May 24, 2013

Review: Untamed by Anna Cowan

A cross-dressing Duke hero. That alone had my interest before anything else was said over at Dear Author. This book defies gender stereotypes in many, many ways and has genuinely interesting characters, who grow throughout the story. It's a tough read in places, for various different reasons, but it's still one of the most original books I've read in a long time. And the heroine is awesome.

Kit is in London with her sister Lydia, who is having an affair with the Duke of Darlington. Lydia's husband is furious. Kit realises that she needs to save their marriage, by calling the Duke off Lydia. The price he extracts for this favor is that Kit take him back to her county home. What she doesn't realize, is that he will turn up as a woman. What he doesn't realize is that her home isn't just not fit for a Duke, they are outright in poverty. That's the beginning, but a whole lot of other things are going on.

What I love about this book is that the heroine, Kit, really is the heroine. I mean that in the sense that she's the one that saves the day, in every way. Kit must be described as strong about a dozen times and its justified. She is robust both physically and metaphorically. She also does traditionally 'male' things. She goes out and chops wood in the rain while Jude looks on; she swears; she competently manges the family finances. Jude on the other hand lounges around, pouts, and causes more problems when he tries to help than if he'd just left well alone. Kit shoves Jude up against walls and won't take any crap. I understand that some people found Kit rather unsympathetic, or unrealistic. I didn't at all. I was with her every step of the way. She made tough calls but I felt that she had grit and integrity.

The other female characters are also good. More strong, well rounded women who are distinct and human, rather than wallpaper in dresses behind the main characters. Kit's family play a big role in this book and Sophie (Kit's mother) and her sister Lydia are both characters that at various times you are repulsed by and endeared to.

Jude is a bit of an arsehole. He's morally dubious, and not just in a vague, 'Oh he's a rake' kind of way. We seem him do things, including things to Kit, which are highly questionable. On the other hand, there is an awareness of his arse-holery in the book. It's not ignored, or passed off as him being an alpha-male. So although I was occasionally uncomfortable, actually I didn't mind, because I thought that Kit could manage him. He was brought pretty low and she was always portrayed as strong. (No crying in the corner for Kit, oh no, that's Jude's role.) He was quite gender queer, passing himself off as a woman (Lady Rose) for much of the book and was quite effeminate even as a man. I didn't quite understand his 'dark side', which was a meaner, slightly dominant version of himself. It felt a bit like shoe-horning a bit of male dominance in for effect, but there was very little of it and Kit usually pulled him up on his bullshit quickly.

The weakest part of this book is definitely the historical aspect. It seems to be set in a sort of regency-esque world, but it's never at all clear when (I think this is deliberate). It would have been better set later, maybe late Victorian, as some of the things that the women do in this book (particularly Kit, but also Lady Marmotte) are so anachronistic for the regency style setting, it makes them a little difficult to believe.

Another problem is some things that are made a big deal of and then dropped. Threads are left hanging. Jude's name takes practically a whole chapter for Kit to get out of him, but then it seems that everyone else knows it, which rather ruins the feeling that Kit is being given something special in permission to call him by it. It's never clear what Jude's motivation is to start doing a lot of things and that makes the ending slightly hollow. Hints early on that Jude is almost bankrupt actually turn out that he has money (or enough money anyhow). Kit's brother is an anonymous but successful author, but nothing is made of this, and it's not clear where the money he earns really goes. And there are plenty more things like this. For nit-pickers like me, this gapiness is frustrating.

Some I'm sure will be uncomfortable or disbelieving about a hero who cross dresses. Personally I think it's eminently believable - the male/female false dichotomy has always been evident to me. Women being passed off as men is so ubiquitous though, this seems like very fair turn-about. But if you disagree, it needs some suspension of disbelief.

The beginning is slow but persevere, it quickly becomes compulsive. At some points it makes you laugh, (Jude's pig, Porkie, is awesome). Other times, it deals bluntly then delicately with issues like rape, domestic violence and child abuse. Not only that, it skims lightly over homophobia (a bit too lightly really), greed, gambling, etc. Between this, and the strong personalities of the characters, along with some political plot lines, there's a lot going on.

TL;DR: A gender stereotype and trope breaking book with a heroine you'll want to team Domme with/have Dominate you. A deliciously androgynous hero, who she has to sort out. A difficult book with some plot problems, it's held up totally by the originality of the concept and the portrayal of the characters.

Overall, it's a difficult book to grade. It's emotional and gripping, but the protagonists are fairly messed up, so the HEA hard fought. I do believe in the HEA though, and I think that both Jude and Kit, as well as Lydia and James, deserve it. There's an acknowledgement that life isn't easy though, and that there will be arguments and tough times. I like that. Although there is heat, attraction and sex, it isn't primarily erotic. There are some gaping plot holes, but it gets away with it because it's so character driven. Though not really femdom, it features female protagonists who are strong, sometimes sadistic, belligerent and control their men. I'm conflicted. I didn't always enjoy this book but it is outstanding - it stands out. Overall, a B perhaps?

By the way, I've never quite established whether the character on the front of the book is supposed to be Kit or Jude. I like to think it's Jude - and that is hot.

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