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The Innocent by Bertrice Small
(Fawcett, $12.95, NC-17) ISBN 0-449-00180-6
Over the years, TRR has received letters complaining that we do an injustice to Bertrice Small, as thus far, her books haven't found favor with many of our reviewers.

Some of these letters have even accused us of being dried-up old prudes, shrinking in horror at a really erotic book. Which is a bizarre irony if you think about it, because we are a group dedicated to elevating the standards of a genre which much of the reading public dismisses as soft-porn. Go figure.

Therefore, I really tried to approach Small's new book afresh, and give it a fair and just read. Well, I didn't get very far before I was gritting my teeth and tears of boredom and aggravation were rolling down my cheeks.

I may be pilloried by Small's legions of adoring fans for saying so, but she doesn't really write romance, she writes erotica. And not very good erotica, in my humble opinion. If you took the soft-porn out of her books, what would be left to get excited about? Her stories merely exist to connect graphic sex scenes. And those sex scenes just aren't romantic – unless, of course, you find rape, voyeurism, and sado-masochism romantic. If that is your cup of tea, you will love The Innocent. Drink up!

The Innocent takes place is twelfth-century England. Eleanore, a.k.a. Elf, has been raised in a convent. Why the sisters tolerate such a paganish nickname is never explained. Anyway, Elf's wicked sister-in-law didn't want the girl cluttering up the manor, so contrived to send her away. Years later, Elf becomes the heiress to the manor, and the wicked-sister-in-law hatches an evil plot to steal it away. To that end, Isleen's lover means to rape Elf and force her into marriage, then do away with her and install Isleen once more as lady of the manor.

But Isleen's depraved schemes go awry. Elf escapes, and her fate is left in King Stephen's hands. Instead of allowing her to return to the convent and take her nun's vows, he decrees she will be married. He gives Elf, and the manor, to one of his loyal knights, Ranulf de Glandeville.

Elf is heartily disappointed she can't become a nun – but she was raised to be obedient so submits meekly to marriage. Luckily, Ranulf turns out to be quite a decent fellow. He does not force Elf to consummate their marriage, but is gentle and patient. When Elf does come to Ranulf, it is utterly glorious, and they fall in love. This is all very nice, except for the fact that Ranulf is thirty, Elf only fourteen.

Realistic to the medieval era? Yes.

Fun to read about? No.

Certainly, some romance authors have used child brides successfully in romance novels. Cecelia Holland's Great Maria and Elizabeth Chadwick's The Wild Hunt come to mind. But in those cases, the heroines are allowed to grow up a bit before experiencing true love. Elf is not, and there's something undeniably tawdry about her love with Ranulf. Connoisseurs of Small's oeuvre are always eager to praise her historical accuracy. Granted, there were child brides of every age. Granted, Small does her research, but for those who really want great historical fiction, there are dozens of authors who do it better. One needn't turn to Bertrice Small for history. Reading Bertrice Small for history is like reading Playboy for political analysis.

Meanwhile, Isleen falls into prostitution, apparently her natural vocation. Thereupon she hooks up with Merin, an evil lord, who introduces Isleen to the joys of spanking, gang rape, and forced anal sex. Together this jolly pair devise a new plot to destroy Elf and Ranulf. Elf and Ranulf must fight to save themselves, and their love, yada yada yada.

Aside from a contrived plot, the The Innocent's biggest problem is that Small's writing style is heavy, leaden, bombastic, lumbering along like an obese elephant. She doesn't edit for brevity, but belongs to the more-is-better school of writing. As for the dialogue, it is so stilted and unnatural that the characters don't so much talk to each other, they orate. Small's dialogue has all the spontaneity of text translated from Ancient Chinese into Medieval French by way of semaphore.

Also, Small's characters are amongst the most lifeless beings ever to appear in fiction, and could be constructed of papier-mâché for all the personality they exude. Or don't exude. They are so bereft of dimension that I can't think of much to say about them individually. Elf is so good and pious that everyone falls in love with her, though she is a humorless dullard. And Isleen is such a clumsy burlesque of evil that her antics (such as getting hot and bothered at the idea of raping Elf with a dildo) don't even have the saving grace of comic relief.

Because her characters are flat, Small's love scenes can't pull any heartstrings, but can only decadently titillate. Well, some of them might be called love scenes. The Innocent has some tender moments between Elf and Ranulf, if you like pedophilia. But most of the book's erotic content revolves around evil Isleen and her evil lovers having evil sex. It begs the question, if villains are so nasty you wouldn't carpool with them, why would you want to imagine them naked?

Admittedly, I'm not a big fan of villain sex, though many authors use it to punch up an otherwise deadly boring manuscript. I also have a lot of trouble with Bertrice Small's depiction of women enjoying being abused – and the implication that readers will like it as well. Isleen is gang-raped, beaten and sodomized, and enjoys every blissful moment. I'm not saying that writers shouldn't tackle the darker side of sex. Many fine writers have. It's just that Bertrice Small has this tendency to glorify the gross.

Call me a dried-up old prude if you must, but this kind of stuff is just plain icky.

--Meredith Moore

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