MINI-REVIEW: Genevieve Turner’s AUTUMN SAGE and the Hero’s Agon

Autumn_SageMiss Bates’ latest read is Genevieve Turner’s second “Las Morenas” late-nineteenth-century romance, Autumn Sage. Miss Bates has enjoyed this series’ sweep: California-set, intertwined Anglo and old stock Spanish families, tales tragic and comedic, characters sympathetic and antipathetic, violent pasts, present trials, and in their midst, love, forgiveness, and forging a new family and better way of being in the world. She reviewed the first book, Summer Chaparral; the eldest Moreno sister and family beauty, Catarina, is the heroine. She enters into a shotgun marriage with newly-arrived rancher, Jace Merrill. Autumn Sage is second-sister Isabel Moreno’s story; in Summer Chaparral, we learn Isabel was attacked while riding with her fiancé, Sheriff Joaquin Obregon. When Autumn Sage opens, her engagement is over; Joaquin is an invalid in the sanatorium; and, she suffers from PTSD. Isabel and Joaquin were ambushed by villain outlaw and rich-daddy’s-bad-boy-son, Cole McCade. Enter hero U. S. Marshal Sebastian Spencer, summoned from LA to Cabrillo by Jace, whose estranged father, Judge Bannister, is Sebastian’s superior. Big, black-clad, and austere Sebastian, appropriately named after the tree-bound, arrow-tormented early Christian saint, protects Isabel and captures McCade. Isabel travels to Los Angeles to testify at McCade’s trial. The silent, controlled, still-waters-run-deep Sebastian is reunited with schoolmarm and temperance-society advocate, broken-but-not-down, Isabel. McCade’s guilty conviction proves elusive. While they work to bring him to justice, Sebastian and Isabel fight their own and families’ demons, while their need, desire, and fierce love for each other are as lovely and wild as autumn sage.

While Summer Chaparral was run-of-the-mill historical romance, Autumn Sage proves darker, deeper, and more interesting. Turner’s writing is honed, polished, and moving. The plot remains, like Summer Chaparral, meandering and long. Miss Bates would’ve preferred a sharper, shorter first third to this romance, as well as the excising of extraneous scenes. Moreover, Turner tends to rely on the contrived cliffhanger to stall the romance.

The romance’s strength lies in characterization, especially the tormented Sebastian and wounded Isabel. It is in their portrayal Autumn Sage triumphs as a heart-string-pulling romance. Sebastian is a man who must retain his hard-earned control. His father abused him and his charming little-bird of a mother, Mrs. Vasquez. When his father died, seventeen-year-old Sebastian turned to violence and promiscuity. His past hides dark and terrible deeds. Since then, it also shines with repentance and atonement. His unwavering control is a means to restraining his predisposition to violence, both inherited and learned from his father. Sebastian never celebrates, or acknowledges his protection of the weak, genteel manners, or knight-in-shining-armor grace towards Isabel. All he knows is how to keep his heart frozen; body, disciplined, never allowing himself the softness of another’s touch, or love. If he does, he fears loss of self-possession. He maintains self-restraint through physical discipline: his body honed and clothes austere and uniformly black; his face, impassive; his smiles, rare; his laughter, non-existent. He records his struggles in journal after journal. He practices mortification of the flesh and follows the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius. He reads Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. He is austere and close-mouthed. When he meets “gloriously difficult” Isabel, he falls headlong into sensation and love.

Despite the weaknesses in Isabel, terrible headaches left over from McCade’s blows, nausea, and irrational fears, she is Sebastian’s perfect match. Never receiving the attention Catarina or the eccentric wild-riding baby sister Francesca did, Isabel is independent. She forged an identity far from her dominating family, though she loves and relies on them. She left the valley to teach in a bigger town; she fought for and won the closing of the local saloon. Her moral stance and determined spirit are Sebastian’s perfect match. Their romance, despite Sebastian’s fears of his baser nature, unfolds lyrically and fittingly. 

In light of Miss Bates previous post on betrayal in romance, Autumn Sage left her in a quandary. Sebastian is true-blue protective of Isabel, loving, and in awe of her strength and intelligence. There’s a rare humorous scene when she beats him at chess. His masculine pride is piqued, but that is hardly a betrayal. Later, Sebastian succumbs to the passion of jealousy. In its midst, he is contrite and, while Isabel is cautious and withdraws, she is not betrayed by him. It is he who feels betrayed, mistaken as it may be and containing, in the incident, a hard-won lesson for him. Nevertheless, the couple is estranged. Once again, the hero must make amends, do the work of repairing the relationship. Turner’s romance helped Miss Bates add another piece to the “betrayal” puzzle: the hero’s agon. For Miss Bates’ purposes: an agon is a struggle against a force/antagonist equal to the hero’s strength and strength of purpose and in the pursuit of which he suffers. It’s romance, folks, the hero concludes the agon triumphant, but with a scar, a sign of the suffering it entailed. In Turner’s romance, Sebastian enters a physical and spiritual desert in pursuit of evil that strips him bare of everything he was. It tests him to the extent that he is made new. Once he achieves his phoenix-from-ashes state, he’s ready to return to Isabel. This is a marvelous end to the novel: Sebastian returns to Isabel humbled, but also more accepting of himself. Turner includes a lovely detail when Isabel notices how Sebastian’s hair has grey in it, the sign of his suffering and survival. He declares himself to her, lays himself bare. It’s as if he’s earned his austerity; yet, he, she, and we know he loves her infinitely. What can Isabel do, but accept the gift she’s yearned for all along?

Genevieve Turner’s Autumn Sage is an original, thoughtful historical romance. Miss Austen deems it “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma. Autumn Sage is self-published. It’s been available in e and paper since January 22nd. Miss Bates is grateful to the author for an e-ARC, via Netgalley.