My choice of a short read for January was another Harlequin Historical Undone — I bought quite a few of those and haven’t read them all, and I enjoy the freedom these authors have to choose historical settings for their short romances that are outside the usual 18th-19th century Britain and occasionally France that I read so much of in full-length novels. This one didn’t work out so well for me.
The Samurai’s Forbidden Touch , by Ashley Radcliff, was published in November 2010. It is set in 12th-century Japan, in the last few years of the Heian period, the last imperial age before the feudal period of shogunate rule. It’s a fascinating setting, but (and I’m reluctant to say this), it is perhaps too rich and/or too unfamiliar to work well in a 33-page novella. I felt that the setting was short-changed. When the characters thought or talked about the culture or the political situation, it didn’t feel integrated into the story, and I had to hit Wikipedia for some context after reading the author’s note and the story itself.
It’s a challenge to write romance in medieval settings where women have almost no power; in this case, the answer was (as it often is) to write a heroine labeled by the society around her as rebellious and abnormal. Miku is a poet, and she writes poetry about love that her uncle (her guardian) thinks is scandalous. She also runs away from home to bathe naked in hot springs, lounges around in skimpy clothes, and both thinks and says inappropriately independent things. To me, however, Miku came across as a modern woman plunked down in the period; her chafing at restrictions and refusal to follow the rules felt like a heroine in a time-travel romance, unused to the cultural rules, rather than a woman born and raised in the culture and somehow motivated to work against it. There was a lot of telling rather than showing, which didn’t help matters.
My other problem with this novella was the amount of time spent on sex. I know, Undone is a sensual line, but in this story the sex happened before the characters really even knew each other, and it really overwhelmed the other aspects of the relationship. It felt to me like a case of good sex equals true love, which is not my favorite romance formula.
Out of curiosity, I looked up the guidelines for the Undone line, and I could absolutely see how this novella was attempting to do each thing the guidelines describe. But they didn’t come together for me, and it actually took me two sessions of reading to get through it. So although I love the cover and was pleased to read an unusual setting, this ended up as a disappointing read for me.