Author: Anna Cowan
Publisher: Penguin Destiny
I’ve arrived late to this party - which isn’t uncommon for me, I feel like I’m always playing catch up on the books everybody else read ages ago – but now I’m here I have to declare what a terrific book Untamed is.
Not that a lot of die-hard historical romance readers agree with me (see Dear Author, All About Romance and this rather unnecessarily ranty review by GrowlyCub – hope she never gets hold of one of my books!)
Aside from the very excellent writing – which only occasionally gets lost to its own prettiness – I enjoyed Untamed for the same reasons aforementioned die-hard historical romance readers didn’t. It’s subversive, the plot is entirely character driven, and I couldn’t care less about the historical inconsistencies that so annoyed others. You see, I generally don’t read historical fiction, in any genre, which renders me largely ignorant of the things in Untamed that pissed said die-hard historical romance readers off. Lucky for me. Because that meant my reading of this book was unencumbered by the multiple disappointments that seemed to beset regular historical romance readers.
Untamed came highly recommended by a few people whose judgement I trust (one being Kat Mayo of Bookthingo) as a ‘different’ kind of romance. In fact, it was one of the books featured in Bookthingo’s guerrilla postcard campaign at Sydney Writers Festival last year, where quotes from Untamed were used to demonstrate that romance writing is worthy of inclusion in the broader literary world. I have to admit, I’ve got a thing for quirky and unexpected, so I found the premise of a feisty, opinionated heroine and a manipulative cross-dressing duke who is ‘so aristocratic he is almost brain-damaged’ pretty damned interesting.
The two main characters, a pathologically spoilt and high-handed duke and a no-nonsense, unpretentious woman tied by duty to her family, are a perfect canvas for Cowan to explore the key them of her story, a subversion of gender roles and qualities. She uses language, as well as major and minor characters, to contrast and question how we see as maleness and femaleness.
What I think was done most brilliantly was the way Cowan highlighted the androgynous nature of the developing relationship as the characters flip back and forth between masculine and feminine presentations. The duke is often both fascinated and repulsed by Kit’s coarse physicality. He stands by, dressed in the finest silks, watching her chop wood, mend fences, and curse in the very best swear words. On the other hand Kit is made breathless by his beauty, his softness, and is driven to passion by his emotional intensity and complexity. In fact the love making scenes are made all the more compelling by the clever depiction of the ebb and flow of power between the couple, with each of them taking a turn to take the lead and dominate the other. This alone was deeply refreshing to read.
Being a romance, I knew Untamed would deliver a Happy Ever After ending, and I did find Untamed’s ending a touch Hollywood. I don’t read a lot of pure romance because I prefer surprises in my endings and you just don’t get those with true romances. Even so, knowing the Duke and Kit would get together in the end was no obstacle to my enjoyment of their journey. Perhaps because their match was so very unlikely, or because Cowan kept finding new ways to surprise me while staying true to her characters, I was compelled to find out how these two flawed characters sorted their conflicts out.
If you’re a pedant for accurate historical detail, then I’m guessing you won’t see past that enough to be able to enjoy this book. But if you want fully formed, unusual characters that are different to the usual fare, if you enjoy a story driven by character’s evolving and interesting writing and language, then this book is worthy of your attention. Untamed was deliciously unexpected and I’m eager to see what Cowan delivers next.
Read as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge #AWW2014