TBR Challenge: Agnes Moor’s Wild Knight, by Alyssa Cole

The theme for this month’s TBR Challenge is “Historical,” something my TBR is loaded with because it was my entry point to romance and long my favorite subgenre. Alyssa Cole’s “Agnes Moor’s Wild Knight” was in my TBR because I’m trying to diversify my romance reading and because several people recommended it on Twitter. The blurb:

Agnes Moor knows her place in the court of King James IV—as one of the “exotics” in his employ. When the king makes a kiss from Agnes the prize of a tourney, a mysterious knight plows through his opponents to claim it. But it isn’t chance. The Wild Knight has come for her, and her champion is after after the most elusive prize of all: her heart.

I picked it for the Challenge because it is short, and in the back to school rush I’ve struggled to find any reading energy in the last few weeks. And you should keep that exhaustion and distraction in mind when reading my thoughts on this story. I didn’t bring my best reading self to it, and this is in no way a fully fleshed out review. That said, while I really liked the idea of this story and found Agnes an appealing character, the execution fell flat for me.

  • The history is quite thin. (I don’t mean “I don’t believe there could be a Black woman at a Tudor court.” The story is based on a real incident and Cole cites a couple of research sources). I think this is inevitable in a short story–Amazon says 38 pages and that seems about right; there isn’t room for much world building. I can enjoy a short wallpapery Regency, because the period is so familiar to me I mentally fill in details, but the early 16th century is much less common in Romance and I wanted to know a lot more. I particularly wanted more context for Agnes: how, exactly, did she find herself in the Scottish court? (She was on a sinking slave ship at one point, but what then?). And I wanted to better understand her anomalous position at court, as an “exotic” curiosity who also seems to play an important diplomatic role. How did she gain the kind of power she has? So much that would have made her feel like a real historical person was left unexplored.
  • The language also felt quite contemporary. I don’t want to read a lot of “och lassie” (thank you, Ms. Cole, for not putting that in your Highlander’s mouth) or Ye Olde English, but I think dialogue/internal monologue can have a more historical flavor without going there. Words like “angst” seemed especially out of place. This is part of why the history felt thin to me. In terms of the way they spoke, these could have been two contemporary characters.
  • These two issues relate to how I felt about Agnes as well. Her sense of being an outsider, and fear of being always alone because of that, is really well drawn. It’s the kind of thing that makes the idea that a white reader can’t “relate” to a black character ridiculous. On the one hand, Agnes’ feelings do have to do with the fact she’s an exotic Moor and the way people treat her because of that; on the other, most people have felt out of place and lonely at one time or another (right? it’s not just me?) and I thought Cole found the universal in Agnes’ particular experience.
  • That said, and with the caveat that I’m no expert on this, race has a history, and the way Agnes thinks about her experiences as a Black woman often seemed quite modern to me. I want to know how a Black woman of the period would have understood her identity. This may be largely unknowable; are there written records from such women? Probably not many, if any. A lot of the ways people respond to Agnes are what we’d now think of as microaggressions–touching her skin to see if it feels different from a white person’s, propositioning her for more or less the same reason. And the very fact that that word came to mind reflects, I think, how contemporary Agnes’ understanding of those actions felt to me. I am sure people did things like that, then as now. I guess what I missed in how they were portrayed was the strangeness of the past. Maybe that’s a fault in me, not the story; you be the judge.
  • This one is really a matter of personal taste: the story is very much a fairy tale (and again, a short one, which makes a full romance arc hard to fit in). The Wild Knight (Gareth) pursues Agnes from the start. He’s a big, beautiful, powerful, hot guy and he wants her. (Why, we don’t really know–they hardly know each other and we know next to nothing about him, another peril of such a short story). I get the appeal of this fantasy, but it was not really mine. The only tension–and to be fair, Cole paced this effectively–was the tension of waiting for him to come claim his prize. There wasn’t any real conflict. And God, I don’t want to be the white lady reader complaining that this was an inter-racial romance but race wasn’t the conflict, why not?, race has to be a Big Deal in a relationship. But I couldn’t really believe that for an early 16th-century Earl, a Moorish wife would be No Big Deal. I could be wrong. For many readers who loved the story, the fairy tale clearly worked; for me, it meant a cardboard hero and lack of conflict.

Cole has a story in the Juneteenth-themed anthology The Brightest Day, which I have TBR, so I’ll give her writing another shot. Otherwise, based on this story–and the fact that some of the subgenres she writes in Aren’t My Thing–I probably wouldn’t bother.

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3 Responses to TBR Challenge: Agnes Moor’s Wild Knight, by Alyssa Cole

  1. rosario001 says:

    I felt much the same way about this one. It left me wanting more, but not in a good way. This felt like the bare bones of a story, with almost no flesh on them. There’s basically no romance here, because you never get any good sense of who the hero is. All we know is that he’s a big Scottish man and that he wants Agnes. That’s it. There’s absolutely no time spent showing why they’re in love. I wish Cole had used the pages and pages of sex scenes (which were boring, because there were basically no feelings involved) to develop the actual romance. And like you, I thought Agnes’ circumstances were really interesting, and I wanted to know more, particularly about her history.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      This story ended up being an example of the problems I have with how romance publishing (both self and traditional) works today. It had so much potential, but nothing is fleshed out–barely any character development (certainly not for the hero), little tension/conflict, no depth to the world-building. The push is on publishing OFTEN, so you get a lot of short, under-baked stories. And if they’re meant as a taster for the author’s other work, well, this didn’t work that way for me, because it didn’t show me what she could do in terms of craft beyond write decent sentences.

      I am left wondering about all the praise this book got. I think lots of readers have a taste for low-conflict fairytales that I don’t share (I’m thinking of all the praise for Grace Draven’s Radiance, which I found boring). So that’s part of it. But I am also remembering how Tumperkin used to talk on her blog about how readers fill in the gaps, and I wonder if people are doing that with a story like this, giving it credit based on the potential it has, and just filling in whatever they want on the blank slate hero, so for them it’s a much more enjoyable and moving reading experience than it was for me. I don’t know. I try not to judge other readers. But in terms of some basic qualities like characterization and plotting, I think this story is quite weak, and I don’t get the love.

      But if a quick hit of fantasy without much depth is where the genre is going, I am not going with it.

      • rosario001 says:

        You know, I think you’re absolutely right about this being a predictable outcome of authors being pushed to have something (anything!) out every few months. I’ve read too many short stories that felt like they were written out of a feeling of obligation, rather than because this was a story the author wanted to tell. I guess they might work in terms of keeping the author’s name ‘out there’, but as you say, authors also talk about them in terms of giving new readers a low-commitment way of trying their writing, and that’s where they really fall down. It’s not just in romance, either. Last year I read a short freebie by Tess Gerritsen which was meant to be part of her Rizzoli and Isles series, and it was pretty bad. People thought it was bad and said so in reviews, to which Gerritsen responded by complaining about how ungrateful people were, and how dare they demand something of a free short story. This even though the stated aim of the experiment was to “give readers just a taste of Jane and Maura” and “entice viewers of the TV show to give the books a try”. Clearly not thinking it through!

        Back to Agnes Moor, the concept of people filling in the gaps does make sense to explain the almost-universal love for this (and the sorts of books that are most popular these days). I just don’t read that way, which might be why I’m reading less and less romance these days, especially romances that focus only on the romantic relationship. I also don’t read tropes in a symbolic way and can’t help but be literal about the implications of character types (what exactly the members of a dominant motorcycle club would have had to do to get to that position) and hero behaviour (“What are you doing just going up to a strange woman and touching her, you creep! That is NOT sexy, it’s harassment!”) , which doesn’t help.

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