Signet, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-451-22105-6
Historical Romance, 2007
Notorious is a sequel to Infamous in the sense that the daughter of the couple in that previous book gets her story here. Set in the time when King Edward II was facing opposition from his ministers as well as Robert Bruce in Scotland, this one is actually more of a story of Roger Mortimer and Guy de Beauchamp marshaling their allies to counter the influence of Hugh Despenser and his father over King Edward II. The romance between Brianna de Beauchamp and Roger’s second son “Wolf” is shoved so much into the background.
The problem with this one, therefore, is that it wants to be historical fiction and Virginia Henley isn’t good at writing historical fiction. Oh, she knows her history, but I read her books because they are campy, entertaining, and full of gratuitous sex scenes. At least, that is how I feel about her books that were published in the 1990s. Take away the spirited heroine and the campy elements of a Virginia Henley story and I get a very flat and dull story.
And dull is what this book is. I get paragraphs after paragraphs of clumsy prose that combine awkwardly very modern turn of phrases with jargons added to give the story an authentic feel. Characters spend pages after pages telling each other things that they should already know from the start. The first few pages have the main characters explaining their family relationships to each other, mind you, and I can’t help wondering whether there should be a better way to introduce the cast. Another problem is that when the characters aren’t talking, the author mentions scenes of historic events in passing as if she’s writing a history schoolbook for very young readers. The characters aren’t shown actively involved in a skirmish, instead Ms Henley just goes, “Oh, and then this happened, la-di-da, and next, that happened…” The result is that book feels more like scenes of exposition dialogs interrupted occasionally by superficially described events.
The clunky writing aside, this book does have a potential hot button – Ms Henley’s treatment of the gay King Edward II. Notorious is easily Ms Henley’s most anti-gay novel to date. If you have read Ms Henley’s previous books, you may know that this author doesn’t portray gay characters in a favorable manner. Now, Ms Henley’s stories are set in a time when homosexual characters aren’t going to be viewed in a favorable light by the people of that time, so in a way, it will be implausible if the characters in these books start behaving so politically correct towards gay characters. In Notorious, I suppose one can argue that King Edward II and Hugh Despenser are unpopular people so there is a very reasonable possibility that all those things thrown their way have more to do with their personalities than their sexuality. But it’s not going to be fun for some readers to read constantly of King Edward II being called immoral and unnatural by other characters in this book, I’m sure.
But the problem here is that Edward II and Hugh are called all kinds of names for what they do, but when Roger Mortimer seduces Queen Isabella, everyone here is like, whoa, you go, you virile old man, you. Apparently it’s okay if the good guys use their wangs to further their political ambitions while gay men who do that are amoral and unnatural. Ms Henley pretty much digs her own grave with this lack of self-awareness on the double standard in her story – she’ll have a harder time fending off accusations from her detractors thanks to this. Especially, if one looks up the history books, Roger Mortimer isn’t much different from Hugh Despenser when it comes to ambition and greed. So why portray the straight opportunist as a (historically inaccurate) good guy who just wants to make everything fair and nice again and the gay opportunist as the vilest creature ever?
But I hesitate to say whether this potentially inflammatory aspect of the story is deliberate or accidental on Ms Henley’s part. I mean, take a look at this snippet of her afterword. I’ve bolded the unfortunate word that catches my attention.
Deposed King Edward II was imprisoned at Berkeley Castle. Many rumors surrounded his death, but most historians agree that on September 21, 1327, he was murdered by the ingenious method of a red-hot spit inserted into his bowels through his rectum, so that no marks could be found upon his corpse. The order for this foul deed was said to come from Roger Mortimer, and in 1330, he paid the ultimate price.
Hold the accusations of homophobia, folks, take note that Ms Henley describes the punishment as a “foul deed”. My point is, would you use the word “ingenious” to describe Edward II’s punishment? Technically, yes, the method of execution fits the dictionary definition of the word “ingenious”, but then again, one can even argue that there are many “ingenious” methods of inhuman cruelty thought up by truly sick minds over the course of human history. When it comes to semantics, Ms Henley is using the word correctly. But when it comes to context… sheesh.
I doubt any halfway competent author will deliberately use “ingenious” to describe these inhuman methods of torture and execution unless he or she wants to become the target of hate-mails and all kinds of damning accusations. A more circumspect author would have just removed the word altogether and let the reader make up his or her own mind about how ingenious or not the method of execution is. Which brings up another interesting question: what is this author’s editor thinking to let this boo-boo slip through?
Then again, probably very few people could have waded through the book that far to reach the afterword so it won’t matter in the end.
Notorious isn’t so notorious as much as it is so incompetently written that it is laborious to finish.