The end of February is upon us, which means we’ve reached our last installment of this year’s Grown-up Guide, and, boy, is this one a DOOZY. Only one of us had previously partaken in Johanna Lindsey’s impressive and extensive body of work back when some of them were first published. It seems time has smoothed the rough edges off those memories, because we were all quite flabbergasted at the craziness contained within these Fabio-covered pages.
Reading these stories, and seeing how fondly some people still speak of them in their reviews, makes me realize how far we’ve come in terms of consent and casual misogyny in media in recent decades (despite there being miles to go). It opens up an interesting dialogue about viewing older works with a modern lens, and should you still enjoy your problematic faves, etc. I won’t dive into that here (though feel free to discuss in the comments!), but it’s safe to say I think we at FYA had a hard time putting aside our modern-day sensibilties while reading through these “romances”.
Thank you for joining us in our continual love affair with love stories! Let’s meet back here next year to once again indulge in our unbridled passions–same time, same place.
Spotlight On: Johanna Lindsey
What to Expect: Um, it’s hard to think of anything else beyond all the raping, alphaholes, and kidnappings. Expect a lot of ALL OF THAT.
From Fancy Dress to Fabio: Emphasis on the “to Fabio”! Johanna Lindsey’s pre-2000s books are basically the quintessential “romance covers” most people immediately think of when you ask them to picture one: the flowing blond locks (his, not hers); the artfully, partially-unbuttoned shirt showing off a perfectly waxed chest; and, a woman, in the midst of a swoon over his raw, male sexual perfection in a field of wildflowers. We can enjoy them now for their kitschiness, but I am very glad there are a variety of other options nowadays.
Mrs. Perky’s Prize for Purplest Prose:
“Even as he thought it, her arms suddenly tightened around his neck, and in his stillness he felt it; unbelievably, without his having moved at all for the past few moments, she was climaxing, the pulse of it surrounding him, squeezing him with each glorious throb, and firing him with a savage exultation that whipped his desire for her to a frenzied peak. He thrust, and thrust again, and went over the edge so explosively, he wasn’t sure he would survive it.”
And one more because I literally couldn’t pick:
“She opened her legs to him and he thrust deep into her inner recesses. He clutched her buttocks to press her even closer to him and rode her like a stallion rides the wind. Before the final thrust, he felt her legs wrap around his hips and then he was lost in that white sphere of fire and delight that had spurred him to break his word and make her his.”
Fires of Winter – Reviewed by Rosemary
Oh, it’s a cute one, all right. Lady Brenna’s father has promised her to the almighty Viking, Anselm, who plans to give her as a gift to his son Garrick. The idea is that in promising his daughter, Brenna’s dad is protecting his village from the Vikings’ wrath. So you can imagine everyone’s surprise when, instead of taking his lady gift and sailing back to Norway, Anselm decides he’ll take his lady gift AND have his men rape and pillage the whole town anyway. Brenna tries to save her home but it’s no good–she may be a warrior, but she’s still only a small teenager trying to fight a bunch of brutes.
With all the men of her village dead and the women enslaved, Brenna and Co. are taken to Anselm’s fjord and she is given to Garrick. Anselm had hoped that Garrick would be taken with beautiful, feisty Brenna and marry her immediately. But Garrick has sworn off women forever since his last girlfriend broke his heart. Instead, he plans to keep Brenna as a slave indefinitely, and simply use her for sex when he feels like it! Cool!
The Leading Lady:
Lady Brenna is BAD TO THE MFING BONE. I kept referring to her as Brenna of Tarth because she is a sword-slinging, man-hating, take-no-shit hottie who refuses to let anyone get the best of her. And this never changes throughout the book. This baddie kills a BEAR. A BEAR! She fights Vikings! She escapes captivity and survives alone in the wilderness! Garrick makes his scary dog guard her and she just makes the dog like her better than Garrick! Brenna is truly one of the best female characters I’ve ever read in a romance novel. She was, without a doubt, the saving grace of Fires of Winter and the reason I kept reading when what I REALLY wanted was to set this book on fire to keep me warm in the winter.
The Leading Man:
Garrick Haardrad, on the other hand, is the OG fuckboi. Like, in a book full of Viking men who rape and pillage, Garrick was the one I hated the most because he tried to act like he was above that shit when he most certainly was not. Oh, poor you, you’re a rich, entitled Viking prince with a house full of sexy slaves to do your bidding and the world’s most bad ass woman in your bed wanting to marry you. But you got dumped once so you can’t ever commit to anyone ever again. Instead you’ll just demand this woman have sex with you and remain your slave.
This book honestly made me feel like I had brainworms, because in the first half, I thought, “Maybe Garrick isn’t so bad! I mean HE didn’t murder everyone from Brenna’s town and isn’t really interested in raping his slaves!” THAT WAS A REAL THOUGHT I HAD. And by the second half of the book, I KNEW I had brainworms when I thought, “Wow, Anselm the murderous rapist Viking actually has a character arc that makes him seem somewhat sympathetic, Garrick should take notes.”
Risque Ranking: A Rollercoaster From Bad to Worse
Brenna’s evil older sister has been telling her horror stories about sex for most of her life. It’s super painful and terrible and a woman must “survive” it for her husband’s sake. Brenna is properly freaked out, so the first time Garrick has sex with her it’s one of those classic, bodice-ripper scenes where he’s raping her, but, like, for her own good! To show her that sex isn’t so bad! *takes deep breath* Brenna is kicking and screaming until she realizes that her sister was full of BS and sex is actually kinda cool. Never one to let a man get the upper hand on her, Brenna is like, “That all you got, boy? KEEP GOING.” THIS is where I got my hopes up. I expected something along those lines and thought that it was out of the way, and now that Brenna had got that D she would be all about the sexy business henceforth. And yes, in the first half of the book, after the initial bodice-ripping, there is a little swoon and a sexy scene and I let myself think that maybe, just maybe, this book would turn out to be not so bad after all.
Wrong. WRONG. I was wrong. There’s still a lot of rape. As in: Garrick, the romantic hero of this romance novel, violently rapes Brenna while she’s screaming and crying and fighting, not only at the beginning of the story, but also about ¾ of the way through it when he should be winning her heart. I just! I JUST! I JUSTTTTTTTTT………!
Was it Good For You?
Rosemary: Fires of Winter was published in 1980, which is basically the Jurassic period of romance novels. Times were, uh, different back then. Romance novels were problematic as hell, so I knew what to expect and I wanted to try to keep an open mind while I read this one. I thought it would be like a romance novel version of Game of Thrones, and unfortunately, it was all the rapey, sexist scenes in Game of Thrones and none of the cool dragons.
I gave this book the benefit of the doubt, but turns out I was just naive. I really thought that a main character as feminist and awesome as Lady Brenna would get the story she deserved. I mean, how could Lindsey write a character that incredible and ahead of her time then have her be misused and mistreated by a shitty dude through 95% of the book? Truly, the ONLY thing Brenna does that isn’t bad ass is buy Garrick’s lame romantic gesture at the end. Honestly, I wish she would’ve just let that bear eat him.
Gentle Rogue – Reviewed by Stephanie
After waiting five years for a fiance who never returned from war, Georgina Anderson decided to take matters into her own hands and sailed from New England to London with naught but her family’s long-time friend, Mac. After she finds him a happily married father who didn’t even recognize her, an embarrassed Georgina is ready to get home as fast as possible. But the only ship leaving port heading her way is captained by James Malory, ex-pirate and all-around pompous rake, and he’s not interested in taking passengers. So Georgina gets herself hired as James’ “cabin boy”, certain she can fake being a man for a month or so.
But James sees through “Georgie’s” disguise right away, and can’t resist a good ribbing—or a good bedding.
The Leading Lady:
Georgina is a not-very-bright, virginal twenty-two-year-old who can’t keep her mouth shut to save her life (or her disguise). Once she decided she “loved” James, she got even more boring and needed to be rescued all the time.
The Leading Man:
James, on the other hand, is a complete twat from the first moment Georgina gazes into his overly confident baby blues. He brandishes his rich-white-male energy with an audacity that would put the Chads and Brads of today to shame.
Risque Ranking: Sexy As A Belly Flop
Hmm, let’s see, for a good portion of the book James assumed Georgina was a “dockside doxy” for dressing up as his cabin boy, and even after they’d had sex he continually called her “brat” as a not-so-cutesy nickname. It was really annoying, and way to infantilize our heroine, Jamesy boy.
I chose this 1990 book specifically because it sounded like it came from Lindsey’s slightly less rapey period (the plot summaries of her ‘80s books are WILD, y’all), but the first time James and Georgina had sex was pretty cringey. Georgina, by her own admission, seems to barely understand what’s going on and is so “overcome” by James’ sensuality and skillful love-making that she’s in a daze. If I hadn’t read the moments that immediately preceded the sex, I would have to assume we were in the mind of someone who had been drugged. (She eventually gives “consent” to herself to enjoy James undressing her and having his way with her, but at no time does she tell HIM that it’s cool.)
Was it Good For You?
Stephanie: I knew this was going to be a departure from the kinds of romances I’ve surrounded myself with over the last few years, but OOF. Lindsey’s actual writing wasn’t too bad; I was bopping along with the first third or so, but once Georgina’s angsty, useless brothers showed up and I realized I still had like TWO HUNDRED more pages to go, well, I’ll be honest: I did a LOT of skimming. Also! Georgina is constantly “nauseated” around James—like to the point where she throws up sometimes—and describes her symptoms to both Mac and James, who then tells this “silly child” what she’s feeling is actually sexual attraction to him. The actual fuck??? Guess I’ve never been sexually attracted to my husband because I’ve never puked from his mere presence. Toss this one in the sea.
Once a Princess – Reviewed by Sarah
It’s 1835, and Tanya’s been working in a tavern in Natchez since she had the misfortune to land in the arms of its asshole owner when she was a baby. But now that Dobbs, the aforementioned a-hole, is bedridden, Tanya is *this close* to taking complete control over the bar and becoming an independent woman. Of course that’s when Stefan, the former Prince and new King of Cardinia, strolls in and informs her that she’s actually Princess Tatiana Janacek, who was sent away to America for safety after her entire family was murdered in a blood feud. Oh, and that’s not all! She and Stefan have been betrothed since her birth, and he’s here to take her back to Cardinia and make her his queen.
Since this sounds like an absolute fairy tale, Tanya refuses to go with Stefan and his buddies, which results in them straight up abducting her. (And if you think that’s problematic, which it is, just wait.) Stefan’s temper is legendary, but Tanya’s will is made of iron, and as the two butt heads all the way down the Mississippi, their anger quickly shifts to fire of a different sort.
The Leading Lady:
Tanya’s life has been rough. Worked to the bone by Dobbs and often beaten, she’s held on to the knowledge that once he dies, she’ll be able to take over the business. She’s tough, and she’s smart, which is why she dresses in baggy men’s clothing and wears make-up to give herself a haggard look that no tavern patron would be drawn to. (I know, that part is a little much.) I appreciated her fierceness, but it covers up the fact that she’s weirdly naive, and she has no idea how to, like, communicate with people beyond drawing her knife and making sarcastic comments. As the book progresses, her motives get reeeeeal muddy, and I found myself wishing she had the chance to stick with being the lady boss of a tavern, because *that’s* a heroine I can root for.
The Leading Man:
UGH Stefan is THE WORST. Johanna Lindsey introduces us to his insane temper on, no joke, page one, like it’s something that brings all the girls to the yard?! He’s a total hothead, which is not to be confused with being hot, especially when he “takes it out” on his mistress from time to time via sex. Oh, and the YIKES keep coming. On the first day he meets Tanya, and she refuses to leave everything she’s known and go to a foreign country she’s never heard of with a man she just met, he punishes her by spanking her. WHAT THE ACTUAL. And we’re supposed to feel bad for him, because he has some scars on his face, and he feels like a beautiful woman will never want him, and WAH WAH WAH. I just cannot with this guy.
Risque Ranking: A World of No
Welp, in case I haven’t made it clear, this book has obviously never looked up the word “consent.” Tanya gets spanked, kidnapped, and kissed against her will, and even after she starts to fall for Stefan, it doesn’t get better because why would she fall for a guy who has assaulted her? Even worse, Tanya learns that if she wants any sexy times with Stefan, she just has to make him mad, because only losing his temper will cause him to get frisky. (Otherwise he won’t touch her because she’s beautiful and he can’t stand the rejection, yeah, idk, it’s all garbage.) And the icing on the cake? Stefan says shizz like, “Tell me to love you, Tanya. Demand it of me!” Dude that’s a HARD PASS.
Was it Good For You?
Sarah: Definitely not! I had heard that Johanna Lindsey’s earlier books were problematic, so I figured I was safe picking a novel from 1991, but NOPE. Stefan is the stuff of nightmares, and Tanya ends up with some kind of Stockholm syndrome. I mean, when a heroine tells someone, “You’ll never comprehend what you’ve stolen from me, my dreams, the one thing I wanted more than anything–control of my own life,” and then promptly falls in love with him and hands over 100% of her independence by marrying into a royal family, I am legit GOBSMACKED as to why anyone would write, let alone read and enjoy, this story. Also, I think it may have ruined the “secret princess” trope for me which is an unforgivable transgression.
Have you read any Johanna Lindsey? Feel free to leave us suggestions in the comments on what authors/books you think we should cover next year!
FTC Full Disclosure: We either purchased our own copies or borrowed these books from the library. We received neither money nor cocktails for writing this review (dammit!). All books are available now.
Grown Up Disclaimer: If you’re new to romance novels, especially older, historical romance novels, be warned that women’s sexuality, fantasy, consent, and the expectations of the time periods during which these books were both written and set are complex and nuanced, and some of the sexual and relationship dynamics might be shocking if viewed through a modern-day lens.