All men lusted for the firebrand they called Flaming Tina, famed for the molten fire in her hair — and for the hot temper running fierce through the noble Scblood of Lady Valentina Kennedy. Forced into marriage with the fearsome warrior of an enemy clan, Tina vowed to use her wild beauty to gain mastery over Lord Ramsay Douglas. Women hungered to be pressed against his steely chest … and men feared the brawn and rage of Black Ram Douglas. Ram swore he would make the defiant Valentina a dutiful wife after he had broken her hellion’s pride. But the girl he set out to tame became the woman who taught him what it meant to be ardently, maddeningly, gloriously tempted.”
I actually kind of liked this book. While milling a wee while at the Charlotte airport during a layover on my way to spring break (spring break oh-nine!) paradise, I had the oh-so-clever idea to write an ironic review of one of the many romance novels available for purchase at airport newsstands. You know the ones — embossed covers bearing titles like Secret Passion, or Dangerous Love, and displaying half-dressed hotties locked in smoldering embraces. I selected Tempted, a glossy red book decorated with a sensual close-up of a calla lily, with the full intention of bringing the snark, and hard. But, much as Lord Ramsay “Black Ram” Douglas catches “Flaming” Tina Kennedy unawares and sweeps her off her (dainty, white) feet, Virginia Henley’s period romance took me by surprise. This is not to say that it isn’t a horrible book, because it is. The frequency with which Henley uses the word “manroot” alone would discourage all but the most perseverant (or bored) of discriminating readers. What surprised was that Tempted wasn’t anywhere near as horrible as I expected it to be.
Based on the back cover, I expected the novel to be entirely devoid of anything resembling a believable plot. First of all, it isn’t really called “temptation” when you’re attracted to your spouse. It’s more like a successful and sexually healthy marriage. Secondly, are “hot tempers” really something to be lusted after? Whenever I display any signs of even a lukewarm temper, people generally try to avoid me. For instance, the other night, I screamed at a friend of mine that he wasn’t allowed to buy Cherry Coke at the Wa because it was “my drink,” and he didn’t seem particularly lustful. He seemed mostly annoyed and slightly embarrassed for me. I sort of imagined that Tempted would consist entirely of descriptions of Flaming Tina’s flaming red locks and Black Ram’s fiery loins, loosely tacked together between brief bouts of incoherent “plot.”
True, such descriptions abounded, but there was actually a solid enough plot that I had to do some serious skimming to get to the steamier scenes. Additionally, my initial doubts were quickly put to rest. Ramsay and Valentina really were tempted, because it is so, so hard to live in the same castle and sleep in the same bed as your sworn enemy when all you really want to do is teach her the ways of love (because if you are Valentina, you are obviously a virgin despite your mysterious sex appeal, and if you are Ramsay, Valentina will teach you the difference between love and lust and somehow she won’t even mind that you’ve been plowing every Gypsy wench to wander through your village). I also became convinced that hot tempers are actually quite seductive in a lady: how else will a highland warrior know when he’s met his match? Guys like it when you do things like pull knives on them and call the cops on them. Needless to say, I learned not to judge a book by its cover. Tempted’s plot was far more watertight and plausible (or at least intriguing) than the back cover would have you believe. Never mind the fact that Flaming Tina never actually displays much bravery or hellion’s pride, but instead practically passes out when she has to get a tooth pulled.
Seriously, though, this book was actually startlingly well researched. I feel I can safely say that I have learned a great deal about Scottish culture in the sixteenth century, though I have not actually checked any of Henley’s facts myself. For instance, I learned that contrary to popular belief, the Scots bathed daily and had access to French cuisine as well as magnificent Arabian stallions. The novel covers everything from political intrigue to the common medical practices of the time. I also learned that Scottish “doctors” prescribed cloves for toothache, which, incidentally, my oral surgeon also recommended when I had my wisdom teeth out last summer. Apparently the Scots were far ahead of their time in matters medical, though it is also possible that my oral surgeon is far behind the times. He was a champion unicyclist before he decided to attend medical school. True story.
Ultimately, I would say I discovered what true fans of the genre have known all along (and have, in fact, posted passionately on their Amazon.com reviews): “Tempted…slid in a brief history lesson in the process! It may not ALL be completely accurate, but the reader gets the idea of the behavior and events of that time…this novel has it all…Rebellion, Intrigue, Battles, Warriors, Sexual Pleasures…REAL MEN and REAL WOMEN. A MUST READ!” A romance novel can only be what it is (that is to say, thinly disguised soft-core pornography for sexually-repressed women), and Henley’s is better than most. I know this because I read three more such books when my plane home was delayed due to inclement weather (Seduce Me At Sunrise, which was like a raunchy and incoherent version of Wuthering Heights, and The Prize, which should have been good because it was supposed to be about pirates and passion on the high seas, but ended up being about basically nothing except sort of the War of 1812, which everybody knows did not actually involve any seductive swashbuckling). Temptedmanages to meet the requirements of the genre while still delivering a quasi-engaging plot and a history lesson (or at least, a lesson in how history could have been more awesome and fun for everyone involved).
Now, riddle me this: how many “classics” can do all that? How many Pulitzer Prize-winners can be said to have it all? That’s right, you guessed it: none. Hamlet? Oh, please. The only intrigue there is why nothing even happens until practically the last page. The Great Gatsby? Ha! Sexual pleasures, maybe, if you count one measly kiss and a whole lot of insinuation, but where are the warriors? Where are the battles? And don’t even get me started on The Road. The only sexual pleasure I got from that book was that I finished writing my paper on it before spring break and got to spend the rest of my week reading Tempted.