Saturday, June 1, 2013

RITA Season, Part Two: Historical Romance

The posts that I’ll be sharing on alternate Saturdays between now and July 6 will be self-indulgent, romance-fan posts.  I’m going to be looking only at the categories in which I have read most of the finalists and talking about the books I have read with a nostalgic glance at some favorite winners from the past and a few gripes about treasured books not included among the current finalists. I hope you’ll join me and share your own totally authentic, equally subjective views.

Historical Romance: The Past

RWA could have just called the Golden Medallion (as the awards were called for their first eight years, 1982-1989) for Best Historical Romance the LaVyrle Spencer Award in the early years. She won half of the Golden Medallion given in this category. The Endearment (1983), Hummingbird (1984), Twice Loved (1985), and The Gamble (1988) were all winners, and Morning Glory won the overall award, Best Romance of 1989, in 1990.

Today when we think of historical romance, we equate the term most often with European historicals, most of them set in the Regency period. But for much of RITA history, Americana and Western romances ruled. All of Spencer’s RITA winners were American-set historicals, as were the winners in 1986 (Not So Wild a Dream by Francine Rivers), 1989 (Sunflower by Jill Marie Landis), 1992 (Courting Miss Hattie by Pamela Morsi), 1996 (Something Shady, also by Morsi), 1997 (Conor’s Way by Laura Lee Guhrke), and 1998 (Promise of Jenny Jones by Maggie Osbourne). In addition to these other Americana and Western titles won RITAs as Best Short Historical. Among these were To Tame a Texan’s Heart (1995) by Jodi Thomas, Always to Remember (1997) by Lorraine Heath, The Mistress (2001) by Susan Wiggs, and The Texan’s Reward (2006) by Jodi Thomas. Westerns have enjoyed something of a resurgence recently, but I miss the Americana novels. A great essay by Stephanie Mittman, who wrote some wonderful Americana novels, on the appeal of that subgenre can be found at All About Romance. 


In addition to the American-set winners, there are also some unforgettable medievals on the list of RITA winners in historical romance.  I’ve reminded people several times recently that I was reading Robyn Carr when she wrote historicals, long before the Virgin River series. Carr won the Golden Medallion for Best Historical Romance in 1987 for By Right of Arms, a medieval set in France. Julie Garwood’s The Bride, the 1990 winner, is set in 12th-century Scotland, the 1993 winner, Penelope Williamson’s Keeper of the Dream in 12th-century Wales, and Barbara Samuel’s Heart of a Knight, 1998’s Best Short Historical, is set in 14th-century Britain.

It wasn’t until 1999 when Connie Brockway’s My Dearest Enemy was proclaimed Best Long Historical Romance that European historicals began to dominate this award. Two classics in the genre won earlier—Mary Jo Putney’s Dancing on the Wind in 1995 and Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels (Best Short Historical) in 1996, but every winner since My Dearest Enemy has been set at least partially in England; most of them in the 19th century. These winners include 2000-- Silken Threads by Patricia Ryan (12th-century England), 2001--Devilish by Jo Beverley (Georgian England), 2002--The Bridal Season by Connie Brockway (Victorian England), 2003-- Stealing Heaven by Madeline Hunter (14th-century England and Wales), 2004--The Destiny by Kathleen Givens (17th-century Scotland), 2005--Shadowheart by Laura Kinsale (14th-century England and Italy), 2006--The Devil to Pay by Liz Carlyle (Regency England), 2007--On the Way To the Wedding by Julia Quinn (Regency England), 2008--Lessons of Desire by Madeline Hunter (Regency England), 2009--The Edge of Impropriety by Pam Rosenthal (Regency England), 2010--Not Quite a Husband by Sherry Thomas (1890s India and England), 2011--His at Night by Sherry Thomas (Victorian England), and 2012--The Black Hawk by Joanna
Bourne (1794 and 1818 Paris and London).

Historical Romance: The Present

I keep hearing that the historical romance is in trouble, but new additions to my keepers and the number of historicals in my TBR stack don’t suggest any shortage of great historical romances. When I considered my favorites in this category, I realized that I have a weakness for stories that use a conventional trope but give it a twist, strong heroines, characters that are not high-ranking aristocrats, and novels that are part of a series. I can see at least one of these qualities in the five finalists that I have read in this category. 


Bride by Mistake by Anne Gracie is a marriage of convenience tale with a difference: Lieutenant Luke Ripton is an idealistic nineteen-year-old when he comes upon a girl, hardly more than a child, being attacked. To protect her from a greedy relative determined to force the thirteen-year-old Isabella into marriage, Luke married her himself and leaves her in a Spanish convent. Eight years later, Luke, irrevocably changed by the war and with a newly inherited title, arrives at the convent to take his bride back to England. He expects to find what he imagines is a typical convent-trained wife—demure, silent, and obedient. Isabella is none of these things, as Luke will discover during their journey across Spain, tangling with danger, building a friendship, and falling in love. Gracie with her gift for crafting stories that move me to tears and laughter is a never-fail author for me. This is the fifth book in her Devil Riders series, which I love.

A Lady Never Surrenders by Sabrina Jeffries is the conclusion to The Hellions of Halstead Hall. It’s not my favorite of the series, in large part because I don’t like the person Grandmother Hetty becomes in this one, but I do like Celia and Jackson, individually and as a couple. I like the romance across classes, and I really like that Celia is not a girly-girl heroine. I’m happy to see Sabrina Jeffries, an autobuy author for me, on this list. I still wonder why How to Woo a Reluctant Lady wasn’t a finalist in 2010.

When an author creates characters so real that I talk to them, I consider the book a winner. Sarah MacLean does exactly this in A Rogue by Any Other Name. Even though I wanted to strike Bourne at times for being so obsessed with revenge that he hurt Penelope, he was always deeply, multi-dimensionally human to me. And I loved the strength and grace of Penelope. She is one of the best examples I know of an appealing secondary character in one book who becomes even better than expected when she gets her own story.

Too Dangerous to Desire by Cara Elliott, book #3 in her Lords of Midnight series, is a good girl-bad boy romance, and it is a reunion romance, my favorite trope. Elliott is particularly good a balancing the mystery/adventure plot with the romance, and the former is especially intriguing because Sophie, vicar’s daughter, is an unpredictable choice for a blackmailer’s victim.

Jade Lee gives her readers a pair of wonderfully unusual characters in Wedded in Sin, the second book in her Bridal Favors series. Samuel Morrison, second son of a baron, is a supremely rational, highly intelligent man who assumes the role of a jokester. Penny Shoemaker is a pragmatic, middle-class heroine, who is forced to design shoes secretly because she is female. Like Samuel, she hides behind a façade. Part of the joy of this book is that these two atypical characters are able to see beyond the created personae by which their worlds identify them.

Finalists in this category that I have not read are Beauty and the Bounty Hunter by Lori Austin, Defiant by Pamela Clare, and The Recruit by Monica McCarty. I’ve heard good things about all three of them. But not even the most voracious reader can read all the good books available, and I am not a candidate for that title. For now, these are on my Maybe Sometime list.

Historical Romance: The Missing

I read more historicals than any other subgenre of romance. I could easily compile a top 25 list of historicals I have loved in any given year. I though 2012 was a particularly strong year because there were so many excellent debut authors. Since this post is super long already, I will mention only six historicals that I think deserve to be on this list. These are books to which I gave highest marks, and I know from reviews, conversations, and best of lists that they are books that are beloved by many other readers.

A Week to Be Wicked, Tessa Dare
This road romance featuring a bespectacled bluestocking, Minerva Highwood, and a charming rogue, Lord Colin Payne, is a delight, showcasing Dare’s undervalued humor and giving readers another reason to make the Spindle Cover series a favorite. I think it’s the best book Dare has written, including RITA winner A Night to Surrender, and I count all Dare’s books keepers.  Both Publishers Weekly and Library Journal included it in their Best Romances of 2012 list.

A Gentleman Undone, Cecilia Grant
At times, an almost painfully dark story, Grant’s second novel takes two characters whose lives have been shaped by the guilt they bear and pairs them in a story that operates with the genre’s conventions while twisting them at every turn. There is nothing unusual in a hero who is a veteran psychically scarred by war or a courtesan heroine, but there is nothing predictable about the real guilt Will bears and his commitment to atone for his error in the only way he can. Nor is there anything predictable in a heroine who sells herself as a means of self-destruction. And Grant’s prose places her among the best in the business. A Gentleman Undone was on Library Journal’s Best of 2012 list.

The Ugly Duchess, Eloisa James
A brilliantly written take on the Ugly Duckling fairy tale, The Ugly Duchess features an ugly duckling who transforms herself into a swan with still tender scars underneath her glorious feathers and, in a reverse move, a handsome, popular swan who transforms himself into a scarred ruffian shorn of his feathers. I loved the reverse transformation, loved that Theo was the architect of her makeover, and loved that however the world saw her, James never saw Theo as anything but beautiful. The Ugly Duchess was named one of Booklist’s Best of 2012.


 A Notorious Countess Confesses, Julie Anne Long
This seventh book in Long’s Pennyroyal Green series may take the prize for the most unusual couple of the year. Adam Sylvaine, the hero, is a vicar who not only quotes Biblical passages but also writes sermons, prays privately, and feels privileged to serve his parishioners. Yet he is also a man, with a man’s passions and flaws and vanities. The heroine, Evie Duggan, Countess of Wareham, is an Irish lass who loves her family fiercely, who knows how to talk to a child terrified of a drunken father and to an uncertain young woman who longs to know the secret of inspiring love in a man. She is also an actress, a courtesan, and a countess by virtue—or rather the lack of virtue—of being won in a card game. This is Long at her best—and her best is amazing.

His Very Own Girl, Carrie Lofty
That this is a romance set in World War II makes this book stand out from the thousands of historicals published in 2012. That its heroine is a pilot for the English Air Transport Auxiliary, its hero a medic in the American Infantry makes it more extraordinary. From the music to the clothing to the food to the emotions the characters experience, this novel pulls the reader into the 1940s. As I read this book I hummed, I wept, I smiled, I wept again, and I wished passionately that this book would find the audience it deserved. A RITA nod would have helped.

Ravishing the Heiress, Sherry Thomas
I’m not even going to pretend to be objective on this. Sherry Thomas published three romances in 2012, each of them compelling stories with characters who came to life, each of them written in staggeringly beautiful prose. All of them deserve highest honors, but Ravishing the Heiress is my favorite and Millie one of my all-time favorite heroines. My favorite line in the novel is a comment Venetia, Fitz’s sister and heroine of Beguiling the Beauty makes to Millie, who has paraphrased with some bitterness Byron’s claim that “Friendship is Love without his wings.” Venetia answers her: “No, my dear Millie, you are wrong. Love without friendship is like a kite, aloft only when the winds are favorable. Friendship is what gives love its wings.” Millie and Fitz discover that truth.

Now it’s your turn. How many of these finalists have you read? Do you have a favorite in the category? What missing historical titles would you have included?


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