Nov 12 2013 2:00pm

Power Dynamics in Category Romance: Reading Susan Napier’s Mistress of Deception (Napier Binge Part 2)

The Mistress Deception by Susan NapierThis is the second part of my accidental Susan Napier binge (read Part 1 here), which was itself part of a wider attempt to get some sort of handle on category romance. And the truth is, when I picked up The Mistress Deception and saw it was by the same author as The Mistress of the Groom my little heart sank a bit. It wasn’t that I was particularly averse to The Mistress of the Groom but, as anyone who has actually read that book will testify, it does rather leave you feeling like you need to lie down for a while in a quiet room. But The Mistress Deception turned out to be quite a different experience altogether.

It opens with the hero, Matthew Riordan (who we know is non-alpha because he wears, wait for it, glasses) being unpleasantly surprised to receive a blackmail message and some kinky photos of himself tied to bed by a hot chick. He immediately concludes that the blackmailer is the hot chick because blackmail works really well if you put yourself in the same compromising position as your victim. Of course, the hot chick is the heroine Rachel Blair, who works for a private security firm and, of course, is absolutely not the blackmailer because she possesses many excellent qualities as a heroine and a human, and one of those is common sense. And I like to think if she did decide to blackmail someone, she would do it effectively. We learn in a flashback in the next chapter that she did, as it happens, tie Matt to the bed but it was For His Own Good because he rocked up horrendously wasted to a formal dinner party where Rachel was in charge of security.

This is another deliciously absurd premise but I think part of the reason I eased into it better than I did in The Mistress of the Groom was because, unlike poor Jane who spends the whole of her book being shafted, The Mistress Deception takes Rachel’s competence and independence very seriously. She has a job, and she’s good at it, and the only people who question either of these facts are idiots. And while I’m willing to concede that getting into sexualised shenanigans with a drunk you’re trying to subdue is probably not present as a beacon of best practice in The Big Book of Private Security, Napier does a fairly decent job of make Rachel’s actions seem…well…not totally outlandish in context.

Also this whole scene was a delight to me because, okay, hot dude tied to bed, but it’s also genuinely intriguing on a range of levels. Firstly, I guess it just interested me to see a hero immediately vulnerable—both emotionally and physically—when in most of the books I’ve read so far it’s something earned by the heroine when she has proven herself HEA material. And, secondly, the balance of information revealed and withheld is just about perfect. There’s clearly more going on than either the characters or, at this moment in time, the reader are capable of understanding. And once I’d read the book, so I knew what was actually underpinning their reactions and responses, I actually came back and re-read the scene, and it held together really well for me. It’s actually quite amusing first time round because it seems like it’s just this farce of intoxication and exasperation, but what I read initially as absurdity turned out to be expressions of loneliness and hurt. And the whole thing was pretty sad and nuanced. So, accepting for what they were, the flourishes and excesses of Napier’s slightly histrionic writing style and the general silliness of the premise, I felt that this was nevertheless a strong and interesting piece of writing in its own right, and it put me in a more receptive and positive mood for whatever was coming next.

Unfortunately, once the bed-tying/blackmail premise has been established, The Mistress Deception veers briefly into what is perhaps standard territory for either this author or this category. Matt starts acting like a complete tosser, randomly sexually assaults Rachel in a supply closet and then literally kidnaps her. I genuinely thought, at this point, the book was going to go all Mistress of the Groom on me, but then the characters start talking to each other honestly, in a manner vaguely reminiscent of humans, and the tentative liking I’d developed in the first few chapters grew into real emotional investment.

To be honest, the book is probably just as melodramatic, and just as ridiculous, as Mistress of the Groom but I found it much easier to accept, either because I was starting to get used to it, or because it felt better grounded in the characters. I think the difference might be that, in Mistress of the Groom, the hero and heroine cause the melodrama, whereas in this book they merely navigate it. For me, Jane’s good qualities were sort of rendered irrelevant by her permanent subjection to a domineering arse, but I genuinely felt Matt and Rachel were decent people who understood and respected each other, and deserved to be together and have nice things. I enjoyed Mistress of the Groom in a cracky, Nic Cage kind of way, but this one had themes I could recognise and respond to: strength and vulnerability, and the strength in being vulnerable. It was honestly pretty lovely watching Rachel and Matt fall in love.

I liked Rachel especially from the get-go and although she struck me as having some similar traits to Jane (strength, an apparently Amazonian figure), she seemed, in general, better articulated and the book seemed less keen on grinding her beneath the narrative heel. And, despite his brief daytrip to Tosserville, I was quite into Matt as well. He’s got all the alpha millionaire tropes on the surface but he’s kind of the anti-Ryan: somebody clever and passionate and sensitive, and not entirely comfortable in his life. Again, I’m not really in any place to making broader points about the genre, or this subgenre, but it seemed to me there were ways in which he was pretty subversive: the glasses, the fact he is shorter than the heroine and actually physically less powerful, and he often, quite willingly and non-angstily, takes the less assertive or dominant role in their relationship, and defers to Rachel’s expertise where relevant. On some level, it feels vaguely odd to me that this came across as quite so subversive and refreshing. I mean, there’s nothing emasculating in acknowledging that some people can do some stuff better than you can, even if they also, incidentally, also female. But, I deeply appreciated Matt, and I appreciated the care that went into his portrayal because there seemed to be no implication, or even the expectation of an implication, that behaving like a human (most of the time) made him less masculine or attractive.

The other thing I should probably mention about Matt, and this is also kind of a spoiler so look away now if you don’t want to know the score, is that the dude’s a virgin. A virgin widower. And even a genre-doofus like me can see there’s a trope there, undergoing a good old subverting. The whole idea kind of tickled me, the reasons behind it are, well, semi-plausible and, again, I found it genuinely well executed.

This lean, sexy, hard-bodied man she had been fantasising so lustily about was still a virgin? Colour poured into Rachel’s face as she felt her body react helplessly to the notion, her nipples peaking against her shielding arms and darting thrills radiating through her lower extremities.

“Shouldn’t I be the one blushing?” he asked, and indeed there was high colour streaking along his cheekbones as he watched her struggle with the arousing concept of his innocence.

“I had no idea…” she murmured inanely.

“I do try and keep that kind of information out of the public domain,” was his dry reply. “Virginity is not something for which a mature man is traditionally admired.”

Once again, there’s no sense that the text—or Rachel—thinks any less of Matt for being a virgin, or that it renders him weak, unattractive or unmasculine. And the last line neatly reminds us just how constructed such ideas are, and the way certain sexual choices are gendered or perceived in certain ways. After all, it seems to me that it’s precisely because virginity is derided in men but prized in women that the virgin widow trope exists at all. And even though Matt is circumstantially a virgin, there’s also an extent to which it reflects his beliefs and his desires. For example, he tells Rachel “I never bought into the illusion that sex is an adequate substitute for love, and a love that has to be bought isn’t worth the investment” which, since men are “supposed” to want sex and women are “supposed” to want relationships, usually tends to be the sort of sentiment expected of, and expressed by, female characters. Rather than by individuals, of any gender, who have made certain sexual and romantic choices.

But I think what I found most interesting, and also most confusing, about The Mistress Deception is the way it deconstructed some of these tropes and gendered expectations but reinforced others. For example, the book has a deeply weird relationship with kink. I think both it, and its hero, are secretly a bit into the idea but can’t find a way to square it with the slightly tragic conviction that while Matt can be nice and a virgin, making him mildly sexually submissive would de-man him irredeemably forever. So it sort of leaks out in other ways and in weird hints, and this constant see-saw between outrage and reluctant fascination. For example, Matt’s immediate reaction to the photo of himself being all deliciously helpless under Rachel is pretty intense: “He was furious, and aroused— and furious at himself for being aroused.” And when she’s manhandling him, he tells her: “I like it when you’re rough with me…” But then it’s like the book freaks out runs away screaming from its own subtext:

His eyelids flickered, and although he steadily held her gaze, his colour rose. “I doubt you’d want, or expect, abject submission from a man in your bed. I think you’re far more likely to demand an equal exchange of passion…”

Well, no, Matt I’m pretty sure Rachel wouldn’t like abject submission, but she seemed pretty into you tied up with your cummerbund. Just sayin'. One the other hand, the book was perfectly willing to teasingly acknowledge that Matt incidentally tied up was hot but absolutely unable to accept that it could potentially be okay for two pepole to enjoy some mild kink as part of a healthy, balanced diet...err...relationship.

One of the interesting side-effects of Matt’s virginity is that their first sexual encounter is much more tender and far less assured than what appears to be standard genre convention. Matt’s hands tremble. He has trouble with the condom. Rachel, to some extent, takes the lead until he gets the hang of it. It’s actually really nice. I mean, I’m not a virgin and I sometimes goof up a condom so—in that respect—it’s been one of the more engaging sex scenes I’ve read. I felt like it was sex you might semi-realistically have with someone: satisfying and intimate, but lightly touched with the realities of two humans trying to complete a complex physical manoeuvre. They have sex again, later, in a range of positions, one of which, oh gasp, is doggy style. Later Matt asks Rachel if she’s okay with it, in case it triggers bad memories of abuse to be put into a sexually submissive position and she basically tells him it’s fine, and she likes it. Which, again, I kind of applauded because, well, sex is just sex. Yes, you can make it about dominance and submission if you like (and if you do like, that’s fine) but being taken from behind is not necessarily or inherently submissive. Sometimes, for some people, it just feels good. And it just struck me as odd that the book could explicitly address this with Rachel, but not do the same for Matt. Wanting to be tied up is no more “abject” than wanting to do it in a particular position. To me, that just feels like the same, ultimately arbitrary line in the sand, but I found it kind of interesting where, and how absolutely, the line turned out to be drawn.

As a somewhat more serious concern, Rachel has been sexually abused in the past and, although this struck me as being well handled for the most part, the bit where Matt goes for her a supply closet was somewhat unfortunate:

Since she was fifteen Rachel’s worst nightmare had been to find herself pinned down by superior strength, trapped and helpless against a greedy male assault. But where was the revulsion, the fear and the fury to defend herself now? She was rendered helpless—not by the violence of Matthew’s sexual need, but the uncontrollable desires that raced recklessly through her own veins.

Um, last time I checked, if you don’t explicitly consent, it’s still sexual assault. Even if the guy assaulting you is hot. I think, to try and give this the benefit of the doubt, Napier seems to be trying to clarify that is not an abusive experience for Rachel because her desire for Matt constitutes an implicit consent. But, for me, it crosses a line.

Non-consensual supply closet aside and with the usual provisos of “what do I know?” I thought Rachel’s history worked well. It has affected her, of course, but it doesn’t completely overshadow her. And when she tells Matt about what happened to her, and the fact that her niece is actually her daughter, he says:

”Congratulations on your wonderful daughter… and on the courage and strength it must have taken you to bring her into the world…"

Now, okay, I know it’s not ideal to congratulate people on their “courage” for surviving rubbish things that have happened to them, but, at the same time, but—to my mind—Matt is still way ahead of the field here. I think he’s maybe the only hero I’ve read so far who hasn’t immediately degenerated into frothing manrage on discovering the heroine has been sexually abused. Of course, it’s hard to bear witness to the suffering of someone you love but spending all your time thinking about laying the manly smackdown on the heroine’s abuser essentially turns the sexual abuse of women into a demarcation issue between two men. Matt, however, responds immediately and instinctively to Rachel. And, to be honest, I found that pretty damn romantic.

In case it isn’t obvious, I was really, and unabashedly, into this book. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still thematically and stylistically similar to Mistress of the Groom but I felt it was working with the genre in interesting ways, as well as being a charming and satisfying love story on its own terms.

Everything I learned about life and love from reading Mistress of Deception: the most sensible way to stop a drunk person embarrassing themselves is to tie them to a bed and sit on top of them, it’s okay to be tied up when you’re drunk but not when you’re sober, if someone sends you incriminating photographs in which they personally feature they’re probably not the one who’s blackmailing you.

Alexis Hall is a romance novel neophyte who likes hats, tea and sword fighting. He occasionally writes queer fiction. If you enjoy his ramblings, you can find more of them on Twitter @quicunquevult or on his website.

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1. willaful
"Of course, it’s hard to bear witness to the suffering of someone you love but spending all your time thinking about laying the manly smackdown on the heroine’s abuser essentially turns the sexual abuse of women into a demarcation issue between two men."

Yes -- this. I'm always extremely put off by men who froth at the mouth about rapists, and you just articulated why.

Not quite what I usually expect from a Harlequin Presents review!
Megan Frampton
2. MFrampton
I feel as though Matt's kink couldn't have been acknowledged as a kink, not at this time of publication nor in the line of books, so it's there, just not official kinkdom.

I loved this coverage of it. Thanks!
Kathy Brantley
3. KathyB
It seems that virgin heroes tend to pop up more in historicals than contemporary romances. Maybe not. It may just be that I read more historicals than contemporary and so have encountered this trope more there. But it is refreshing when an author turns it around with a more sexually experienced female lead and less experienced male lead. It gives the appearance of vulnerability in a hero that I really like. I've generally stayed away from categories for several reasons, but I may give this one a try. I've really enjoyed reading your thoughts on these last two.
4. Susann
Well, I thought I'd sworn off Napier after MOTG, but maybe I need to give this a try.

As an aside, I just finished Julia Quinn's A Night Like This (one of the Smythe-Smith books) and was favorably struck by the hero's reaction to the heroine's trauma--it was about her, not him. Shocking, right?

(My device tried to autocorrect that to "airline's trauma.")
Julia Broadbooks
5. juliabroadbooks
Now this is a book I might enjoy reading.

Or reading again. During the era this was published, I read a cartload of Presents. Often when I pick up an older one today, by page 20 or so it all comes back to me.
6. Kaetrin
Now I want to know how he came to be a virgin widower in a way that was semi-plausible to you. :)
Kaetrin @Kaetrin's Musings
7. Kaetrin
logged in now so I can get replies *nothing to see here*
8. Susann
I had to read this. Not perfect, but I enjoyed it very much. The characters and backstories of Matt and Rachel were well-developed, and I think they made a good couple. Matt's virginity was plausible-- maybe not 100%, but stranger things happen IRL, so I was OK with it. I had more trouble with Matt's drunkenness at the party and the blackmail thing (both Matt jumping to the conclusion that Rachel was behind it and what it was really supposed to accomplish), but not excessively. I do wish the situation with the malefactors had been resolved differently. All told, tho, a satisfactory read that made up for MOTG.

BTW, I, too, wish the kink references had been carried further, but I guess that was too much to hope for in an HP from this era.

Thanks for a great review.
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