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.
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.