Because I can’t mind my own business

So I’ve finished reading Maya Banks’ foray into historical romance: the McCabe Trilogy, featuring the three brothers McCabe, warrior highland men who, of course, have swoon-y heart bits—and the women they love. Or, in most cases, the women who convince them that, hell, love is awesome, and can they put aside their broad-axes for a sec that they can partake of its sauce? Yeah, that’s a good lad.

I like the books, I did. [You should’ve seen me squeal in the bookstore when I saw the third book had arrived, dude.] These books are yummy, they are. But I’m rude enough to want it to be better, and argue why it can be better, and argue for how it can be better.

I’m going to cut to the chase here and make my proposition—a proposition that, yes, I know wouldn’t have made a difference anyway because the industry doesn’t work that way, but call me stubborn. So. I’m thinking that the McCabe Trilogy would have been a better, more kick-ass, a more modern classic kind of book if Banks [and her editor/publisher?] had followed her heart and pushed the envelope and given us readers one big, fat, sweeping historical highland romance—full of lurve and blood, of battle cries and plaid. Yep. That’s my far-fetched idea.

I know. This is what writing-about-books frequently cautions against: Wishing that a book was something else, writing about a book the way you wish it had been written in the first place. Bah. But I’m feeling all creative-pants and nosy. So, well, turn away now, if ye know what’s good for you. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Why am I doing this? Blaaargh.

Ahem. As I was reading Book 03, it was very, very clear to me: this trilogy would’ve gotten everyone’s crazy-reader on if it had been allowed to be as rich and expansive as its premise and its characters promised.

Let’s revisit Book 01. So. Because the last draught of 2011 made for painful blogging, my recorded thoughts on the first installment, In Bed with a Highlander, were brief—basically, I told myself that I had loads of fun with it:

Heiress and potential political pawn, through sheer grit and gumption, saves herself and a laird’s son from the baddies? H&PPP reluctantly finding a home in a crumbling keep of three strapping Highland men? Yes. A lot of easy laughter and believably messy characters? Sure.

Not two months later, I’m trying to figure out how that’s so. Because, frankly, my problems with the next two books—oh, I will get to them later—kind of makes it all hazy for me. The first book, like the next two that followed it, have pressing political issues at stake serving as backdrop to the romance. And it must be said that, generally, Banks effectively uses this premise to add dimensions to and to further the relationship between the protagonists.

For example, in Book 01: The forced marriage, the less-than-ideal consummation scene (there’s a skirmish goin’ on, Mairin, sorry!), and the inevitable learning-to-love-each-other bit. There’s also that scene familiar to me [in my reading of romances featuring literal warrior-heroes]—the necessary, urgent choice between the honorable vendetta and one true love. [This particular scene, it must be said, occurs too in Books 02 and 03, though in different incarnations. Bekez that’s how your prove your love in politics.]

I have a stronger memory of what I felt with Book 02, Seduction of a Highland Lass, than its actual content. Heh. It was, in a word, outrage. Basically, middle child Alaric is on his way to marry the daughter of the neighboring clan [alliances must be formed!] when he’s ambushed. Keeley, outcast of the McDonald clan and a healer to boot, takes him in and nurses his wounds. And other stuff. Ewan, being all Laird-y and stuff, basically kidnaps Keeley so she can make sure that 1) Alaric is hale and healthy, and 2) Mairin’s baby will be delivered safely.

Now. Let’s remember the central conflict: Alaric is promised to another woman—it’s a political alliance. He and Keeley fall in love and get jiggy with each other with some lip service to honor and ooh-I-need-this-one-night schtick. I get that. I get that kind of conflict. But I wanted a little more spine from Alaric. His thoughts on their relationship, it needed more urgency, more shame at the potential political disaster he was brewing, more shame that he was treating Keeley like a doily—but, also, the undeniable necessity of having Keeley in his life. I wanted more agency from Keeley, who’s shown herself a pretty strong chick, kidnapping notwithstanding. For most of the book, I wanted to reach in grab Keeley by the shoulders and say, “Hey, find a man who loves you right. Gannon looks awesome!” [No, seriously, does Gannon get a book?]

And then there was Book 03, Never Love a Highlander. A lot hinges on this particular book, mainly because it has to fulfill the role of trilogy-closer, even as it makes sure it delivers a solid romance between the protagonists. So, one, this is where we expect a culmination of the clan’s war with David Cameron—who, by the way, is an unreliable villain, given his arbitrariness. This is where the overreaching narrative arc of the trilogy comes to a head, and we deserve, don’t we, a satisfying resolution?

And, also, also: The initial looks I had of the protagonists, youngest brother Caelen and the neighbors’ warrior daughter Rionna, had me salivating. I was ExcitedPantz. Here was the gruff guy, whose personal history is essential to why the McCabes are where they are now. Here’s that awkward, sword-wielding girl who’s been passed on from one brother to the next. This is not only conflict, this is potential for rich characters! I need more of them! Their story is awesome as it is, but I need more because I love them before I even got to know their together-story, don’t you see?

Ahem. It may please the bloodthirsty in me that the ultimate battle scene was fucking kick-ass. [However, in keeping with the theme of me being a know-it-all, may I suggest a reading of that raiding scene of the Mother Confessor painted white, in one of Terry Goodkind’s books. That is warrior-princess slash lover slash political powerhouse to aspire to.] What I especially loved about it was that Caelen and Rionna, as this particular book’s protagonists, was central to the resolution of that bigger narrative arc.

I do think that all these issues can be addressed if Banks relented to turn this trilogy into a happy love monster. Romances can be explored and made more whole. The whole bit with the couples keeping tabs on each other in and out the books? Yeah, not as annoying now, huh? And the politics! The backstories! The babies!

Lastly [and I use that word to pretend that this hot mess of a post is anything but], that umph I noticed was sorely lacking in these books—in comparison to Banks’ other works—was gravitas. In her erotic romances, Banks’ characters had issues that seem trivial compared to all the bloodshed in this trilogy—but they treated them real seriously. They laughed and fell in love, but they were always aware that there was a lot at stake—especially in the relationship they were trying to build with each other. That shit was intense, and it was so very good. I miss that intensity.

Ahem. Again, I liked the books. I’m just a terrible person in writing this post to express that crooked brand of liking. Hells, yeah.

[Again, not drunk! Just flaky.]

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3 comments

  1. That’s what writing-about-books books say? Don’t use your imagination? What on earth do they think criticism is?

    Writing-about-books books should be avoided, clearly.

    1. Ha! Though it might interest you to know that it was John Updike’s advice I was referring to: “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.” I think he was attempting to give book-babblers reminders on the values of fairness. That statement I quoted is the first item in his guidelines, by the way.

      1. i see. He’s trying to cut out the competition. Trying to achieve what the other guy’s mediocre book did not even bother to attempt – that’s just what writers do.

        But there’s a crucial distinction. You write about “wishing” a book were more ambitious. Updike’s word is “blame.”

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