Some authors carry “Advance to Publication (Collect Royalties)” cards, allowing them to bypass the bothersome editorial process. It’s not like fans are going to notice the lack of quality. Except they do. I cannot imagine that Bertrice Small’s The Last Heiress will win her new fans, and if I were a longtime Small reader, I’d think twice before picking up another book by this author.
Repetition rules in this story, so much so that I can synopsize it from memory. Elizabeth, a hard-working landowner, must marry and breed because someday she will die, and, despite the fact that her other sisters pop them out regularly, there’s nobody to take over for her. Baen, a bastard, cannot marry Elizabeth because he owes his father his fealty. Elizabeth must go to court and find a suitable husband, even though everyone knows she won’t succeed. Elizabeth becomes Anne Boleyn’s best friend, triumphs at court, returns home, seduces Baen (bad girl!), Big Misunderstanding, he leaves, blah, blah, blah, happily ever after.
Elizabeth is simple girl who wears serviceable clothes. This is romance shorthand for “she’s one of us”. Of course, in the bedroom, a negligee is serviceable. Draw your own conclusions. Elizabeth works hard, is plainspoken and honest (yeah right), and is just about perfect. No really. She possesses an excellent figure, great hair, and fine teeth; manages her land without ruining her manicure; hosts a sit-down dinner for a dozen at a moment’s notice; and mixes the perfect draught of medicine with one arm tied behind her back. We will skip her archery skills as they are irrelevant to the plot.
Okay, I made up the manicure part.
Elizabeth’s direct nature is something Small tells me about. Repeatedly. In the second half of the book, Elizabeth embarks upon a career of trickery and deception both pointless and out-of-character, seducing Baen and whatnot. She switches from capable human being to petulant child. It is not pretty. Worse, it’s not believable. Neither is Elizabeth’s crankiness when called “Bessie” – though she has no quarrel with Anne calling her “Bess”. It is nonsensical, and given the number of times the “Don’t call me Bessie” phrase is repeated, surely there is more to the story. That more, however, escapes me.
Baen is a nice enough guy. Likes to talk dirty in bed. Bastard but cool with it. Works hard, likes animals. Dumb, but you can’t really be all that. His character offered me my one good laugh during my reading. Elizabeth, forced to court a second time (the agony, the torture, the tedium), is kept overlong, and Baen, presumably lonely but more likely horny, goes to get her. He announces that he’s “Baen Hay, known as the MacColl.” Who, I wondered, calls him the MacColl? Only the author, and not very often. As far as nicknames go, it was kind of like the skinny nerd who calls himself “The Heavyweight Champion” in private.
The book is set during the well-trod Henry VIII/Anne Boleyn era, meaning we should have seen alternate history, illumination of real events, or fictional characters influencing the path of the world. In other words, there should be a purpose. You’ll notice that my helpful synopsis didn’t touch on any of these possibilities, with good reason. If you can cut an entire subplot from a novel without affecting the narrative flow in any way, shape, or form, the subplot is superfluous. Evidence: the entire interaction between Elizabeth and Henry VIII’s court.
Can you imagine the possibilities for intrigue in that particular court? The divided loyalties, the paranoia, even the bitchiness of courtiers are glossed over. I cannot fathom what sort of dramatic interest Small hoped to inspire as she lead us through a series of vignettes about Elizabeth’s perfect wardrobe, her friendship with Anne, or her triumphant nose-thumbing of other courtiers during a masquerade. Even potential disaster – Elizabeth rounds second base with the official Scottish spy – is about as milquetoast as an author can make it. Descriptions of dresses only sustain my interest for so long, and my threshold was exceeded long before Elizabeth journeyed down the River Thames.
Small misses a golden opportunity here. I know – or believe I know – the story of Anne Boleyn. The Last Heiress doesn’t change much of what I think (though I learned that Anne had a “cat’s smile”, whatever that might be; in my experience, smiling cats have usually just vomited on my pillow). By delving deeply into the palace intrigue, Small might have made the “Elizabeth goes to court” sojourn interesting and purposeful. Where are the plots within plots? Where are the whispered conspiracies? The backstabbing? The real moral angst?
I considered – far too long – the possibility that the entire London trip was designed to compare and contrast the characters of Flynn Stewart and Baen MacColl. After all, both are bastards with a strong sense of duty to family (mentioned frequently), both were Scottish (ditto), and both were stud-worthy (oddly, for a romantic novel, not considered nearly enough or with much depth). Lengthy reflection lead me to conclude I should not look for literary conventions here. Unless the notion that Flynn will appear in a later book is a literary convention.
There is nothing particularly fresh about the plot – the “must marry to have an heir” story is tired. The conflicts were, how can I say this?, contrived. The question of why Baen and Elizabeth cannot marry forms the heart of the novel, and should be fraught with real emotion and obstacles. Or not. Pages of angst are wasted (paper doesn’t grow on trees, people!) on an issue that was by asking a simple question. Let me paraphrase:
“Dad, I want to marry an English heiress.”
“Okay, son. Send a postcard after you get settled in.”
We didn’t need Elizabeth’s out-of-character trickery, we didn’t need the highly predictable pregnancy/birth miracle reconciliation, and we didn’t need to wade through pages of repetitive material. All we needed was for someone to step up and ask the frigging question. Note to all aspiring romance authors: if conflict is resolved by asking a yes-or-no question, it’s weak. There is a technical term for this kind of plotting. . .bear with me while I double-check my resource materials. . .ah yes, boring. The conflict is boring.
Throughout the novel, Small goes out of her way to avoid conflict. Hmm, conflict avoidance. There’s therapy for that. We are set up for a major confrontation between Elizabeth and her sister Philippa – after all, the latter is a staunch supporter of Henry VIII’s first wife. Nada. The entire royal court is conflict just begging to happen. Zippo. English Elizabeth marrying a Scot – the horror! If only everyone wasn’t so darn enthusiastic about the match. Alas, we need more diversions. The novel clocks in at around 400 pages. Thankfully, the world of romance has a storage locker full of clichés, and Small has the keys.
But wait, there’s more! I am an avowed critic of prologues and epilogues in romance novels. Lucky me – this book had one of each. If I had to pick the biggest loser on the pointless scale, it would be the prologue. This is just a suggestion, but if you’re going to have a prologue, do not repeat the set-up in the first chapter (also, all subsequent chapters).
As for the epilogue, hey, Anne Boleyn lost her head. Some chick named Jane took her place. Whoa, that’s news. As I recall, Jane didn’t fare so well.
Small is not a subtle writer. The full backstory of the major characters is rehashed multiple times. You know those friends with whom you have exactly one thing to talk about, so every time you get together, you re-examine that moment from every possible angle? Welcome to this novel. I nearly screamed when Elizabeth, toward the end of the book, recounted for Baen her relationship with Anne Boleyn. That’s what couples discuss during long nights without television. The reader didn’t need the information; we’d been told many times, not to mention the fact we’d suffered through the whole dull event back at the beginning of the book. It’s almost as if Small expects us to put the book down for a few months before giving it another go.
Small’s writing is kludgy and, from a romance novel perspective, old-fashioned. Adverbs as dialogue tags abound – in two pages we have curiously, seriously, mischievously, boldly, and boldly again. Variations of “said” fill the pages. The voice is flat, surprisingly so. Point of view is distant, allowing her to tell all, including the thoughts of a servant who thinks another servant might make a good wife. This is apropos of nothing, yet the random thought leads to an actual pointless vignette. Who cares if these two people who aren’t developed beyond the broadest of strokes get married?
Ah well, I told myself after those tedious first 170 or so pages, there’s always the sex. The sex will be hot – this is, after all, Bertrice Small.
Let’s just say the husband didn’t get lucky. There are hints of dominance. There are suggestions of unfettered lust. There is dull intercourse. And an unappealing nod toward a kink that I find uncomfortable (let us just say a certain hero demanded that his wife hire a midwife immediately because he didn’t want to, uh, share). The sex wasn’t emotional and it wasn’t sexy.
My final thought? Dorothy Dunnett is a great author. . .
P.S. I am formally requesting extra credit for making it through this review without an extended rant on the unironic and repeated use of the word “manroot”.
P.P.S. This book is oddly sized and very floppy. Read cautiously.