‘Tis the season when Miss Bates embarks on reading and reviewing Christmas-set romance. There aren’t too many pending in the ARC TBR this year, but enough to tide her over till Christmas. Last year, she opened the Christmas review series with a post on past favourites. (There are great recs in the comments as well.) This year, for her début Christmas romance review post, something a little different: a brief discussion of a past favourite and mini-review of a recent Christmas-set read.
Miss Bates thinks the Christmas setting gives romance writers the opportunity to weave a healing theme into the romance narrative arc of encounter, attraction, consummation, repulsion/dissolution, and reconciliation/HEA. Carla Kelly’s Marian’s Christmas Wish, one of MissB’s favourite Christmas romances, embodies this idea. The eponymous Marian, a maybe-too-young, irrepressible, exuberant heroine meets Gil Collingwood, gentle, older, charming, but a little tired of life’s struggle, when her brother brings him home for Christmas. Their romance is sweet and funny; moreover, it also strikes a serious note when Marian uses her healing salve, created to help her beloved animals, on a persistent, painful sore on Gil’s cheek. The physical healing reflects the heart’s healing of Gil’s reintegration into a family and a hope for the future in the love he’ll share with his betrothed, Marian. The theme of healing through love and the creation of a new family/reintegration into a broken family can also be found in that unlikeliest of genre places, the HP, and, particularly, in Miss Bates’ latest Christmas romance read, Maisey Yates’ A Christmas Vow Of Seduction.
There is nought to redeem Yates’ opening to Christmas Vow. Indeed, Miss Bates near DNF-ed the novel after reading the premise in the prologue and opening chapter. It’s awful: kitschy and unsavory, a most pernicious combination. Princess Zara of the mythical kingdom of Tirimia is gifted to King Kairos of Petras. Revolutionaries killed Zara’s family and took over her country. She was saved, at the last minute, by a beloved servant and lived with a nomadic minority in the forest. Taken captive by the new régime, she is offered to Petras’ Kairos as tribute in hopes of renewing trade relations. The upright, stoic, and married King Kairos balks at the offer of a concubine, but the political and economic opportunity is too tempting to forego. He arranges a marriage between Andres, his notorious, womanizing, partying baby brother, and the wild-child princess, Zara. Summoned by his brother, devil-may-care Andres reluctantly returns to Petras to find the feral, innocent, beautiful Zara in his bed.
Andres echoes every rich tabloid playboy you’ve ever read. He parties hard, sleeps around, and drinks too much. He’s irresponsible and careless. He expects nothing of himself and his older, conscientious, workaholic, honourable, for-the-good-of-the-people older brother, his only living relative, expects nothing of him too. At first, Andres comes across as thoroughly secure in his own skin, and a beautiful skin it is too, and hedonistic lifestyle: “He was a cliché, but he was comfortable with it. If only because it was so much fun.” Despite this careless attitude, there’s a mite of guilt and responsibility in Andres. A few years ago, Andres slept with Francesca, Kairos’ fiancée. Andres feels he “owes” Kairos and, to make amends, he accepts Kairos’ arrangement. Zara, on the other hand, in her wonderful combination of innocence and feral survival, feels her back against the wall: she’s friendless, alone, and without means. What choice does she have but to accept Kairos’ arrangement?
When Miss Bates thought about this captive, tribute gift heroine, it was not to be borne. How awful. How unsavory. But so much of HP-dom is. So much so that, if the writing is pleasing, learning to enjoy the category means suspending all disbelief. It’s ludicrous, but let’s see what the author, in this case, Yates, will do with it. Yates infuses Andres and Zara’s exchanges with that most important of elements to raise the premise out of the muck of yuck: humour. When Andres finds Zara in his bed and she explains how Kairos rejected her as his concubine, and sent her to Andres as future bride, Andres responds: ” ‘Are you telling me that you’ve been regifted?’ ” Pretty cute, pretty funny: and raising us out of the absurd to tongue-in-cheek, rueful laughter, making us aware of how much this is a novel of deliberate delight. This follows with:
” You are a captive?” he asked, his tone fierce.
“I’m surprised you care. Your brother did not appear to be similarly concerned. He was quick to accept me as though I were a … a fruit basket.”
He looked her over. “You are most certainly not a fruit basket, that much is evident.”
“I have been passed around like one.” She sniffed, allowing herself a moment to fully revel in the indignity of it all.
“I’ve spent the past decade and a half steeped in debauchery and generally ignoring all of my responsibilities. We all have to face a reckoning, eventually. You are mine.”
Tongue-in-cheek humour and self-aware HP-irony keep the narrative tension at a bearable temperature. Because they give way, in places, more and more so as Zara and Andres get to know one another, to sentiment, pathos, vulnerability, and weakness.
Weakness comes in the form of Andres’ childhood and, in turn, explains his profligacy. Andres was his parents’ bane. He was an impulsive boy, blurting out inappropriate comments, breaking things, behaving in a less than decorous fashion at state affairs. His father raged; his mother cried. He’s convinced he failed them, though he was only a little boy and in need of love and support. But Zara ferrets his secrets, learns him, knows him, and though wild and independent, comes to love him and see the best in him. As Zara gains in her love for Andres, she also finds a stronger sense of self, is less helpless, and ready to exercise her independent spirit in the world. As Zara’s star ascends, Andres flounders: he errs, he hurts, he hurts others … until he realizes how Zara’s love and example heal him.
Despite the preposterousness of Yates’ Christmas Vow Of Seduction, Miss Bates came to care for Zara and Andres. The narrative was written with both a light and sad touch; humour was nicely balanced with poignancy. The nonsensical gave way to the simple humanity of being understood, being forgiven, being offered a second chance, surrendering to the need for atonement, and accepting and giving love. Maisey Yates’ A Christmas Vow Of Seduction, to echo Miss Austen, is indicative of “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Maisey Yates’ A Christmas Vow Of Seduction is published by Harlequin Books, in the Harlequin Presents category. It was released on October 20th and is available at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates is grateful to Harlequin for an e-ARC, via Netgalley.