Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Duty and Wren by Rachel Rossano + Interview

Today's Home Educated Author is Rachel Rossano, the author of several novels and short stories. Rachel was kind enough to send me two of her novels, Duty and Wren, for this feature.

Duty

From the first two paragraphs, I knew this was going to be a fun, melodramatic read:
"The red one is mine," he said.
I didn’t raise my head although instinct urged me to. Father had called me Red. He said I was born screaming, skin deep red like the beets in the garden and hair fiery like the setting sun. The man who spoke was not my father.
Meet Brielle Solarius, a noblewoman in a light medievalish fantasy setting whose loathsome cousin has just arranged her marriage to the new king's right-hand man. Tomas Dyrease is kind enough to give Brielle a chance to refuse him, but Brielle's duty to her embattled people forces her to agree. In the aftermath of a civil war, with plots and intrigues piling up around them and their lives and people at risk, will Brielle and Tomas learn to pull together before danger pulls them apart?

This was generally a competent book. Definitely on the guilty-pleasure end of the scale, definitely written in an occasionally awkward modern style with the usual occasional outcropping of misused words, but a fun, absorbing, competently-written romance in a light fantasy setting with reasonable courtly intrigue and some fantastic themes.

I think I'll go over the problems first. I had a few complaints with the book. First of all, it seemed to me rather a typical (clean) romance novel in a fantasy setting, and again, I have cautions when it comes to the romance genre. Of course, just as I caution those who won’t write or read fantasy that there are plenty of fantastical elements in Scripture, so obviously there is a sense in which redemptive history is a romance between God and the Church. But as I said in my review of Fly Away Home, my problem with romance as a genre is that it tends to be written and marketed for young girls who should not be awakening emotions before the right time, or for married women as an excuse to trade in their dull everyday husbands for a better one. And "clean" romances can actually be about as bad as the, I guess, "unclean" kind. One word...Twilight.

Nevertheless, I’m fascinated by the fact that the longest single instance of fiction in Scripture is the Song of Songs: it’s lushly, swoonily romantic, but its constant refrain is a warning not to stir up love before the right time. Mixed message? But I don’t consider the fact of the Song of Songs to be a general license to write romance. For one thing, it is arranged as a dialogue. It is linked roles for a couple to read together, not an escapist yarn for one person to curl up with. As I continue to think through these things, I should probably bear in mind that Rachel Rossano--married with several children--is probably a better judge of what is escapist and what is realistic than I am!

Getting back to Duty, I was overall impressed by its quality and common sense, though I would definitely caution readers not to tackle it before the right time.

My other complaints have to do with the quality of the writing, setting, and plot. The writing was not outstanding and frequently clanked. Words like "Okay", "noodles" and "hi" were a little jarring. The effect would have been far worse if the setting had attempted to be remotely historical, of course. Reading the book, I got the impression that the author would have used a historical setting if she had the time or inclination to do research. Since she did not, she used a generic fantasy setting which would be more forgiving to anachronisms. This is fine, of course. Rachel Rossano must be a busy woman, and she is writing the kind of thing she feels called to. All this is to say, however, that there is a certain level of quality which her books will not attain. That's fine too. But it's something to bear in mind when picking reading matter.

My final complaint has to do with the plot in the second half of the book.

(Mild spoiler warning)

The new king of Rhynan makes a demand of Brielle before he'll accept her loyalty. One of the most refreshing things about the book was how it treated femininity--I'll get onto that in a minute--but it made no sense to me that in a culture like that portrayed in this book, where women are automatically considered non-combatants, the king should make such a demand of Brielle, or that anyone would fail to point out the clear drawbacks to his scheme, which, if it did prove that Brielle was a traitor, would essentially put the lives of two very important men in her hands.

(End spoilers)

All this said, there were some very special things about this book that made the reading of it definitely worthwhile.

While some areas of the setting felt less fleshed out than they could have been, I really appreciated the attention to little details of life in such a setting (the sound of sleet against a helmet, the aches from extended horseback riding), and also the occasional gritty elements in the characters' lives and attitudes. Homeschool authors writing for a Christian audience might tend to feel that they need to write novels depicting only the kind of things that would be acceptable in their own lives. But this book is not over-sanitised, which was relieving.

I enjoyed the constant theme of duty. I enjoyed how their sense of duty bound the two protagonists together and cemented their marriage. Most of all I enjoyed how, in the somewhat traumatic aftermath of Brielle’s whirlwind marriage to a leader of a conquering army, she reminded herself that her duty was now to her new husband, and had the backbone to make this her own decision despite all the elements of choice that had been taken from her. In other words, she acted as an adult and took full responsibility for herself despite pressure from every other quarter. These days, if someone in power influences a woman into something she might not have chosen otherwise, we tend to treat her like a child without personal moral responsibility or power of choice. I found it really refreshing that Brielle didn’t see herself as a victim but owned her own ability to do what she could with the few choices she had.

Which leads into the thing I loved most about this book. First, the women of Brielle’s country have a firmly unfeminist worldview: it never even crosses their minds that, once having chosen to marry a man, they might not be bound to help and serve him in all his efforts. Brielle accepts—not without twinges of grief—but she firmly accepts that her place is by her husband’s side, as his helper and supporter, not as her own agent. This is a big part of her definition of duty. She also accepts that she will never be as good a fighter as a man and that she has no place on a battlefield. This was refreshing. But it became even more refreshing as I watched Brielle do her duty by her husband. Like a real medieval noblewoman, she understands that she has a duty to defend herself, and learns to use weapons in order to do so. She can hunt, do figures, bring in a harvest, and negotiate with a diplomat. She can hold her husband’s fortress in his absence, and she feels shamed when she is forced to flee. I loved that Brielle and her countrywomen seemed to have a fierce sense of pride rooted in their ability to do their duty by their husbands.

Brielle is the kind of woman who actually can be a help to a man, beyond simply yes-dearing him. She’s also the kind of woman who will stand up to bad guys when it falls to her lot. Brielle, while not lacking faults and foolishness, is a fantastic role model for Christian girls. I thoroughly enjoyed this aspect of the book.

Wren

With her parents dead and her eight siblings scattered, Wren Romany lives the hard life of a bounty hunter, roaming from one place to another with her horse and her falcons. As winter descends, Wren bargains with Tourth Mynth, a dispossessed nobleman living in hiding, for shelter in return for her hunting skills. As the king's local enforcer oppresses the local peasants and the net begins to close around Tourth, Wren tries to persuade him to take up his father's mantle and protect his people. But Tourth has had enough of battle. With Wren's help, could he be the leader his people need?

This book was rather more slow-moving than Duty. The romance was lighter in this one, while still featuring a take-charge man’s man and a tough, can-do woman in a fun light fantasy adventure set in the aftermath of a civil war, featuring intrigue and some refreshingly realistic elements.

Many of the same observations I made about Duty also apply to Wren. Again, the writing style was clunky. I particularly had trouble with the first-person narration, which switched between Wren and Tourth regularly. Their segments were clearly labelled, but I was always confused which of them happened to be speaking at the time. It might just have been me being tired, but it might have helped if the perspective switches had been much less frequent.

I didn't appreciate Wren's character as much as I did Brielle. She was a little too perfect, with some classic Mary-Sue traits: animal friends, eyes that change colour, and the annoying capacity of always being right. A more flawed heroine would have been a better complement to the more realistic hero. I also didn't quite buy her omnicompetent lone-wolf life. Not that there wasn't lots about her that made sense. For example, she used ranged weapons and avoided matching herself physically with much taller and stronger men. When she did get caught up in a battle, it resulted in her nearly being killed by a reasonably competent enemy soldier. I appreciated that there were limits to her abilities. However, given her very dangerous life, it didn’t make sense that she would only be especially vulnerable in a battle. Her abilities seemed to change depending on the plot: she was good enough to spar Tourth Mynth in one scene and able to win the respect of his battle-hardened men in another, but not good enough to defend herself from an enemy in another scene. It seemed like she only ever needed help when help was there.

There were things about the book's quietness and understatement that I liked. I appreciated the romance quite a lot. It was never just about the two characters and how their lives revolved around each other; it was always about bigger things than the two of them. The main focus of the book is on healing Tourth of his anger. The relationship between him and Wren inevitably ripens into love, but it's something else for a long time first. I appreciate that this is a book all about relationships which doesn't focus exclusively on romance.

Interview with Rachel Rossano
 
Rachel, hello and welcome to Vintage Novels! Can you introduce yourself briefly to our readers? 

I am happily married Christian mother of three young children. They fill my days with lots of fun and craziness. Writing helps me keep sane among the unending activity and chaos of juggling the house, kids, homeschooling, and just life.

When did you know you were going to be a writer? 

From an early age, I loved books. I didn’t start writing until I was in high school, telling stories for a few of my friends. I wrote an instalment a week and basked in their excitement and responses. However, it wasn’t until I entered college that I realized that writing was such a part of who I was and I wouldn’t be able to stop writing more stories.

What are some ways your favourite authors have influenced you? 

Reading taught me how to write. My mother made sure I read classics and a wide range of genres. From Orson Scott Card, I learned about characters and tension. Diana Wynne Jones taught me to appreciate humor and storytelling. Patricia McKillip showed me how description can enhance a story. Patricia C. Wrede taught me world building. There are so many more.

For the encouragement and edification of other writers, what’s a good piece of writing advice you’ve benefited from?

Read. Write. Play with words. Get to know them. They are the tools of your craft, the medium of your masterpiece.

I really appreciated the healthy dose of grit and realism in your novels. How far do you think an author should go in depicting the bad behaviour of evil characters, or the rough behaviour of earthy characters? 

Although I write fantasy, I have a desire to make it realistic. Life is full of grit and hardship. The contrast between the harsh and the lovely makes the latter all the sweeter. Also, not being realistic can pull a reader out of the story, sacrificing quality storytelling for niceness.

As to how far an author should go, I can only share my convictions. Just because my villain is depraved, does not mean I want my reader to wallow in his depravity. I don’t think that is profitable or God honoring. However, people in our lives are not perfect. They curse, lie, cheat, and have unsavory habits. They make choices and say things that we find offensive. That said, my readers don’t need to read the actual words to know that something inappropriate is being said.

The main thing I liked about Wren and Duty was their picture of tough, competent femininity. Your heroines are not feminists, but they’re not shrinking violets either. What’s the philosophy behind your strong, smart, submissive heroines? How do you define femininity?

Although we women tend to be physically softer, weaker, and smaller than men, that does not mean we are emotionally, mentally, or physically inferior to men. The Bible teaches that we are equals who choose to be submissive to our God, fathers, and husbands. I think that is part of what makes Wren, Brielle, and the other strong women of Wren and Duty so attractive. They are tough, smart, and competent, but they are not trying to outperform the men in their lives. Accepting who they are and the situation they are in, they work hard to tackle the trials the Lord allowed in their lives.

I associate femininity with the trappings of being female, but I suspect the attribute goes deeper than that. Perhaps the key is submission. As women, we are called to be submissive to our father’s or husband’s authority despite the fact we are equals in Christ.

I’m undecided on the question, but I tend to be suspicious of the romance genre. I’d love to hear your thoughts, though! Why should we write and read romance novels? What are some good things that an excellent romance can provide? 

 Marriage was ordained by God. He performed the first ceremony and created man and woman to “need” a spouse. At least two of the books of the Bible are completely devoted to a romantic love story: Song of Songs and Ruth. God values married love so highly that He has Paul use it to demonstrate how Christ loves the church. When we read a good romance book, we should be reminded of God’s love. I think there is a good case for not completely avoiding romance stories. But, be sure to read with discernment.

An excellent romance novel should promote realistic expectations for married love. Communication, commitment, submission, sacrifice, and the choice to demonstrate love despite hardship or in the midst of suffering is not something that we recognize when we see it every day. Caught in the pages of a novel, we are invited to consider it, ponder it, and evaluate it and make a conscious choice to emulate it. Love is not just a feeling, it is a choice. God chose to love me when I was marred by sin. He died so that I could be with Him. Two people choosing to love each other despite the trials that come can remind us of God’s even greater love for us.

Also, excellent romance novels can facilitate the reader see the bigger picture. When in the midst of the battle, we can lose the ability to see the other side. They can remind us of the benefits the come from all the hardship.

What audience do you believe will benefit most from your novels? 

I write with young women in mind, but I have a much wider audience. I would recommend most of them for readers in their mid to late teens and older.

Are you working on any other books at the moment? 

I am working on getting a few novels ready for publication, including the sequel to Duty. My current writing projects are the third novel in the Novels of Rhynan series and finishing an old speculative fiction manuscript.

Where can readers buy your books? 

All of my books are available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and other retailers.

Thanks so much for participating in the Home Educated Authors Feature Week, Rachel! 

Thank you for inviting me. It has been a pleasure.

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You can find Rachel online at Rachel Rossano's Stories. Meanwhile, don't forget to check back tomorrow for our next Home Educated Author, John J Horn, with The Secret of the Lost Settlement.

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