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Jane’s insightful review of The Devil’s Game by Joanna Wylde sparked a though-provoking twitter conversation about cracktastic reads, reader consent, and violence in Contemporary Romance. I was happy just silently following the discussion, but lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about violence in contemporaries, so I thought I should share those thoughts --which are in no way fully formed-- with you today.
Now, when I say violence in Contemporary Romance, what I really want to talk about is the violent hero. Months ago, I read Hard Time by Cara McKenna. It’s a novel set within the same realistic universe as After Hours, one of my favorite books of 2013. In Hard Time, the hero is a convict and the heroine is an outreach librarian working at his prison. Their relationship develops through letters that are just pure fantasy and also quite safe. Their communication doesn’t involve physical contact and she can stop their exchange at any moment, in part because he gives her the power to do so by telling her that, if and when she decides to end their relationship, she should wear a particular color during her next visit. But when he is released on parole, what happens when they meet again?
Interestingly, at first, Annie seems more upset about the fact that he hid his potential release from her than by the fact that he was in prison for beating someone within an inch of his life. A crime, I should say, he does not regret committing and is willing to do again if necessary. To complicate matters further, Annie’s previous relationship was an abusive one, so there’s plenty of conflict to get in the way of their eventual HEA.
Annie is a complex character, but in this book, I felt like she was a placeholder for the reader who was the one who needed to believe and forgive the hero. At least I know I had a hard time forgiving him, but the books is entirely devoted to humanize and, yes, excuse his actions. He did it to avenge his sister’s rape, and that right there felt like the text’s blatant attempt to redeem and justify his actions. He is completely unrepentant and is willing to do it again, even when his stubbornness could cost him the woman he loves.
I am torn because I felt that the text was asking me to forgive this man by portraying the violence as a misguided act of love, and thus making them heroic. But on the other hand, he is unapologetic about his actions right until the very end, so in a way his attitude undermines the efforts of the narrative.
Ultimately, the book worked for me, but I felt like the Erotic Romance label hurt it, because it meant imposing what I thought was an unbelievable happy ending. But heroes who commit violent acts for vengeance or to protect the heroine are very common in other sub-genres, so why am I having such a hard time forgiving this behavior in a Contemporary hero?
Psy-Changeling series, Kaleb is one of the most popular heroes, even though (or maybe because) he was a villain throughout most, if not all, the series. This man committed murders to further his political ambitions and was raised by a psychotic serial killer who raped minds and tortured one of the previous heroines. But the more we knew, or not knew, about him, the more intrigued we became. Then his book was announced and the excitement was almost unbearable. Part of the excitement was enhanced by the game of anticipation, but most of it was about a genuine fascination for the character. And this fascination and love didn’t wane even after we realized that Kaleb was psychological unstable and willing to commit mass murder and take over the government. This is worse than beating your sister’s rapist, and yet I easily accepted him as a hero and found his book romantic (although I don’t think it stands the proof of the second thought, to be perfectly honest).
This dichotomy of sorts is fascinating to me. Why is it harder for me to deal with violent, criminal heroes in contemporary settings? Does this mean that not all heroes are made the same? Shouldn’t heroic qualities be the same across sub-genres? I don’t have an answer to those questions, but I do know that from now on, I’ll be paying closer attention to how I react to certain types of characters and contexts.
In a community like ours, in which the conversation can be a pretty hero-centric, one would expect these issues to be constantly evaluated and examined, yet the conversation is often superficial in nature. And although I think lighter discussions are necessary and fun, I appreciate the opportunity to talk about heroes under a different light.
So what do you think? Do you judge all heroes equally? Do you think the different sub-genres have different rules and definitions about what’s acceptable and what constitutes heroic behavior?