Book Anxiety, Part 2: Untamed by Anna Cowan

Untamed by Anna Cowan

  • Title: Untamed
  • Author: Anna Cowan
  • Genre(s): Historical
  • Publisher: Penguin Books Australia, May 2013
  • Source: NetGalley
  • Length: 432 pages
  • Trope(s): Heroine Who Says the F-Word, Hero Who’s Prettier Than The Heroine, Evil Gambling Father, Tragic Pasts, Sibling/Parent Issues, Deceit & Manipulation
  • Quick blurb: A dandy in disguise changes the lives of a disgraced and debt-ridden family.
  • Quick review: Again with the Book Anxiety, but a better outcome this time.
  • Grade: C+

“I will write a book of bad ideas,” she said, pulling viciously at the buttons on her sleeve, “and the final chapter will be dedicated to this epic, gravity-defying feat of stupidity. And in a hundred years a celebrated English wordsmith will come across it and write a poetic tribute to the very bad idea that malformed in the brain of one demented duke. His work will run to eleven volumes before his vocabulary has even begun to do justice to how extremely bad this idea is.”

Oy. I need to quit whining for new and different, because more like this is going to kill me.

This is the Cross-Dressing Duke book. The author’s brilliant blog has had me captivated by her insights on the romance genre, and her tweets about research and characterization sent me to the “request” button on NetGalley within minutes of availability.

And then once again, I got my knickers in a knot by glancing — A MERE GLANCE, I TELL YOU — at glowing and scathing responses from reviewers I respect.

Based on those discussions, along with the author’s essay on the gender dynamics, I was more than a little surprised to see how little the seemingly touchy cross-dressing issue impacted this story. The Duke of Darlington is essentially just a “not very manly man” in a dress and a close shave, hiding from his peers until a scandal blows over. We learn that he’s a master of disguise in many forms, with a “cataclysmic” ability to influence the way others see and respond to him. I saw Jude’s dress-wearing not as a form of self-expression, but as a much-planned tactic in an ongoing campaign of strategic deceit and manipulation.

What makes Untamed such an antithesis to the much-bemoaned Regency fluff is the way every other character allows themselves to be deceived and manipulated. We know the duke will slowly unravel Kit’s mistrustful control of her heart. But as he draws the rest of her family into his thrall, the extended relationship dynamics take on a life of their own – with Kit (and the reader) desperately trying to make sense of it all.

However…there were a few elements that didn’t work for me, such as the random and unsustained POVs from secondary characters popping up at odd times throughout the story. At the halfway mark, we get Kit’s brother for a page or two. At some point, we get the brutish brother-in-law for a few paragraphs. And later, for some unknown and completely inexplicable reason, we get into the head of a barely-there-before ditzy squire’s daughter as she flirts her way through her first dinner party. Each time it kicked me out of my reading trance, and each time it was completely unnecessary.

What I struggled with most was the voice. I whine for a strong authorial voice, and Cowan’s knocked me flat – and it took me a while to recover enough to fully engage with the characters. The sheer abruptness of the tone worked great at establishing the angsty, edgy atmosphere, but it also left me…I don’t know…maybe “cautious” is the best word…for much of the story. Combine that with inconsistent sentence, paragraph and section breaks in the ARC I was reading, and I had a hard time getting past the writing itself and into the adventure.

However (and yes, I can totally use “however” twice and negate my own arguments because it’s my blog so just shut up about it)…like, Raybourn, Cowan took a huge risk with this story, and I’m thrilled that a major publisher is taking chances on The New & The Different. I cannot wait to read what Cowan writes for me next. Because it’s ALL FOR ME.

3 thoughts on “Book Anxiety, Part 2: Untamed by Anna Cowan

  1. I’m feeling like you about the “new and different.” I think ONE of the various ones I’ve tried this year has worked out, and a couple have really ticked me off, because the promise was there but the execution was just awful.

    Great review! I was also surprised at how little the cross-dressing seemed to matter in the story and in terms of the characterization. I wonder if it’s simply the case that what was in the author’s head didn’t make it effectively on to the page. Because I also read it as strategic rather than an expression of underlying identity.

    • Yes, I was thinking about that. I’ve come to the conclusion that “cross dressing” in historical romance often (mostly?) is a misnomer. Is about disguise not identity. Eg, this one, most all of historical books where girls dress up as man (there’s a Shirlee Busbe… Lady Vixen??), the Jo Beverley Malloren book where one brother dresses as woman. That’s a list off top of my head. I can’t think of a “cross dresser” in m/f historical romance who did it for identity. But the term “cross dresser” seems common in description.

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