terms of innocence, Clare has a lot of world experience, so it’s not the same kind of innocent. Also Dominic is shown to be a good man right off the jump. He’s introduced as a ruthless pirate, but it’s immediately apparent that’s not true. In the older books there’s more building of trust and boundary pushing and gray area character development (is he bad or good?) as the hero is revealed. 

Erin: Gentle Rogue still had a number of what we would call hallmarks of bodice rippers, as discussed. But as Holly mentioned in her summary note, this is the first book where we see a fiercely independent heroine. We might have been getting there in The Bride, but Jamie still found her place in the family and the castle and sort of used turnabout to manipulate her situation. Here, we have Georgie just taking the reins of her life and calling out the men in her life who are treating her like a child, or like a not fully realized adult. 

Ingrid: Also may I point out that in both of these books, the age of both heroines shot up fairly significantly considering their maturity levels. They’re officially not teenagers. They’re in their twenties. 

Holly: Clare is thirty.

Ingrid: Georgie is twenty-two. At least that’s old enough to have graduated college.

Holly: There is the age gap between James and Georgie because he’s…what? Thirty-six? So there’s still a pretty significant age gap, but unlike all the other heroines who are with much older men in their mid- to late thirties, Georgie and James play with the differences in their ages. The teasing is part of their foreplay.

Erin: With respect to Captured—do we feel like there are tie-ins to bodice rippers or simply Puritan culture?

Holly: I would say you can’t really separate purity culture from bodice rippers.

Erin: That’s fair.

Holly: Because the whole point of the sexual violence is that the woman can’t have sexual desire because otherwise she’s not a “good woman”.

:::::SILENCE::::::

Ingrid: Wow. That’s a really good point. Now it’s banging around in my brain.

I didn’t finish Gentle Rogue, so I’m curious to see how it plays out with Georgie. In the other bodice rippers, the women are able to be debauched because they have no one to advocate for or protect them. But in Gentle Rogue she has a trusted ally in her corner to protect her. So that’s definitely a deviation from prior bodice rippers.

Holly: The way it goes down, though, is that one thing leads to another and Georgie is very very into it. And then the next morning, she’s like, “Well, I guess the jig is up since you know I’m a boy, and I’ll go move into a different cabin.” And James is like, “Nope, you’re still my cabin boy. Put those pants on.” And Georgie agrees because it means she gets to keep having lots of fun sex and not tell Mac (her family friend who is also on the ship). So the way Georgie enthusiastically agrees to have a liaison with James while on the boat where it can be a secret is also a deviation from what we’ve seen before. 

Of course, everyone finds out eventually and James and Georgie are forced to get married and they get all up in their heads and stop communicating, which is very classic bodice ripper material.

Ingrid: The forced marriage is definitely a hallmark of the bodice ripper. Also completely siloing the emotional conversations would also be a hallmark of bodice rippers.


Is it even a historical romance if the aristocratic hero isn’t handy with his fists?

Erin: Is it even? How is it that a British aristocrat is a more successful fighter than a hardened, middle-aged sailor?

Ingrid: I do have to point out that being real good with your hands seems like a prerequisite for bodice ripping. So I feel like that’s a natural complementary skillset. 


Is it even a bodice ripper if she doesn’t have to wash his back?

Ingrid: I laughed audibly when there was backwashing because…there it is. I just think it’s so weird because…man backs. There’s a small percentage of the population of men who have nice backs, but I think we all agree that that’s not the most fascinating bit of the body. Backs are just there. That’s where we carry backpacks because the back is useless and out of the way.

Erin: Well, she couldn’t wash his front because she would pass out from the shock. Except she washed him all over in The Black Lyon

Ingrid: And in Gentle Rogue she washed his lower back and is like, “Oh, did I hurt you,” and he’s like, “No, it’s just a stiffness.”

Holly: I will say that the bathing scenes are effective and sexy because it’s a way to play with eroticism without even having to talk about erogenous zones. 


How about them pirates?

Ingrid: I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that pirate books are my kryptonite. I love pirate books, they’re my favorite bodice rippers. They have close proximity, there’s only one bed, there’s sometimes some grumpy-sunshine dynamic going on (like in Julie Garwood’s The Gift, even though the heroine was too stupid to live, which I absolutely loved), there’s dominance and alphaholes. They’re just rife with opportunity! Someone gets seasick and that establishes intimacy. There’s only one bed and one of them offers to sleep on the floor. Taking a bath in the cabin and then getting caught. I think I said that there’s only one bed multiple times but I stand by that, it’s the best part.

Erin: I would have thought that I would have liked the pirate books, but in both cases, I was like, “OMG, when can we get off this boat?” Though in Captured I was also like, “OMG, when can we get off this island?” But you’re not wrong; all of those beats when they hit the intimacy moments do what they’re supposed to do.

Ingrid: I think the reason it works so well—when the author’s smart about it—when you take the environment and dial it down into a smaller space, it ratchets up tension subtly and creates opportunities for surprise moments of intimacy. Even if there’s not those moments, there can be intimacy with the crew. So on a ship there’s intimacy either with the protagonists or with the crew, and that dials up the tension.

Holly: Also, the thing with pirate romances—there’s a lot of space for external plot and tension. They’re traveling, they’re potentially having sea battles and conflict with other crews, weather possibilities, authors can play around with different settings…so there’s basically a lot of stuff you can do with a pirate book to build both internal and external tension.

Erin: Or, okay, so…I wanted to talk about the actual pirates. James and Dominic are very different people. 

Holly: I found James to be one of the most irritating heroes I’ve ever read. 

Ingrid: It was the skimpy bathrobe, wasn’t it?

Holly: It was his mannerisms! It was his voice–where he calls everyone “my boy” and maybe that’s petty, but I just found him annoying.

Ingrid: I get that, Holly, because he’s set up to be different from other pirates. His cabin is so opulent because he’s a lord playing pirate. Usually they have a very spartan cabin and one nice thing. 

Holly: Like the spartan pirate has really nice sheets.

Ingrid: Right. But everything else is really spartan. It’s all very functional. They’re one of the crew, part of a team. The crew gives them respect because they would sacrifice everything for the crew. In Gentle Rogue it’s so opulent, and then he comes out with that skimpy green silk robe, and I was like, “Well that’s different.”

Holly: Right, and in Gentle Rogue, the crew really isn’t there. The found family element isn’t present. In Captured there’s a lot about Dominic’s crew—the doctor, the carpenter everyone has conflict with, the powder monkey, their relationships with each other. This is very different from James Mallory, where he’s just the boss and he has a first mate who’s comfortable teasing him.

Erin: The other element that I flagged is that James is literally a gentleman pirate who has retired his pirate ways when the story opens, and it sounded like he wasn’t really pirating, he was just causing trouble and making a name for himself but not necessarily doing “bad things.” Dominic is literally a pirate (with letters of marque, so I guess he’s technically a privateer). His father is a duke so he does have a gentleman thing going on, but his behavior isn’t piratical. He’s not domineering. He’s not particularly bloodthirsty. They sink the slaver’s ship, but he doesn’t kill the slaver captain, even though it would have been the best time to do it. He’s so respectful of Clare. There’s much more gentleman to Dominic than pirate. Whereas James’ personality—he’s got much more of that asshole pirate vibe going.

From the 2003 live-action Peter Pan. He can still get it, he just looks ridiculous.

Ingrid: I feel like James wears lacy cuffs. 

Erin: It’s 1818, he shouldn’t be wearing lacy cuffs.

Ingrid: It’s the vibe Erin. He’s wearing a shorty silk bathrobe, that’s straight out of the 90s.

Holly: You’re right. James is Captain Hook. Without the hook. He’s got ridiculous cuffs and the stupid long curly black hair—but is he blond? Doesn’t matter, that’s how I pictured him. 

Ingrid: But in a short silk bathrobe.


Compare/contrast heroines?

Ingrid: This one’s a tough one because we’ve agreed that Captured doesn’t really fit the genre, and in Gentle Rogue, the heroine doesn’t fit the role of bodice rippee.

Holly: Well, in Gentle Rogue especially I think we’re seeing the shift because readers want the domineering, asshole hero, but they don’t want the sexual violence. Because James would fit right in with The Flame and the Flower. He’d do the same shit Brandon did. The difference is in the women. Though Georgie, like Heather, puts up a token protest the first time they have sex, she actually does want to have sex with James.

This is a shift in society we’re seeing, if we go back to bodice rippers and purity culture. Now, it’s okay for Georgie to take ownership of her sexuality and not be shamed for it… I mean, she’s still forced to get married but it’s not a big source of shame for her.

Erin: In some ways I felt like Clare, especially early on in the book, had more of that old school bodice ripper characterization. She was terrified of Dominic. She’s a slave, and she’s not a “happy slave,” but she’d still rather be on the ship she was captured from than with the scary pirate who abducted her off the ship. Plus we have her purity culture centered ideology where she’s worried about her eternal soul if she has sex with Dominic out of wedlock. Then we’ve got Georgie who as we discussed is entering into the feisty, has-a-mind-of-her-own heroine who we see a lot of in the late 90’s and aughts.


Are we going to talk about Georgie thinking she’s physically ill when she’s aroused?

Ingrid: How stupid do you have to be? To think that you feel sick when you feel good. Come on. She’s 22. 

Erin: She sees him as attractive immediately. So…she’s never before in her entire life, even when she was hormonal and going through puberty, been aroused? 

Holly: GUYS. THAT’S HOW YOU KNOW HE’S THE RIGHT MAN FOR HER. And that her previous fiance wasn’t!

Erin: She’s not even coded as demisexual or anything like it! Which is not surprising given the publication date. But that, I think, makes it worse. Holly you’re right, you’re exactly right, but it’s just like…really? It’s kind of the same vibe as those modern one-handed reads where she’s like, “I’ve never been able to get myself to orgasm! Can you pls halp mehhh?” 

On the other hand, I think we can acknowledge that sex education is probably not preparing women in 1990 to understand their bodies and how to give themselves pleasure, so…

Ingrid: Well, Erin, that’s why James had Georgie read that erotic book. Which is where I ended my read. But at least he was trying to rectify that mistake.


His manhood and her hips in trousers

Erin: Dominic’s penis was referred to as his manhood almost 100% (if not 100%) of the time, and we had Georgie wearing trousers. More in the tavern than on the boat, we definitely had: “Oh, if she lifts her shirt everyone will know immediately that she’s a woman because of her shapely derriere”.

Ingrid: That’s very rude, because some of us look like 14 year olds in jeans.

Holly: I mean, it’s just your usual toxic gender essentialist language. We still see it in romance novels. Women in pants in books that were published two years ago do the same thing.


Would you recommend Gentle Rogue to a modern audience?

Ingrid: I haven’t gotten to the sexy bits! 

Erin: But are you going to finish the book?

Ingrid: Yeah. I like the slow burney books. The ending you’ve described with the brothers is not usually my favorite, so we’ll see what I think of that, but I’m definitely going to finish it.

Holly: I would give this a qualified yes. If you’re interested in paternalistic, age-gap, emotionally constipated romances, and you’re also really interested in long interconnected series where all the other characters show up, then yes. But…for me personally, I found it kind of tedious.

Erin: My short answer is that I agree with Holly. But I would qualify it that I’ve definitely read old school books that include all of those elements that I enjoyed more, and I have also read Johanna Lindsey books that I enjoyed more. I was definitely entertained by the ending, but this one was mostly a miss for me.


Would you recommend Captured to a modern audience?

Ingrid: I’m going to sort of steal Erin’s response and say that I would rather read another of Beverly Jenkins’ books. I enjoyed the premise, but the ending was underwhelming for me, and the island scenes were kind of slow. So I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this one, but I would recommend the author separately. 

Holly: I feel like the other Beverly Jenkins book I’ve read does kind of a similar thing where the two protagonists figure out their relationship by the midpoint and they’re pretty solid, and that although there’s some conflict, it’s resolved fairly easily and it’s pretty low tension. With that being said, I think this book does some really good things and although I was dunking on all the history stuff earlier, the things she’s doing with this book and the history are really interesting, especially when reading these two books side by side. In Gentle Rogue, the characters are all definitely involved in the slave trade but it’s just not acknowledging it in any way. So the narrative in Captured where it addresses the realities of the slave trade, that’s interesting and important. 

So unlike other books we’ve read this month where I’d say “don’t read it,” I’m not going to say “don’t read it,” but I’m also not going to push it into your hands.  

Erin: I would recommend it to readers who are looking for books that feel like they have high stakes but that don’t actually give you the stress of a high tension narrative. I would also recommend it to readers who are looking for protagonists who are very kind and respectful to each other. For me personally, aside from the tension, the big hang up that I had with this book is that Dominic and Clare are really horny—their desire for each other seemed to stem from their physical desire rather than their emotional connection, and that is not something that clicks for me. 


Buy Gentle Rogue: Amazon | Bookshop

Buy Captured: Amazon | Bookshop

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