The other day, I was craving some “deeply screwed up” romance and found myself turning to Anne Stuart, who has swiftly become my go-to for the kind of uncomfortable, twisted narrative you usually only find in villain-centric fan fiction or wholly nonromantic thrillers.
In Stuart’s Black Ice, the male progatonist — I hesitate to say “hero,” because that term is so very, very loaded — is an agent with a morally ambiguous espionage organization who seduces the heroine in order to discover her affiliation. Their first sexual encounter is consensual, but only just so. Yes, Chloe’s attracted to Bastian. Yes, she’s into the sex. But he ruthlessly uses that sex to break down her walls, and she feels violated afterwards. Enough to stop falling for him? No. And, thus, the story continues…
I don’t know what this says about me, but I didn’t really blink at that sex scene. I accepted it at face-value and zipped through the gripping, fast read. It was only on Twitter, during a discussion with some other writers, that I realized what Bastian did to Chloe was controversial. And that’s an odd sensation, since I usually have a hair-trigger response to rape or forced seduction, be it on television or in books. I can rant about it till I’m blue in the face. Yet, to me, Black Ice wasn’t up there with One Life to Live‘s Todd and Marty or General Hospital‘s Luke and Laura or any number of ’70s-’80s rape-as-romance sagas.
Well, here’s what I figure: I went in looking for something messed up, and I knew Stuart was going to give me a protagonist who wasn’t just a cad/rake/bad boy in name only. I can’t stand alphaholes and alpha heroes whose angst is the emotional equivalent of a hangnail and also a free pass for them to treat women like garbage. I hate when The Love of a Good Woman “cures” one of these characters, or someone else downplays all his douchey behavior with constant assurances of, “You’re a good man!” (GH‘s Sonny Corinthos, I’m looking at you.) If you’re bad, you better damn well actually be bad. I open a Regency with a rake expecting a Rake’s Redemption and some hand-waves. I look to Stuart for that guy you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley still managing to find a person who loves him.
It’s Jerry Jacks in love.
It’s Snape, it’s Spike, it’s Sheriff Lamb, it’s Operations and Madeline. Those awful, messed up, terrifying, petty characters who aren’t the good guys. There’s a part of me that craves those stories. Not as romantic ideals and hearts and flowers, but as the flip side. Because, good God, if someone can love the spiderwebs and toadstools and sociopathic murderers, then maybe there’s hope for us all. Plus, I just like the darkness, the dubious consent, the wrongness…especially when written right.
Also, maybe this comes from watching too many soaps, but I know from bad villain love stories and half-assed attempts at redemption via love. For every Days of our Lives‘ Victor/Maggie and Stefano/Kate, there’s a GH‘s Sonny or Franco. And Black Ice‘s Bastian really tracks as one of the less creepster Stuart heroes. (Not that I’ve read many; I’m just starting my glom.) He has a moral code. There are far worse people on the secluded French estate with him and Chloe. And when push comes to shove, he puts his life on the line for her time and time again. Once he goes from seeing her as a threat to an asset, his attitude flips. And in an espionage/suspense set-up, I’m okay with that sort of shift. It’s more realistic than automatic trust. Because what kind of supersecret agent are you if you fall for the first sparky ingenue who comes your way? Geez, you might as well hang up your shoephone and your laser pen.
I’m not really sure if I can reach a conclusion here about why I like bad guys falling in love and embrace scenarios that would make me balk in other types of stories, except to say that when ice is involved, it’s a very slippery slope…