[Eric had to read this book and review it because of reader votes in Junk Novel Roulette. Find more JNR here.]

Author: Bertrice Small

1997, Ivy Books

Note: [We’re not scoring or filing JNR books as reviews–that’s just too mean.]

When I received my Junk Novel Roulette assignment, I made it my mission to love Hellion. I promised the other C4 editors I would write a glowing review, and I would do it without my tongue in my cheek. No irony. No sarcasm. Just pure adoration.

It was an impossible promise, but during my MFA I heard a lot about genre fiction versus literary fiction. Usually, people made the distinction as an off-handed dis, like “It’s just chick-lit” or “Doesn’t this seem science-fictiony?” All I learned from these accusations was that I never wanted to be one of those readers who presumed to hold a monopoly on taste.

Whether I like it or not, though, I am one of those readers. I thought I could love a mass-market medieval adventure romance about a “brazen beauty” named Belle because I assumed, without ever having read a romance novel, that I knew what cheap thrills I would find there. Having finished Hellion, I can’t say I loved it, but I was surprised by it, by all the ways it did and did not fit the mold in my head.

I expected sex; I did not expect porn. I expected bad writing; I didn’t know the half of it. I expected plot; I never imagined I would find it, even if only in part, so gripping.

First, the sex: Are all romance novels like this? I imagined the sex scenes would be the literary equivalent of  what you see in a lot of romantic movies: fleeting images of bodies pressed together so you know what’s happening without showing more than shoulders, hips, and legs. Not so. These sex scenes are fully described, with all the caressing, licking, fingering, positioning, and thrusting in sharp focus. Nothing is left to the imagination with one notable exception.

There are no sex organs anywhere in this book. Instead of penises and vaginas, the main characters all have euphemisms between their legs: his “manhood,” her “womanhood”; his “weapon,” her “sheath”; his “hardness,” her “Venus mont.” I had to stop reading Hellion in public not because it was graphic, but because it wasn’t more graphic, because I couldn’t stop snickering whenever a “pleasure pearl” showed up where there should have been a clitoris in an otherwise wildly described, x-rated scene.

But the overwriting doesn’t stop when everyone gets dressed. In what I assume is a nod towards historical accuracy, these paragraphs are packed with unnecessary exposition of day-to-day life in the early twelfth century. While Hugh is off on a military campaign, the narrator describes the keep’s new church as part of a longer summary of events in his absence:

The Nativity was celebrated in Langston’s new church, which was, as Hugh had desired, called St. Elizabeth’s. The church building was of a timber-frame construction, plastered and whitewashed. The roof was thatched. Hugh had wanted a stone church, but they would have had to wait much longer for the stones to be cut and then dragged over the marshes and the hills from Northamptonshire. Later, perhaps, they would have a stone church.

On its own, this passage is straightforward enough. But after, “The Nativity was celebrated,” a passive-voiced statement indicating the passage of time, everything else is extraneous. It doesn’t matter what Hugh named the church, no scene ever takes place there, and no one ever comes along later to ask, “Is it time to build the stone church yet?”

This kind of over-explaining is everywhere in Hellion. Maybe it wouldn’t have bothered me if I was just skimming for weapons being sheathed, but since this was my first romance novel, I intended to leave no Northamptonshire stone unturned. I read every paragraph, every sentence, and every word, and somewhere in all the painful prose and the hilarious, scorching sex, something amazing happened. For a few sexless chapters right around the middle of the novel, it actually got good. Not “good for a romance novel” kind of good, but “Hang on, what time is it? How long have I been reading this?” kind of good.

When her husband disappears while on the King’s business, Belle goes to Court to seek an audience and learn what she can. The King is of course smitten with her “flaming copper” hair and her “green-gold eyes.” Belle means to remain faithful to her husband, but she learns there could be political reprisal for refusing the most powerful man in England. Belle’s predicament reminded me of a different conversation from my MFA workshops, one that had nothing to do with genre conventions. It was about getting our characters in trouble.

Whatever else was happening in our novels and stories, whether it involved zombies or spaceships or long lost lovers, our characters had to be in trouble so they could make choices about getting out of it. Posing a genuine choice for our characters leaves only two options for us as writers: either find a surprising though reasonable alternative, or choose based on what’s most important to them.

Beatrice Small does a great job of getting her heroine in trouble. The King’s advances pose a direct challenge to Belle’s character: how can she maintain her virtue without incurring the King’s disfavor for her whole family? If she can’t have it both ways, which will she choose? The tricks Belle thinks up to avoid the King without insulting him are surprising and clever, and when she is posed with similar choice later on, she makes a difficult decision.

And then they all have sex. All of them. Together.

In the end, I didn’t love Hellion. I can’t even say that I liked it. But while I thought I could enjoy it because I’m not above a cheap thrill, I was actually impressed in places by the author’s handling of the plot. It reminded me of workshop lessons about craft that any writer in any genre can take to heart. It reminded me, too, that if you want to write, it helps to read everything, not just what’s literary, because you can always learn from it. At the very least, you’ll learn some new euphemisms for sex organs.