Bad Romance is back! Warning - I got kind of into doing this, so I hope other people find this as amusing as I do.
This time, I read A Moment In Time by Bertrice Small, published in 1991. Here's the cover.
The book opens in media res. This king, Powys, has cheated on his fairy wife, Rhiannon, and set her aside for some nasty human broad, so now the fairy queen’s sister has shown up in a cloud of smoke and she is pissed. You know, that’s the bit that always bugged me about most fairytale scenarios. The stuff that they ask you to do in order to avoid terrible consequences is usually pretty simple, but most of the time the stupid humans are like, “what the worst that could happen?” Really bad stuff, guys! What part of “magical powers” don’t you understand?
Anyway, the fairy queen’s sister blesses the people who were nice to Rhiannon, and unleashes some kind curse on the people who were mean to her. And when I say “some kind of curse,” I’m not being vague just to be vague; for some reason they don’t tell us at this point what the curse is. Apparently it is portentous, though. Rhiannon and her sister disappear in a puff of smoke, leaving Powys screaming out Rhiannon’s name.
After two scintillating pages of this, we jump to Wales, 1060. 15-going-on-50 year old Wynne is the eldest of 5 children. Her parents are dead, leaving her in charge of their prosperous estate until her 10 year old brother, Dewi, comes of age. She most emphatically doesn’t want to get married, but she’s being pressured to marry a rich and powerful lord named Rhys. Chief proponent of the proposed marriage are her shrewish, slutty younger sisters, Caitlin (who must be all of, at most, 14, which makes some of the stuff she says really fucking weird) and Dilys. Rhys is 30+ and way too blunt about how much he’s going to bang Wynne to her grandmother, of all people.
"I am a man of vast appetite where female flesh is concerned. I will accept girlish modesty upon our wedding night, but after that I will have no coyness or disobedience... I will mate with her often... because I enjoy the act."
So basically, a 30 year old wants to use his position and power to marry and sleep with a 15 year old who has made it clear that she’s not interested in him. Omg, the romance of it all.
Oh, there’s one more character that I forgot to mention – a raven that follows Wynne around when she, for example, "[stands] spotlighted in a single shaft of sunlight... as a light breeze raised a faint pattern over her fair body, the nipples of her small, young breasts [puckering] with the chill." Like you do.
He is, of course, really a magical shapeshifting prince named Madoc who’s been following Wynne around in bird form her entire life. Again, I say, the romance of it all. Turns out, Rhys can’t marry Wynne because she’s been betrothed to Madoc (in non-bird form) since infancy, and no one ever thought to tell her. Oops! Wynne’s relieved not to have to marry to guy who tells old ladies how much he likes mating, but she’s still a little weirded out about getting hitched to a sorcerer. This could have something to do with the fact that she passed out the first time their eyes met, or the way he sucked honey off of her fingers in front of her fingers in front of her entire family, without asking permission, the same day they met.
Fearful of making a scene... she tried to pull free from Madoc, but with a knowing smile he drew her hand to his own mouth and licked the honey from her fingers slowly sucking upon each digit.
Of course, this being a romance novel, a big recurring motif is the experienced man educating an innocent young woman about, as they so delicately put it, “relations between a man and a woman.” (Heaven forbid that there be any relations between a man and a man, or a woman and a woman. Omg, the heteronormative romance of it all!) Wynne, previously portrayed as cool-headed and competent, is reduced to the state of a petulant child by “kissing practice” - literally, when he’s like “we gotta stop or I’m going to bang you right here in a hayfield,” she tries to fling herself at him. "'Again!' she said, lips at the ready. 'I like kissing you!'" She's really excited to discover "just how sweetly two tongues could cavort."
Rhys, Mr. “Told Your Grandmother How Much Sex We’re Going To Have (Within The Bonds Of Marriage, Of Course)”, as a sort of consolation prize, is betrothed to Madoc’s sister Nesta, who has her own thoughts about how eager she is to jump into bed. No joke, these ladies have to be the randiest virgins ever committed to paper. Nesta and Rhys fall in love at first sight, perhaps because they knew each other before… in another moment in time. (I counted 12 instances of this phrase throughout the book. Really driving the point home.)
Eventually, Wynne comes for an extended visit to Raven’s Rock, Madoc’s castle, to get to know the guy she’s supposed to spend the rest of her life with. Now, Wynne’s home, Gwernach, at least makes a pretense of being medieval – mostly by talking about the fire pits and smoke holes – but Raven’s reach has indoor plumbing and what are, apparently, the first fireplaces in Europe. Oh, and indoor toilets, because bitches love indoor toilets.
As Wynne and Madoc get to know each other, Wynne realizes that she knew Madoc in another life, but she can’t remember the details of what happened between them. Madoc can’t just tell her (because that would be too easy), so Wynne has to take some magical drugs to see what happened in their previous life together. Now, we get the full back story behind what happened in the cold open.
Wynne (Rhiannon, in that life) was a fairy princess who fell in love with a human prince, Powys. Now the fairies in this book are nothing like the fairies of myth or folklore. They’ve got some magic powers, but they never lie, they’re super nice, and they don’t live any longer than a human would. So they’re basically perfect? I don’t know why Rhiannon would want to marry a human, tbh, because the humans she interacts with seem almost universally dickish. As might be expected, things do not go well. To marry her, Powys must promise to give her his absolute love and trust, which frankly is a bit much to ask anyone to give you. She also has to give up her powers to live in his world. A woman named Bronwyn, whose daddy is the second most powerful guy in the kingdom, always thought Powys was going to marry her. They weren’t betrothed, and he didn’t even like her that much, but everyone thought it made sense. When literal fairy princess Rhiannon waltzes in and “steals” “her” man, Bronwyn makes all the other women at court hate her.
Rhiannon gets pregnant, but after she gives birth, Bronwyn gives her and all the ladies assigned to watch over her a sleeping potion and gets a monster to steal the baby. The women who watch over her freak out when they wake up and baby is gone, so they kill a puppy (!) and smear the blood on her hands, then tell everyone Rhiannon killed her own kid. Some people actually find the dead puppy under the bed, and the women admit that they put the blood on her hands, but Powys is like “why won’t you use your magical powers to find our baby,” to which Rhiannon is like “dude, I gave them up to marry you,” to which he’s like “well yeah, but… you still have them a little bit, right?”
So because humans are dicks, Rhiannon has to sit outside the castle wearing a horse collar, telling everyone about how she killed her baby and giving them rides into the castle on her back. All of the common people are weirded out by this, because she’s always been really nice to them, but aside from slipping her food and stuff, no one will help her. Oh, and Bronwyn gets her dad drunk and holds Rhiannon down while he rapes her, so there’s that.
A few years go by and a foreign king rolls up to the castle with his wife and a little boy is who is, shocker, the same age as Rhiannon and Powys’ son would have been. Gee, who do you think he is? It comes out that Bronwyn was in cahoots with an old suitor of Rhiannon’s; she drugged everyone, and he sent a monster to steal the baby. Rhiannon is exonerated, at which point her sister shows up and does the blessing/cursing thing. Among other things, Bronwyn’s line is cursed (more on this in a second), and Powys is doomed to always remember what he did to Rhiannon and be sad about it until she remembers what happened and forgives him.
Wynne wakes up and immediately forgives him. No, seriously, she gets all Rafiki about it and is like “pshaw, it’s in the past!” So… that’s sorted. Personally, I don’t think I’d be that forgiving, but hey, I’m not a heroine in a romance novel either.
Madoc and Wynne get married, and at the wedding, Wynne meets Nesta and Madoc’s half-brother, Brys. You remember how Angharad cursed Bronwyn’s line? Well, guess who Brys's great great great great great great whatever grandmother is? And he’s also Bronwyn reincarnated, so it’s, like, double bad guy whammy. Madoc didn’t want him at the wedding, but he just showed up, so in order not to make a scene Wynne lets him hang out. He’s a really handsome guy, but Nesta and Madoc warn her that he’s a bad egg. How bad? He's so evil he doesn't like to be warm. He tried to "'use [Nesta] as a man would use a woman'" (aka, rape) when she was six, bought himself the title of bishop and uses it to spread rumors about Madoc, and says the kind of misogynist stuff your drunkest uncle might spout off at the Thanksgiving table.
"A woman is for a man's pleasure, and if he so desires, for bearing his children, and cooking his food, and sewing his clothing. There is no more."
So of course when Wynne gets pregnant, she’s like “you should totally patch things up with your brother” to Nesta and Madoc. When they’re like “well, we tried that, and not only did it not work but he’s fucking terrible”, she’s like “he can’t be that bad!” So she rides off alone to his castle to try and mend the fences, where she finds him whipping a girl to death. Because, oh right, he’s terrible. Even he says that he’s super evil and does very bad things and hates everyone, to which she’s still like “you can’t be that bad.” So he steals her clothes, covers them in blood, and leaves them in the forest near Raven’s Rock so that Madoc thinks she’s been eaten by a bear or something, and sells her into slavery. Good job, Wynne. Maybe listen the next time people tell you that someone they know way better than you do is a bad guy.
So he sells her to a slaver who takes her into England and sells her to a Saxon lord named Eadwine. The slaver figures a public sale isn’t the best idea, what with Wynne being an abducted princess and all, and he figured Eadwine would want Wynne, a “proven breeder” (remember, she’s pregnant), for his son, whose wives are all barren. In a surprise twist, the widowed Eadwine decides to keep her for himself. This works out better for Wynne, because he’s a much nicer guy than his son is, but not so nice that he won’t make her have sex with him and put a slave collar on her to keep her from running away. Gee, no wonder Wynne is finding herself “increasingly attracted to him.” Because when he rapes her, it’s the good kind of rape that she secretly enjoys even though she’s really sad about it.
Ok, so can we talk a little bit about this kind of thing in romance novels? It’s so messed up. On the one hand, I’m not going to judge anyone for having a fantasy, and if your fantasy involves being abducted and forced to have great sex with a man who isn’t your husband, sweet. On the other hand, being abducted and forced into sexual slavery is a thing that happens to real women, and it’s not a fun, sexy romp. So… I don’t know what I think, exactly.
Anyway, I skipped through the next hundred pages or so of Wynne having her baby, marrying Eadwine, falling in love with him, and having his kid. Then he dies, and the son who was originally supposed to get Wynne is like “now you’re mine!” He's like a baby crazy woman in a rom-com; he's mad mostly because "her womb was as fertile as one of his newly harvested fields, yet she denied him it's use." She (and everyone else in the castle) is like “ew, no,” which makes him angry, so he says the first person to rape Wynne gets to marry her. The other women in the castle help her out by convincing the men that Wynne can hex their penises, but then this traveling peddler and his mentally deficient son show up and are like “yeah, sounds like a sweet deal!” So the disabled son rapes her in front of everyone. But hey, turns out it’s really Madoc in disguise! Note: that does not make it any less unacceptable.
So Madoc and Wynne are finally reunited (and he fills her "parched and secret garden with his warm life force"), but bad news – Eadwine’s son has sold their son to the slaver that originally brought Wynne, and he’s going to take the baby to Madoc’s evil brother Brys! This revenge plot of Brys’ seems unnecessarily complicated.
Turns out, it’s not only really complicated, but would take aaaaages to come together. Knowing Wynne was pregnant when he sold her, he hatched a scheme to steal the child back once it was weaned. If it was a girl, he would have raised her to seduce her father (wait, did the screenwriter for Oldboy read this book?) and then once she’s pregnant, reveal her true identity, presumably while twirling his moustaches. Since it’s a boy, he plans to raise him to hate Madoc, and then when he comes of age he’ll have him claim his inheritance and kill Madoc. I get that revenge is a dish best served cold, but this just seems excessive. And also, what if someone dies before the revenge is taken? It’s 11th century Wales, after all – people die from random stuff all the time. I know if I was a terrible person and lived in the 11th century, all of my revenge plots would be centered on stuff I could get done within the next three months, on the outside.
Wynne, Madoc, and Rhys (remember Rhys? Mr. “I’m going to bang your granddaughter like a cheap gong”? Since marrying Nesta, apparently he’s turned into a super sweet bro) head off to Brys’ castle with an army. Their half-baked plan is to take the gatehouse and secure the entrance to the castle with the army, then send Wynne, dressed in her finest, in to ask for her child back. They think this is going to work because "it's the one thing he'll never expect!" He’s going to be so surprised to see her that… he’ll just hand the kid over? I mean, it’s a weird plan. Wynne is not intimidating. Even her little brother says "I am not so certain that your idea will succeed."
Anyway, everyone finally agrees that someone should kill Brys, but Madoc can’t bring himself to kill his brother, so Rhys is like “well, he did try to rape my wife, and I like killing people, so…*shrug*” Some things go as planned – the army marches up and takes the castle, and Wynne goes to confront Brys. In fact, she goes to confront him at precisely the moment that he’s thinking about her, and he doesn’t realize she’s actually standing in front of him until he tries to “blink the vision away” and she’s still there. What kind of vivid hallucinations is this guy having that he can’t tell the difference between a real person and something he’s seeing in his minds’ eye? Because that’s weird.
So she’s like “give me back my son,” and he’s like “haha no,” and then Rhys comes in and is like “I’m going to kill you!” and then Brys snatches the kid and runs. There’s a sword fight, and Rhys is winning until Brys throws some dirt in his face (oldest trick in the book, and one he was specifically warned against) and blinds him. Brys is going to kill him until a raven flies into his face and makes him fall off the roof. It is, of course, Madoc as a raven, who decides he can actually kill his brother after all.
So Brys is dead, the family is reunited, everything is great! And then someone is like “wtf is up with that raven, does it have rabies?” and shoots it dead.
Then there’s a post script that I have no patience for that takes place in 1800, where they meet again and it’s instant undying love all over again. Blah, blah, blah.
If the story wasn't silly enough, here are some choices bits of dialog for your edification.
An assessment of Dilys (Wynne's sister), by her new mother-in-law:
"She is pretty enough that you may take her pleasure of her without disgust, but not so beautiful that another man will covet her. With this one you will be certain that your sons are your own. Kiss her now, Howel, lest the lady think that I have taught you no manners."
Caitlyn, to her new husband:
"You set me aflame, my lord! I am a virgin, but I sense you will be a mighty lover. I shall never want another but you!"
Madoc and Wynne, on the subject of love:
"Do you not understand that I want you to love me?"
Wynne looked distressed. "Ohh, my lord, I have tod you that I do not believe I am capable of such an emotion. I dare not be owned!"
"I suppose I do love you. I should not have said is otherwise, but I was certainly not aware of it until the words popped unbidden from my mouth. When could such a thing have happened. I" oh my god I can't keep typing, she keeps going on like this for another 4 sentences.
Wynne, on sex:
"Oh Madoc, is it wrong for me to be curious and eager? I truely am and I cannot help it. When you kiss me I find I am beset by feelings I do not understand, but I also find I want to go forward that I may learn what follows."
"I am assailed by a plethora of emotions that buffet at me like the winds of a storm buffet this castle."
"Rid me of my dreaded virginity that we may explore new worlds together."
"Will I die a little death each time you pleasure me with your skillful lance?"
"I feel no desire yet. How quickly you men are ready to couple, fired by your own lusts. Alas, though I would give you all the pleasure that I could, Madoc, my dear lord, I am not ready to receive your wild and wondrous passion."
Wynne, on a penis:
"How strong and mighty is this lance of yours Madoc of Powys. Why do you cry out? Does my touch hurt you?"
Caitlyn (Wynne's other sister), on how she got her mother-in-law out of the house:
"I caught my dear mother-in-law in the bakehouse, her skirts bunched up about her waist, bent over a table stuffing her face with cakes and sweetmeats while the baker, his rough hands grasping her fleshy hips, pumped her full of his own cream."
Brys, on being evil:
"You, Madoc's treasured wife, have unwittingly given me the knife which I shall plunge deep into his chest!"
Eadwine, on Wynne:
"You are my wild Welsh girl, and I mean to love you. What fine breasts you have."
Eadwine's terrible son, on watching Wynne get raped:
"That's it, half-wit! Hump her! Give her your all!"
Rhys, on Nesta:
"Look at her. She looks like a fairy princess, but she is as bloodthirsty as any berserker I hve ever encountered!