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The Duke’s Handmaid By Caprice Hokstad

When I first heard of Splashdown Books, I jumped over to the site to peruse the offerings. So varied. So spec-fic. What to choose? Oooh, what’s this? Fantasy romance? Right up my bookshelf. I grew up reading  romance -ishes, more “Brit” than “Am,” and this looked kinda “Brit.”

I learned our own Kat Heckenbach drew the key on the cover. Nice! One more reason to indulge.

Last weekend was dreary and cold. Again. Perfect reading weather. Off the shelf came The Duke’s Handmaid. Hot tea by my side, several cats pinning me to the bed (only a problem after the tea was finished), I settled in to read.

Loved the little explanatory notes at the beginning. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck and most people think it’s a duck, even if it isn’t exactly a duck, why not call it one? Nobody in that world speaks English anyway. Why confuse the issue further by having to describe what’s basically a duck? Works for me.

The brief description of the Elva and Itzi was placed right where it needed to be placed. Yes, I would have figured it out as I read, but having it up front helped me settle into the world faster. I liked it.

So, we’ve got your basic formulaic romance. Attractive, destitute orphan Keedrina meets handsome, rich noble Duke Vahn. She enters his household, makes some friends, makes some enemies, impresses a few people. The boy and girl dance around the obvious for a while. Throw in a kidnapping, rescue, near death experiences and…done! Romance novel complete.

Chuckle. Not so easy this one. Yes, the formula is there, but this book makes you think, too.

Oh, not at first. While I read, I reacted. “Don’t do that!’ “What are you thinking?” “Get out! Get out!” Several times I stopped to wipe my eyes and blow my nose so I could see the page again. “Stupid Itzi,” I muttered on more than one occasion.

One little twist really got me reacting.

Slavery.

In this world, slavery is a legal, controlled fact of life. People become property, permanently or for a limited time. They can sell themselves or be sold – by a parent, as payment for a debt or as a punishment for a crime. They can be branded or tattooed as a slave. Slaves have some rights, but the extent of their legal protection seems to vary by country.

Now, this little twist intrigued me before I read the book. I had no idea how it would affect me afterward.

As I turned pages, I squirmed. How could rational people treat other people like this? How could a person become a thing? Why would a person want to become a thing? It disturbed me.

At no point did I find myself blaming the author for bad story-telling. On the contrary, the clarity of the writing allowed the ugliness of the facts to show through in all their distorted detail.

These characters are people, and they behave like people: sometimes well, sometimes badly. I had trouble connecting with the hero because he owned slaves. He was a “good” master, but he was undoubtedly a master. He treated his slaves like trained dogs and they responded in kind. It disturbed me. More than once, it angered me.

I found myself thinking of U.S. President George Washington. He is a legendary hero, and rightly so, but he owned slaves, too. Was this how it was in his household? Disturbing thoughts for a turtle.

I didn’t understand our heroine. How could she offer herself as a slave? Did she have no self-respect? Didn’t she understand she would become property? Couldn’t she see how the others were treated like working dogs? That is no kind of life. So I squirmed. And raged. And cried for her.

One other thing disturbed me: torture.

We got to experience several torture scenes in the course of this book, and the ones we focused on were performed by the hero. I wasn’t sickened by the violence or gore. I’ve read and written plenty of that. One might even argue the punishments were justified by the crimes committed.

What disturbed me is what it said about the hero. In role playing, a Good character cannot torture. To do so causes an alignment penalty, because torture is an evil act. The fact that our hero could do it, to me, reinforced how completely he thinks of slaves as property. He is a good guy, but he is the law in his land and property can be treated any way you wish, including torture. Shudder.

You might conclude I hated this book and would never think of it again.  You’d be wrong. I cannot get it out of my mind.

It is simply written. No flowery embellishments or lengthy passages of description. No glaringly clever or humorous lines to quote (in fact, the few times the word “sure” was used in dialogue as an affirmation jarred me out of the story because it felt out of character). But I had to read until I was done. I couldn’t have set this book down and walked away for a few days. I wanted to know.

I intended to give the book four and a half buttercups, holding that little back because of the torture. A week after the fact, as I think about the book when I kneel to pray to God and wonder if I should assume Submissive or Abject, as I consider the only person worthy of  such Freewill Slavery as Kee offered to Vahn is Jesus Christ, as I realize I would rather die of torture than endure life as a slave, I have to give the book five buttercups. It branded me.

It may be simply written, but its simplicity is powerful. It’s the kind of book I want to loan out (get your own copy to keep; this one’s mine) with the instructions “read this and we’ll talk.” When it comes back to me, I’ll put it on my shelf next to George MacDonald’s books, even if it does mess up my alphabetical listing. They seem to belong together.

I will definitely be reading The Duke’s Handmaid again. I will buy and read Caprice’s second book, Nor Iron Bars a Cage, because I want to know if our hero really does “get it,” as I hope he did. He’s too good to continue in the belief that people can be property.

If you want a book that engages your mind as well as your emotions, a book which mostly certainly qualifies as speculative fiction, give The Duke’s Handmaid a try. It’s not your everyday, formulaic romance. Believe me, that’s a good thing.

About Robynn Tolbert

Born in Kansas and born again at age six, Robynn has published two novels and started her third. Robynn, aka Ranunculus Turtle, lives in Kansas with a clowder of cats, a patient dog and a garden.

9 comments on “The Duke’s Handmaid By Caprice Hokstad

  1. I have this sitting in my stack. Chicky has assured me I will love it. When I read it, I’ll call you. 😀

  2. Well, Robynn, when you told me that my book was “disturbing” I must admit I was afraid to read the coming review. I also hoped someone warned you that it wasn’t typical romance. Yes, there’s romance in there, but it’s so far from typical that I almost want to not mention it at all. Of course, then Grace (Splashdown Books owner) comes along and offers a big Valentines Day special and I’m cringing in my boots and biting nails, wondering what poor hapless bonnet romance reader might pick my book up by accident and then start a smear campaign because they were duped. But this is the kind of disturbing that I don’t mind. The kind that makes something stick with you and make you think. If I have done that, then I have done my job. I hope the sequel is as engaging and thought-proviking as the first book was. Thank you for your honest review.

    • Thank you for writing it!

      I bought it during the Valentine’s Day special. Good idea, Grace! hehe!

      And readers of Splashdown books should already be warned nothing is quite what you’d expect. *grin*

  3. This is one book I’ve been meaning to get for some time now. Perhaps I’ll get it this month if I can.

    I always find it interesting how people question how someone in past societies where slavery was “the norm” could possibly sell themselves that way or subject themselves to such “degradation” and “torture”, then you have to consider Rome at it’s height. The slaves of Rome held anywhere from the lowest of low to the highest of high positions based on their education.

    As believers in Jesus as the Christ we tend to have a narrow view of Rome based on what little was shown us in the New Testament, and no doubt it wasn’t a nation that had a covenant with God, but there were other times in Rome’s history too besides when they occupied Jerusalem or when Herod or Pilate were in charge of Jerusalem. Also, as Americans we remember all too well the “recent” history of our own nation where the Africans were treated so horribly by people that in Rome would have been slaves themselves rather than slave owners. They wouldn’t have qualified to be slave owners. The combination of our general limited knowledge of slavery makes us really wonder why one would allow themselves to be subjected to such an act.

    The slaves of Rome would want to be owned by certain owners just because they knew they got better benefits. There were some slaves that were even trusted with carrying about financial matters for their masters and if someone’s slave came to you you were to treat them the way you would treat their master because they came representing their master. Slaves would expand their education just to ensure themselves a spot with an owner that could provide better living quarters and better meals and so on and so forth. And that’s not a reflection on the owner they had as being a mean owner, no the owner was just a less afluent owner than the one that the slave wanted. If the owner they wanted decided they wanted them too, then an offer was made for the slave and typically the transaction was made at that point. Or if the slave was on a limited basis, then once that time was up they would go to the new potential owner and if accepted would be a slave to them. And that was just the way it was. That doesn’t make it right, but that is what it was.

    Now let’s look at modern day America:

    Twelve years are spent shaping young minds for the working class environment and it’s paid for by the government. It’s called “public education”. During the last four years of this the students are encouraged to go somewhere else for four additional years of education which will get them a “good job” that will “be secure”.

    The students are shown a lot of options on how to obtain that education which needs to be paid for. A few students have parents that have the money to pay for their complete education and other options aren’t even worried about, just accepted if qualified for them. Some students receive full or partial scholarships to places where this education can take place. Most students have to come up with some other way to pay for it and wind up with student loans and take part-time jobs while at school (taking even more precious time away from their studies) just to ensure that their schooling is paid for or to keep themselves fed after that. And that’s just of the ones that can actually get to this next level of education.

    Once completed, they go out to seek employment. Typically, the accountant student goes to work in a tax office or bank of some kind, the medical student works for a doctor or the hospital, the business student goes to work for a business of some kind, the law student starts off at a law office as a paralegal, and the liberal arts student goes to work at a burger chain like McDonalds. 😉

    All of them have accrued loans of some sort or another that they are now having to work just to pay off.

    Whether it’s the student loans or the high credit cards that were handed out like candy in a playground, the students that go through these four years typically have deep debt when they leave that education and have to work just to pay it off.

    What else do they wind up paying? Rent or mortgage, car payments, the city for water and garbage services, the electric company, gas (if available and required), telephone, internet, cable or satellite – and that’s just basic stuff. Not to mention the various local, state and national taxes.

    Some people wind up paying for even more things than that.

    They stay at their jobs because if they leave their jobs the money will stop coming in and they will have massive debt and have the fear of facing lawsuits and/or jail time. So they keep working, and add even more education to try to get a “better”, “higher paying”, more “secure” job. They keep selling their time, their very lives, to someone else for an hourly or salary wage in order to get the money they want to ensure that they have what they want.

    Does that sound at all familiar? Maybe we’re not so different from Rome at its height after all.

    Why do people sell their lives? They sell it to get what they want, and society accepts it – even encourages it.

    Yet, there are always other ways to get money that are perfectly legal, but because of how the majority of us are shaped in the first twelve years of education we either just don’t think like that, or if we do, we have already screwed up our credit (another aspect of slavery) to a point where we can’t do anything because we can’t get approved for it to be done.

    When will we ever truly get rid of slavery? In my opinion that’s a better question than why people subject themselves to it.

  4. Very good points, David. I might also add the example of military service. People willingly sign away some of their rights in order to serve something bigger than themselves, something they believe in. And Christians might also want to ponder why so many of the Apostles used “Bondservant of the Lord Jesus Christ” (and Lord being a specific Master/slave term, btw) so frequently.

    Thank you for taking the time to comment.

  5. Thank you for the reminder, David! I completely forgot to invite our readers to play with me.

    How about it, dear readers? Have you read the book? Know someone who has? How do such twists to old formulas affect your notion of what speculative fiction is and can be?

  6. David, yeah, there’s a reason you can substitute “employee” for “slave and “employer” for “master” and have the text make perfect sense, in fact, it makes more sense when we mentally substitute those words.

  7. BTW, I loved Caprice’s books!

  8. Hello, Andrea! Thanks for stopping by!

    I look forward to reading your Splashdown offering, Tales of the Dim Knight.

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