Untouched Queen by Royal Command is the latest in Kelly Hunter’s “Claimed by a King” series for Mills and Boon Modern/Harlequin Presents. All the books feature royalty in various made-up countries which appear to be located more or less in the Balkans, as far as I can work out. I thoroughly enjoyed the first two books: Shock Heir for the Crown Prince and Convenient Bride for the King, so I had pre-ordered Untouched Queen by Royal Command.
I was not entirely prepared for what I got.
In Untouched Queen, Hunter goes all out for high fantasy in this old-school category romance. There are hints of this in some of the back story in Shock Heir, but the central romances in both the previous books of the series are standard category tropes: secret baby and marriage of convenience. The royal settings are effectively evoked, with no more than the usual number of skeletons in closets.
Untouched Queen opens with vignettes from the childhoods of both hero and heroine. Augustus and his sister discover a secret wing in the palace, a home for a harem. Seven-year-old Sera, meanwhile, is hiding silently in a back room while her mother entertains a visitor. Not, as it turns out on this occasion, for sex. This visitor has come to take Sera and her mother back to the Order of the Kite, in the High Reaches where she will be trained, like her mother, to be a courtesan. The reader who dislikes Random Capitals should probably avoid this book.
And so chapter one begins with the presentation of Sera, as a gift from her people to the King of Arun. Sera describes herself as ‘a courtesan, born, bred and shaped for the King’s entertainment. Pledged into service at the age of seven in return for the finest food, shelter and an education second to none. Chosen for the beauty she possessed and the quickness of her mind. Taught to serve, to soothe, and how to dance, fight and dress.’
Augustus does his best to refuse the gift and then to ignore it. He tells her he wants her gone and she counters by offering to find him a wife. Indeed, it seems there are no limits to the duties Sera is ready to perform for him. She redecorates and modernises the concubines’ quarters, she becomes his social secretary, she organises an exhibition of the historical clothing of the Kings’ Courtesans to tour the country’s most prestigious brothels. And of course, she offers sex. Her education is not limited to her PPE degree, you see. She is trained, though not experienced, to provide whatever he might require.
I find Sera an incredibly troubling character. She has seen, first hand, how destructive it can be for a woman to earn her living from the favours of men. She has been, by her own admission, shaped and trained to serve in all kinds of ways since she was seven. When she was living with the Order, she served as CFO for the sizeable charitable organisation they operated. Now, in the palace, serves only Augustus, offering every kind of service he could imagine, and plenty more that he’s never imagined.
It is a hard trick to pull off: educated, capable, even influential woman, choosing to prostrate herself – literally – before a man. I am not convinced that Hunter manages it successfully. I wanted more from Sera. I wanted more rebellion, more questioning, more hatred of what had become of her mother, more independence, more determination to make her own choices. More agency.
The question of consent hovers insistently throughout the book. From the opening vignettes where Augustus finds the palace harem and Sera hides herself, assuming a man is paying her mother for sex, we know we are in a world where women are routinely exploited and abused and used for men’s pleasure. We never fully escape from it.
Hunter never lets us fully escape from it. Sitting in her rooms late one night, Augustus asks Sera to make a toasted cheese sandwich for him.
“He smiled, and she wished he wouldn’t, because it made her glow on the inside. Such a whore for his attention.”
Two pages later, it’s not just his smile that’s giving his attention to her.
“She’d been taught what to do, how to please, but she was too caught up in sensation to do any of it.”
It’s there, on the page, in case we are in danger of forgetting. She is a whore who has been trained to please this man.
Sera’s cage is not merely gilded, but encrusted with jewels and books and university degrees, and political influence. But the door of the cage was never opened for her, and she never seems to have even grabbed hold of the bars and rattled and twisted them to fight for her own freedom. It’s Augustus who does eventually work out how to release her from the role as his courtesan, but Sera doesn’t fly far or for long. Not long enough to work out how to live in that freedom: “I have no plans, no direction, no thoughts for the future. I’m finally free and all I’m doing is looking over my shoulder at what I left behind.”
Because she’s looking back, she sees one final opportunity to serve. And I think that’s what worried me most. Even at the very end, when they talk of freedom and equality, I don’t think Sera knows what that means. She does not know how to live like that. She’s been trained into a mindset of service and it will take longer to dismantle than the week Hunter allows her before they marry. And while Augustus is still having fantasies of her in the ancient slave uniform she wore when she first arrived at his palace, I’m not convinced it will ever fully be dealt with.
I like old school romance. I like royalty bound by duty and weird ancient laws. I even quite like the high fantasy of the Order of the Kite.
But the power dynamics of the relationship between the King and the courtesan he’s been given as a gift need some serious unpicking if I’m to believe in a lasting romance, and in the end, I didn’t think Hunter had done enough to work those out. I don’t think Sera ever truly understood how problematic the relationship was, and in the end, even Augustus was too willing to brush the problems aside.
This is not a Kelly Hunter book I plan to add to the many of hers that are on my (metaphorical) keeper shelf. It was an interesting experiment, but I hope she will return to more of what she does so well: quick wit, sharp humour, ultra-modern, wonderfully emotional contemporary romance, and then my good opinion, once lost, need not be lost forever.