Leisure, $6.99, ISBN 0-8439-5379-9
Historical Romance, 2003
Judith E French’s The Conqueror doesn’t seem to know whether it wants to be a sweeping epic historical tale or a silly captive fantasy romance novel. Normally I won’t be this anal about labels, but Ms French unfortunately can’t shed the sillier elements of the romance genre in this book. The result is a book that fails to be truly satisfying as either a romance novel or a historical fiction.
The Conqueror seems at first to refer to Alexander the Great, but it’s actually a reference to the heroine, Roxane the princess of the mountain kingdom of Bactria and Sogdannia. These two meet and marry when Alexander conquers her father’s kingdom. This is the story of Roxane and her relationship with Alexander until his death.
I’ve always up for a good story featuring Alexander the Great. Unfortunately, Alexander is depicted in a one-dimensional demigod-like manner that it is hard to warm up to him. Roxane is a typical hoyden that displays very little political acumen or even survival instincts in this story. The love story is unconvincing as the author has Roxane falling for Alexander after only five days in the honeymoon suite. While Roxane tries to make up her mind regarding her feelings for Alexander, her jealousy of the other women in Alexander’s life, real or imagined, leads her to do some stupid things. One such nonsense in particular sees her disobeying Alexander’s orders and charging straight into a skirmish only to get captured.
It’s a pity that the romance in this story has an unrealistic captive fantasy element and Roxane is an irritating hoyden stereotype. Why can’t the author depict her as some realistic princess with political acumen instead of some Boudicca on steroids? The author gives her characters plenty of physical beauty, but these traits do little to make the characters come off as real. The secondary characters aren’t much better. Haphaeston is clearly the familiar protective best buddy of the hero I’ve come across in many medieval romances, although here Hephaeston is quite annoying as every other word from him is a slur against Roxane.
If the author has ditched the tedious romance novel conventions and plunge fully into writing fully-fleshed out characters in a story that don’t try to conform to the genre’s limitations, The Conqueror would have been a grand story. As it is, it is a very readable one, thanks to the author’s fluid storytelling style that keeps the pace going. Alas, Roxane and Alexander are more campy fun than anything else. Normally camp can be good, but this one has already broken quite a number of romance novel conventions here (and this includes Alexander’s fidelity). It seems a shame that it doesn’t break more of them, especially those rules concerning some of the more annoying romance novel conventions.