Signet, $6.99, ISBN 0-451-20815-3
Historical Romance, 2003
Hey, are you looking for swashbuckling, exciting romantic adventures in the high seas that come complete with a spectacular pirate island? One starring a very strong heroine that actually behaves like the new Queen of the High Seas (altogether now: “No virgin!”) and who ends up rescuing the hero? One that reminds me of the more extravagant studio productions from MGM in those old days? All aboard Marsha Canham’s The Iron Rose then.
A sequel to Across a Moonlit Sea, the heroine is Juliet Dante, the daughter of Simon Dante and his wife Isabeau from the previous book. She commands the pirate ship The Iron Rose, and before you scoff the idea of a romance heroine in that role, take a look at Juliet. She’s skilled with the blade, she is tough, and she doesn’t hesitate to stick her blade into you and decorate the floor with your intestines if she has to.
Her story begins when she saves an English ship and takes a Spanish one only to realize that she has captured the famous Santo Domingo with enough treasures to make everything worthwhile. She encounters Varian St Clare, an English nobleman, when he mistakes her for a boy during the skirmish and comes to her rescue, only to learn that she doesn’t need to be rescued. (The last one is a common recurring theme throughout this book.) Varian turns out to be more than a foppish, useless man, and in fact, he is searching for Juliet’s father to deliver a message from the King.
This story revolves around the interaction of these two and the adventures they and the crew encounter as they return to Pigeon Cay, the infamous pirate stronghold ruled by Simon and Isabeau, and Varian’s subsequent adventures on the island. It may sound like an idyllic adventure – one or two nasty storms notwithstanding – but it isn’t. Juliet and Varian are two adorable people who spar, throw each other around, and sticks blades against each other’s throat for foreplay. While she may not be his equal in physical strength, Juliet can more than hold her own as she balances her ruthlessness towards her enemies with her affections for her crew. It is easy to see how she can earn the respect and loyalty of a band of cutthroats. Varian is essentially an outsider, a more worldly Jim Hawkins, but he is soon swigging rum and looking good in billowing white shirts like the best of them.
The strongest virtue of this book is the author’s splendid and meticulous sense of description. I actually hold my breath along with Varian and his amusing manservant Beacom as The Iron Rose navigate through a narrow opening to reach Pigeon Cay. The description of Pigeon Cay is so vivid that I could actually picture it in my mind. The rush of battle, the terrors of a storm, even the adorable interactions of Juliet and her two brothers are all so real, it’s like I’m living this adventure along with the cast. Also, the lives of the pirates described here may be in a way romanticized, but the author also doesn’t shy from the darker sides of these pirates’ daily lives. Something happened to Isabeau in this story (no, she doesn’t die, don’t worry) that will make some readers feel squeamish, I’m sure.
High adventures are the agenda of this enjoyable tale. But there are some flaws, most problematic being the author’s tendency to let her characters indulge in long conversations just to explain things to the reader. The trouble is, these characters are explaining things to the other, things that the other person should already know. How do I know they know? There’s this thing about these characters starting their epic soliloquy with “As you know…” or “You should know…” Oops. There are also some parts of the story that are bogged down by repetitions, such as Varian explaining again and again his brothers’ deaths to several different people in this story.
Still, Varian and Juliet have some sexual tension can melt ice. Maybe in another book I can complain that these people seem more to be in lust than in love, but in this case, I’d just assume that pirates like Juliet who live for today probably don’t want to dwell too much on sissy things like romantic gestures. Besides, all those vigorous pushing of one’s physical flexibility to the limits can be just as romantic as they are sweaty, sticky, and fun.
Juliet is a really strong heroine who doesn’t apologize for doing what a pirate lady has to do and nor that she has any baggages from having had four lovers before she met – had – Varian. For her, sex isn’t a penance but something fun. Varian isn’t a stereotypical alpha mule in that he actually respects Juliet for being strong and trashing his butt when he deserves it. He’s not exactly a beta type, but he isn’t above letting the wifey share the pants in the household. In short, these are two well-matched characters indeed. They may not be wise, but they are equals in all the ways that matter.
In short, The Iron Rose is an almost perfect swashbuckling ride of an exhilarating romantic adventure.