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.