Wednesday, February 15, 2012

"Untie My Heart," by Judith Ivory

The Chick: Emma Darlington Hotchkiss. A former con artist-turned-sheep farmer, she puts her old skills to good use to fleece an arrogant aristocrat who kills her lamb and refuses to compensate her.
The Rub: Unfortunately, she gets caught - and now this high and mighty viscount wants her to use her skills to scam his larcenous uncle. Or else.
Dream Casting: Emily VanCamp.

The Dude: Stuart Aysgarth, Viscount Mount Villiers. A sexually dominant, but financially-restricted aristocrat who wants revenge against his uncle for stealing priceless heirlooms from him.
The Rub: He can blackmail a tasty little con artist into helping in his schemes, but not into having sex with him. Damn!
Dream Casting: Richard Armitage.

The Plot:

Emma: You killed my lamb!

Stuart: Don't care. Hey! You stole 50 pounds from me!

Emma: Don't care!

Stuart: *ties Emma to chair* You were saying?

Emma: Okay, I care very much now.

Stuart: Sharing is caring!

Emma and Stuart: *uncomfortable-sounding chair sex*

Stuart: Awesome! Now we can be sex friends and you can help me steal shit from my uncle!

Emma: NO!

Stuart: No to the con-artist deal or no to the sex-friends thing?


Stuart: Well then I'll just have you arrested!

Emma: ...fine!

Stuart: Yaaaaaaaaaaaay! Sex friends! And con artistry.

Cons: *are had*

Emma: Bee tee dubs, I'm framing you for assault so I can get away and hide my tempestuous secret emotions!

Stuart: BOO! But I was going to marry you!

Emma: SHIT.

Stuart: S'all good. Now you can be my sex wife!


Romance Convention Checklist

1 Set of Daddy Issues

1 Very Bad Husband (Deceased)

1 Silent Lamb

8 Bad Horses

1 Terrible Uncle

2 Ugly Gumboots

1 Sexytimes in a Chair

Several Sexytimes on a Roof


1 Poke and a Send

The Word: This was a bit of a disappointing read for me, because I went in with such high expectations. At Read, React, Review's suggestion, I picked up The Proposition and adored the writing, the characters, and most of all, the interesting, gender-reversed retelling of My Fair Lady. Now, while all the elements of Judith Ivory's writing are still present in Untie My Heart, they were ultimately used to tell a story that made me uncomfortable and didn't seem to make much sense.

Emma is a widowed sheepfarmer in a small village in Yorkshire who survives by doing whatever she can - raising sheep, baking bread for the village, doing her neighbour's mending, and while it's a small life, it's honest and it's hers.

When a carriage owned by the new lord of the manor at the top of the hill (Viscount Mount Villiers) performs a fatal hit-and-run on her prize (and only) male breeding lamb, Emma is determined to obtain compensation. However, the lord responds only with condescending lackeys and rude letters and impractical bank cheques for meager sums that won't even begin to cover the income she's lost with the lamb.

When it looks like even a victory in court won't grant her the money she's owed (because the wealthy viscount can always appeal), she finally decides to fall back on her old roots: as a London con artist. Using an elaborate embezzling scheme, she manages to forge a cheque for the money she's owed and create a false bank account with which to cash it.

And then she gets caught.

As it turns out, the Viscount, Stuart, is in a despairingly complicated financial situation. He inherited the title while on the continent, and before he could get back to England, his villainous uncle attempted to usurp his titles and finances by having him declared dead. He arrived in time to save his title, but his uncle had twisted and tangled his finances so much that even months later, his lawyers and bankers are still trying to sort it out and he's on a very tight financial leash.

So while he's outraged to discover this woman robbed him, he's delighted to discover a way to embezzle his own money out of limbo, and a woman experienced enough in the art of the con to help him revenge himself upon his larcenous uncle. However, she still needs a little convincing so ... he ties her to a chair and has his way with her.

This was when the novel started to get unsettling for me. As it turns out, Untie My Heart is a romance founded on a BDSM theme. Which I perhaps should have guessed from the title. The thing is, because of that, I made the personal discovery that I do not like BDSM or those attitudes (in a "not my bag" way, not the "it's wrong you filthy, filthy hoors" way) and they made me very uncomfortable. Stuart is a man who openly states that he desires power in every situation (which is why he rages at being brought to heel by the mess of his financial affairs) and he likes frightening women - just a little, because they're so attractive when they're scared.

The "Chair Scene" is very indicative of the ultimate progression of Emma and Stuart's romance throughout the rest of the book - where Stuart makes a bunch of abrupt sexual decisions that terrify Emma until, quite suddenly, she's enjoying herself. Now, I already hate the types of romances where the hero sexually harasses the heroine until she finally gives in, but combine that with the couple's odd power dynamics, and the result is a read that left me uneasy. Stuart continually defies Emma's consent under the reasoning that he knows what's best for her, and while he righteously refuses to cross "the ultimate" boundary and insists that Emma is really in control of the whole situation, I didn't understand it.

But then, Emma is an inconsistently-written character to begin with, so it's hard to tell when she's in control or not. She swings between the Hardened Con and the Sexual Innocent and it sometimes comes across like the author is trying to play it both ways but it doesn't really work. For instance, one incredibly confusing and tense scene arises when she is appalled by something I would have assumed she'd encountered before with the type of criminal underworld past that she had.

Her criminal underworld bits (especially her and Stuart's plot to con his uncle into relinquishing stolen heirlooms) are the best parts of the novel, because they show the heroine at her smartest and most focused. However, the con really isn't the major part of the book. Most of the book is Stuart trying to get into Emma's pants and Emma fighting it and Stuart acting all concerned that she's fighting her perfectly natural beautiful urges and won't you let me help you release that sexual tension, darling? My bedroom's that way! Honestly, there were several times in this novel that the characters' actions just seemed so divorced from what I'd previously come to understand about them, their motivations and prejudices.

That being said, the writing is lovely, so rich and detailed - however, the downside is that if the author is describing an area or a situation that you don't like or feel is relevant, it takes forever. The pacing in this novel is very, very slow. There's one point near the beginning where two and a half pages of words are spent describing the hero's coat. It's an awesome coat, but since it can't talk or make any decisions does it really need that much description?

Honestly, most of the negativity from this review comes from lowered expectations and a discomfort with the material. Writing-wise, it's a solid book, with some interesting details about embezzlement and con artistry in late-Victorian England. And if you happen to like BDSM themes that don't translate into openly erotic scenes, then this might just be the romance for you.


  1. It's an awesome coat, but since it can't talk or make any decisions does it really need that much description?

    Mais oui, mon amie! Because the coat sums him up so perfectly. It's all show and flamboyance. It's all manufactured wonder, hiding the more ordinary (less fabulous, less wealthy) truth of him.

    Using clothes to tell you things about characters is something she does a lot - see this link at my blog where I mention Black Silk and Bliss too.

    I love your reviews. They're awesome. This is one of the ones I disagree with but it doesn't make me enjoy it any less.

    And finally, I really like the ambiguity around consent in this book but I know that really bothers some readers.

  2. Ehhhh. I guess. It's was lovely to read at the time, but just the fact that I oculdn't get into the story made the pacing really slow, and this one passage was indicative of the fact that if you didn't care, or weren't getting invested, such writing could really bog you down.