by Brenda Joyce, historical (1990)
Dell, $6.99, ISBN 0-440-20609-X
Unless you enjoy reading bodice-ripper kind of stories, it is best to proceed with caution where Brenda Joyce's The Conqueror is concerned. A healthy dose of appreciation for the absurd is needed because this book will be fabulous high camp - kinda like a well-produced soap opera - or a migraine-inducing button-pusher depending on your reading preferences. Let's just say that if you apply the same politically correct standards on this book as you would to any other romance novel, this book will be flying across the room and scaring the dog asleep in the lawn. If you view this book as a ridiculously overwrought melodrama featuring an oversexed dim-witted idiot hero and an equally dim-witted imbecilic martyr heroine, this book may turn out to be a cherished campy pleasure.
On one hand, this book is probably more accurate than readers would appreciate in that, being a medieval-era cold and ruthless warrior, Rolfe de Warenne turns out to be sex fiend with little respect for the women he grabs and paws and impregnates happily with his bastards. On the other hand, I can understand why he won't be everyone's cup of tea. That's one thing I like about this book, by the way, purely from a crap-stirrer's point of view: this book will make all those pretentious Mary Balogh-loving self-important Pomeranian-faced readers, who are constantly using "historical accuracy" as an excuse to condemn other books as "non-intellectual" duds, practically squeal in misguided offense about how Vulgar and Coarse the genre has fallen into, but alas, they can't use their favorite weapon, "historical accuracy", to dismiss this book where the hero's attitude is concerned. Rolfe, the typical medieval hero who is on a first name basis with William of Conqueror, has just finished wiping out a rebellion staged by two Saxon brothers, Edwin and Morcar. Rolfe's reward is Edwin's holdings and the sister, Alice, as wife. As a landless knight, Rolfe is happy with the prize.
The poor man's day doesn't start out too well though. When he tries to rape some idiot woman who runs out and yells at him to take his men and get lost, he realizes before the deed is done that the woman in question is Alice, his bride-to-be. Oops. Still, Alice has funny eyes but Rolfe's randy manhood is ready to play so there's no problem there. He has lands and a sexy wife now. Life is good. Right? Not, really. It turns out that this woman isn't Alice but Ceidre, Alice's half-sister. So now poor Rolfe is torn between the sour-faced Alice and the hot but utterly braindead Ceidre. He may have no problems with raping a low-born woman but he is an honorable man in that he doesn't like to take a mistress and a wife at the same time. Ceidre, in the tradition of idiot heroines who really should just die and be done with her pathetic existence, plots with her brothers to seize back Aelfgar from Rolfe. But first, she needs to run out in the middle of the night to save some pig. No, I'm not kidding.
Born with lazy eyes, Ceidre is deemed a witch and hence treated like crap by people (except when they want her to use her healer skills on them). Ceidre, however, seems to accept this treatment as her lot and she is one of those horrifically stupid heroines who will risk everything she has for anyone and everyone to the point that she puts herself in danger just to make everyone happy. Rolf is just plain nasty in his treatment of Alice but Alice is a psychotic bitch so I guess Ms Joyce expects me to cheer him on. This story is also filled with every conceivable plot element ever used in a medieval romance, and Ms Joyce uses these plot devices in an often ridiculous manner. For example, Rolfe insists that Ceidre must bathe him on his first day as the new lord of Aelfgar and he nearly gets her to submit to him even as Alice is sulking outside the door. Or when Ceidre takes a bath in a river and Rolfe spies on her, to the point that he gets so aroused that he decides to take matters in his own hand, so to speak. (I do like how he smugly allows Ceidre to watch as he gets himself off though, there is just something insufferably naughty about that scene that appeals to me.)
On paper, The Conqueror shouldn't have worked. It breaks every rule and commandment laid down in the romance genre ever since the first reader puts away her Rosemary Rogers book aside and says to the romance hero, "Thou shall not rape, asshole!" A part of me is still bristling with guilt because alas, The Conqueror does work with me. Excellently, in fact. Part of its success is largely due to the fact that while both characters are often obnoxiously dim-witted, Rolfe and Ceidre have no control whatsoever where their lust for each other is concerned. Rolfe is badly gored by a wild boar and his thighs are bloody, oh dear. But Ceidre (remember, she's the healer) has to just loom over him with a bag of herbs and zoing, little Rolfe is ready to play! Ceidre decides that it is noble of her to avoid Rolfe for Alice's sake (even if Alice hates her) by allowing Alice to banish her to the kitchens where Ceidre works herself until near-death. Not that Ceidre is complaining about that, mind you, because then Alice won't be happy and Ceidre lives to make people so very happy. When Rolfe spots his emaciated, near-death object of his rampant obsession, little Rolfe still wants to play. Little Rolfe always wants to play with Ceidre even if Rolfe slakes himself with Alice or some random maid about the castle or even if she looks like an emaciated skeleton and frankly, that's hilarious.
Ceidre is just as out-of-control to the point that once her control snaps for good (some time after Rolfe forces himself on her on her wedding night to a man he picks for her - I know, that is so hilarious), she suddenly becomes adorably sneaky. She decides to use sex to manipulate Rolfe. She insists that she's making a martyr out of herself to make her brothers happy but she plays Rolfe like a violin so well that the poor man, who is already very dim-witted in the first place, is soon doing everything she tells him to. By this point I am laughing so hard because things are falling into place in this book in a manner that feels so right and so perfect, I won't have them any other way. The trouble with Ceidre though is that she, being even more dim-witted than Rolfe, doesn't understand fully the power she has over Rolfe and as a result, she doesn't know how to exploit Rolfe's unreasonable obsession of her to fully gain an upper hand.
The story becomes more lurid and complicated with the turn of the page, so much so that I can't take this story seriously at all. That explains how easily I have fun with the book. On one hand, Ms Joyce cheerfully disregarded the political correctness that was taking hold when this book was written back in 1990 and came up with a story so overwrought and melodramatic that it is like a bodice-ripper bastardization of bad Brontė novel set in medieval era. Or an early Johanna Lindsey novel, if you will. Only, there is a difference between Ms Lindsey's early rape-me-into-bliss books and The Conqueror in the sense that Rolfe eventually loses control of the situation and gets played completely by Ceidre who is supposed to be his victim. Their obsessive lust for each other is so single-minded and, on his part, relentless even when she betrays him again and again to his enemies. The end result is a highly campy, often over-the-top story with an enjoyably subversive emasculation theme that, ironically enough, may appeal to, say, fans of Jane Eyre, although I doubt these Jane Austen fans will be swooning at Rolfe the way they swooned at the lying bigamist SOB Edward Rochester. I do believe though that Edward can take lessons from Rolfe when it comes to grovelling pathetically to Ceidre at the end of the book as he humbly asks her to come back with him and be his wife so that he will make her happy for the rest of her life.
This book, which is so bad in such a wonderful manner, isn't for the strong of hearts. No, it's for readers who can appreciate high camp as well as readers who genuinely enjoy bodice-ripper style romances. If you are one of these readers and are bored of all those sanitized medievals populated by formulaic hellion idiot women and knights who have to save them from themselves, this book may provide an amusing diversion. At the very least, The Conqueror is a funny, luridly purple, and oh-so-enjoyable formulaic story of idiot women and the knights who have to save them from themselves, and sometimes it's better to be laughing at a story that is so bad that it becomes so good than be bored senseless by a book.
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