Sarah Morgan’s latest Harlequin Presents novel, Sold to the Enemy, has gotten quite a few reviews already, so this post is more of a reflection. I don’t think it’s especially spoilery, because I’m focusing on the first couple of chapters. But if you don’t like to know too many details about a book, you may want to skip this. For great straight-up reviews see Sunita’s (which sold me the book), Brie’s, and Wendy’s.
All three of those reviews mention some of the ways that Morgan plays with Presents tropes and conventions in the novel. That was what I loved most about it. The opening chapters, in particular, are a loving, humorous, and thoughtful deconstruction of the Presents alpha/alphahole hero. There can be a fine line between the alphahole and the abusive stalker, and different readers draw that line in different places. For some readers, the obsessed, caretaker alpha always has a whiff of the potential abuser about him, and I think Morgan tackles that issue head-on in Sold to the Enemy, considering how the alpha hero may contain his opposite, and what makes the difference between an alpha hero and an alpha villain.
Heroine Selene’s father, Stavros Antaxos, is the dark side of the alpha: once upon a time, this Greek billionaire swept Selene’s mother off her feet and carried her home to his island castle. You can imagine their story as a previous-generation Presents romance. But since then, his true nature has been revealed:
Her father’s first and cleverest move following his marriage had been to ensure that his wife had no income of her own, thus making her dependent on him in every way. Her mother confessed that at first she’d found it romantic to have a man who wanted to care for her. It had been later, much later, that she’d realised that he hadn’t wanted to care for her. He’d wanted to control her.
Their story has gone from romance to nightmare, Stravos from apparent hero to violent villain.
When Selene plans to escape her father, she decides she’ll need Stefan Ziakis, another Greek billionaire whom she met years before, and whom she’s since turned into a fantasy hero. Her mother warns her that Stefan is “another version of your father . . . a ruthless, self-seeking playboy with no conscience and not one shred of gentleness in him.” She mocks Selene’s Presents-trope fantasy of rescue, “the schoolgirl and the billionaire.” But what Selene wants (initially) from Stefan is not love but a business loan. She doesn’t want rescue but the resources that will help her rescue herself. And she knows she can only get that from her father’s equal, someone as ruthless and alpha as he is.
Selene and Stefan’s meeting both contains and confounds Presents conventions. Virginal (very plausibly) Selene shows up disguised as a nun. Stefan is burning for her the moment she peels off her habit to reveal the business suit and blonde hair beneath. Five years before, Selene saw his willingness to chat with a shy schoolgirl at a party as kindness; Stefan saw it as a way of goading her father. Now the chance for classic alphahole style revenge is offered him (he’s got his enemy’s daughter in his power!) and he doesn’t take it, “remind[ing] himself that the daughter wasn’t responsible for the sins of the father.” He offers her a loan partly to get at her father, sure, but also because he’s impressed by her business plan.
He also asks her to a party, and she wonders aloud whether the loan will disappear if she refuses (and if, implicitly, she turns him down for sex). He assures her the one is not contingent on the other. At the party, Stefan keeps trying to protect her from her own desire to cut loose, drink champagne, and seduce him. And he tries some half-hearted alphahole slut-shaming of Selene: “Do you even realise what could happen to you in this state? You virtually offered yourself to me.” She points out that she did offer herself, knowing what she was doing, and asks if he has a problem with women enjoying sex. I laughed out loud.
Stefan makes a mistake, gets her in trouble with her father, and has to go rescue her and her mother in proper Presents-heroic fashion (a yacht is involved). But then Selene escapes him. Even his benevolent desire to protect her is to her a kind of cage, more pleasant than the one her father kept them in, but no less confining. She wants independence for a change. (I’d say in the end, as befits a romance, she chooses inter-dependence instead).
All of this shows how absolutely ridiculous Sold to the Enemy is as a title for this story. Both Stefan and Selene refuse the kind of bargain implied in it. And while her father may basically say “take the slut,” he sure isn’t “selling” her to Stefan.
I absolutely loved the first third or so of this book, which is essentially the first 24 hours of Selene and Stefan’s acquaintance. It reminded me of reading Diana Wynne Jones’s Dark Lord of Derkholm, which is both a hilarious, affectionate parody of high fantasy and a satisfying fantasy adventure. Morgan’s book isn’t a parody, certainly, but she too lovingly and humorously examines some conventions of her form.
I found the rest of the book a bit less satisfying, though still enjoyable–almost inevitably, as obviously the pace has to pick up. It made me think about romance beginnings versus endings. Beginnings are full of promise, setting the stage for the courtship and introducing us to the characters. Romance endings are . . . well, we all know how it’s going to end, and while that ending is satisfying, it’s generally not exciting in the way a beginning is; it’s hard to have an element of the unexpected or unfamiliar in an HEA, though it can be done (for me, the end of Sherry Thomas’s Not Quite a Husband is one good example).
Romance readers talk a lot about books that start well and go down hill, and about whether that’s because of things like over-polishing for contests and other purposes while neglecting the rest of the book. There’s probably some truth to that, but it’s also a lot easier to write an impressive beginning than ending in a romance. Even Austen, for instance, fell into this trap of the form. I’m not sure whether that’s true of other kinds of fiction. I’ll have to pay more attention to endings.