I was seriously tempted to blame this blog on Anna Campbell. Her tortured heroes and tormented heroines make for darker reading (although fabulous!) than I usually think of when romance comes to mind, and I find myself reading darker books lately than I once did. The change struck me when I finished Tempt the Devil. I loved it but realized it was a far darker book than I'd thought of myself as liking. When I looked back, however, I realized my drift toward the Dark Side of the Force started a long time ago. I just didn't stop to recognize it. Today I'm going to trace that drift. As you read, please think of your own preferences and what shaped them because we'll come back to that later.
Here are some springboard questions: Do you prefer Fitzwilliam Darcy or Heathcliff? Georgette Heyer's Marquis of Alverstoke or Charlotte Bronte's Mr. Rochester? Luke Skywalker or Han Solo? Aragorn or Acheron? Superman or Batman? Stargate SG-1 or Battlestar Galactica? Hugh Jackman as Leopold in Kate and Leopold or as Wolverine in X-Men? Hugh Jackman as Whoever?
Once upon a time, I would have chosen the first option, the less tormented one, in every one of the questions. Heyer's Earl of Worth (Regency Buck) was about as dark as I wanted to go. Somewhere along the way, something happened. My tastes have been going darker for a long time, but I just didn't notice. It was sort of like drifting on a raft in the ocean and suddenly realizing the shore had receded.
I think it started when a college friend gave me a copy of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. She was appalled that I, who so loved comic books and science fiction, had never read it. If you've read the books or seen the films, you know this is not a story of sweetness and light. Frodo struggles with the ring and ultimately succumbs to its lure. Boromir, a hero of his people, falls from grace in attempting to steal it, only to redeem himself by dying in vain for Merry and Pippin. At the end, Frodo finds that the peaceful, pastoral Shire holds no peace for him. I hated that ending and still do, but somewhere along the way, I came to see it as right. I can't tell you how many times I've read that trilogy. I've lost count.
In high school, I hated and despised Wuthering Heights. I still wouldn't go so far as to say I like it. Neither Cathy nor Heathcliff is likely to be anyone's BFF, and I can't see either of them as pleasant company. Yet I now find the story compelling and the character study fascinating. I admire the book despite its dark undercurrents.
A lot of the 1980s romance novels were very dark in their sexuality and in the characters' experiences. I read many of those books and have kept a handful all this time (Shanna by Kathleen Woodiwiss, for example because Ruark was so great even though Shanna was a brat for most of the book). I read plenty of books with less tormented characters--everything I could find by Patricia Rice, Mary Jo Putney, Kathleen Gilles Seidel, and Jayne Ann Krentz's various incarnations, to list just a few. These characters had experiences ranging from the painful to the horrible, but they mostly weren't brutal, as in those 80s books. Of course, a lot of the brutal things that happened in those earlier books didn't seem to have realistic aftermaths for the characters, which made them slightly unreal and perhaps less disturbing than they would have been a newspaper story. As I write this, I'm realizing that the books I kept didn't have a lot of physical or sexual brutality and had the hero and heroine with each other and no one else.
Then there're the late Dame Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles. Francis Crawford of Lymond could be the poster boy for tortured heroes. I made it halfway through the first book, The Game of Kings, and phoned the friend who'd given it to me for Christmas. "Is there anybody in this book besides this blind girl I'm going to like?" I asked, after a more tactful leadup. There was a short silence, and she replied, "Well, I can't promise, of course, but I think if you keep reading you'll be glad you did." Oh. My. Word. The last hundred pages or so turned everything inside out, and I adored Lymond, who had come across as a serious jerk until then. I bought the other five massive paperbacks, reading every spare minute, reading before work, through lunch lunch, reading far into the night, and finished them all in under week. (No, I didn't have much of a life beyond work then.) When my mom and I went to England, I found the equally massive hardbacks at Foyle's bookstore and lugged them home in my suitcase.
Science fiction and fantasy did their part in leading me toward darker waters. Elizabeth Haydon's Rhapsody series is extremely well done but isn't for the squeamish. As I reached the halfway mark in the first book, Rhapsody, I found myself wondering why I was still reading and concluded it was because I had to know what happened. Even in comic books, the stories I found most engaging were the ones in which the heroes had the most to overcome. Which may explain the appeal of Battlestar Galactica, which I don't love the way Trish does but can't seem to stop watching anyway. Yet if I had to list preferences in TV shows, I'd pick Stargate SG-1 or Heroes (which has taken a definite darker turn) over BSG despite giving BSG credit for grittier, more intricate plotting and characters, and how strange is that?
Then there are the Dark-Hunters. I put off reading this series because I had an unfortunate feeling that liking them would lead to obsessive serial reading, as with Lymond. It did. And the comic book geek in me wants to read in order, a habit with problems of its own if the next book doesn't happen to be in the store. Every one of the dark-hunters died a horrible death. That's part of their motivation. And Acheron himself had a life brutal beyond horror. But I asked for and got his book for Christmas and had devoured it by Boxing Day.
I can no longer deny that I've drifted far from the bright shore and into the dark ocean. I still love books that don't feature such heavy torment. The banditas run the gamut of light to dark, and the other books I've read in the last year fall i varying points on that spectrum. In fact, those less brutal books are still the bulk of my reading. The characters still have things to overcome. I think that would be called conflict. It doesn't have to be vicious, but it does have to be deep and difficult. So maybe that's the answer, that I like the triumph after the arduous struggle and, with age, have come to appreciate the darker side of it more than I once did.
So, getting back to our original questions--I pick Darcy over Heathcliff, Alverstoke over Rochester, Luke over Han (with respectful raspberries to Joan and Beth), Acheron over Aragorn by an molecule, SG-1 over BSG, Superman over Batman, and Wolverine over Leopold. With a serious nod to the "Hugh Jackman as Whoever" option.
What about you? Do you gravitate more toward lighter or darker books? What are your favorites in either category?