Previously, I started a comparison of romance novels with a post about Nora Roberts’ debut novel, Irish Thoroughbred. This week, I’ll look at a more recent release from Roberts, Dark Witch.
Quick refresher for why I picked these two books – the plots are somewhat similar as in both books an isolated young adult moves to another country (Ireland to America and America to Ireland, respectively) to live with family, ends up working with horses, and falls in love with her employer.
Dark Witch was published in November of last year, 32 years after Roberts’ debut, and was her fourth book published that year. It is the first in the Cousins O’Dwyer Trilogy; the second came out in March 2014 and the final installment is due out this November. As with my post in Part One, I will break down the comparison by the heroine, the man, and the romance/sex.
Iona Sheehan, of an indeterminate age, leaves her life in the States behind to live in Ireland and get to know her distant cousins. She has blonde hair that she cut into a short pixie style just before she left for Ireland and is described as being cute, short (5’ 3”), and slim with the body of a teenaged boy. To make up for her short stature, she wears heels and she prefers to wear bright colours.
Iona’s parents are alive but emotionally distant as are her grandparents except for her beloved Nan, her mother’s mother, who shared the family history and the twist in Dark Witch’s plot. The twist in Dark Witch is a centuries-old magical feud that ties the cousins together against an evil, seductive force named Cabhan that wants to consume their power. Iona has felt different, vaguely aware of her power, her whole life and wants to find herself in Ireland.
As with all her novels, Roberts peppers small examples of her characters’ idiosyncrasies. Iona babbles when she is nervous and, I can’t believe this is supposed to be endearing, flutters her hands. On the plus side, she doesn’t hide her feelings but just jumps right in to everything she tries, professionally and personally, including a relationship with Boyle McGrath.
I have no clue why Iona is attracted to Boyle. When she first meets him, Iona describes Boyle as a cowboy, pirate, and wild tribal horseman and compares him to the horse he is riding. He has caramel hair and gold/green eyes, a rawboned face, a strong jaw and stubborn mouth and a thin scar through his eyebrow. And he has that sexiest of attributes, a temper: “He’s all tough and cranky.” As in Irish Thoroughbred, Roberts uses Boyle’s relationship with horses to show his character – the horses in his stable are well treated boosting him in Iona’s estimation, and he gets into a physical fight with the abusive previous owner of one of his horses to protect it from going back under the other man’s care (the horse’s name is Darling, seriously).
But for all the buildup of Boyle’s attractiveness, I found him so boring and reserved. In many ways, I saw this relationship as a reversal of Travis and Adelia in Irish Thoroughbred. Like Adelia, Boyle is skittish about the romantic attention and Iona enjoys overwhelming him and watching him struggle with his attraction. In one instance, Boyle is leaving but turns back to come kiss her, which pleases Iona, “The reluctance in it only added a sexy edge.”
Boyle’s reservation is further highlighted when Iona suggests they have sex. Boyle gives several excuses to put off a night together, even though he imagines what it would be like, but Iona only jokes about his discomfort. “‘You want dinner first.’ Her smile perked up when she clearly saw he didn’t get the joke. ‘That’s fine…’” Boyle states they will go out for dinner in his “own time.” He is so hesitant it is almost like the virginal heroines of romance novels of the ’80s. When Iona shares the exchange with her cousin Branna, the tale is met with sarcastic surprise, but also highlights why I had a hard time feeling anything for this couple:
Too happy to be dampened, Iona laughed. “It’s a big step up from grunting at me. He thinks I’m a puzzle, can you imagine? I mean, seriously, who couldn’t figure me out? I’m as simple as they come.”
Ugh. This is where I stopped taking notes (on page 178 of 342). She is simple and he grunts and this is supposed to make me invested in their relationship? There really isn’t much depth to this relationship, just open spaces with lightning touching down occasionally.
The view of the romance is one sided in the beginning with Iona being impressed by Boyle’s looks and fluttering her hands every time she talks about him. Their first kiss comes when he is picking her up to move her to her cousin’s home. She is practicing magick (as Roberts spells it to indicate we are to take this stuff as seriously as the characters; it’s for realzies magick) and he kisses her to shut her up: “‘You talk to bloody much.’ With that, he gave her a yank…And took her mouth like a man starving for it.” Just like Travis years ago, Boyle uses sexual contact as a way to make his love interest stop speaking.
The sex comes after Iona is attacked by the evil sorcerer Cabhan in the form of a wolf. She and Boyle are together and fight side-by-side; Boyle supporting Iona as she uses magick to create a wall of fire and throw balls of fire at Cabhan. Once they safe and back at Boyle’s place, they have fast, slightly awkward, sex.
The sex is where Dark Witch differs from Irish Thoroughbred the most. Roberts includes some of the first-time lovers fumbling, which matches the characters’ personalities as well, but once they are naked they become Superlovers having the best sex ever. It is described in detail, not with slang or erotic language, but clearly – hands here, mouth there, and thrust – but Roberts includes the emotions tied to the actions, too. I think when Roberts first started writing, these scenes would have been considered the stuff of erotic literature, similar to Fifty Shades of Grey territory now – the stuff in Dark Witch wouldn’t be found under general romance in the ’80s. It isn’t badly written, though the starlight in their hair and eyes get a little eye-rollie.
As for marriage, this is where the books differ as well as it isn’t forced on the couple but instead is the reward at the end of the book after overcoming all obstacles. In Dark Witch, in addition to the centuries-old curse she has to overcome, Iona overhears Boyle complain about how she pushed herself into his life and he needs some space. It is a misunderstanding, which he regrets but won’t apologize for at first, so she gives him his space. It doesn’t last long, though, as their dealings with Cabhan force Boyle to speed up his process and reconcile with Iona before their big battle. After the final (sort of) battle with Cabhan, in which Iona and Boyle risk their lives to save each other, Boyle confesses his love and they get engaged. As Iona puts it, “Love…given freely, taken willingly. There was no stronger magick.”
I haven’t really discussed the magick storyline, mostly because it was silly – the wording, the plot holes, the fact that it was supposed to be a main plot point but doesn’t get resolved properly. Roberts’ has written several series or interrelated novels (19 including the Cousins O’Dwyer Trilogy) and of the ones I’ve read there is a storyline that flows through each book before being fully resolved in the final installment, but it isn’t as integral to the main character as it is in Dark Witch. I felt endlessly frustrated by the conclusion of this novel, so much so that I have no interest in picking up the installment because it will happen again.
Between the two novels, despite its outdated relationship dynamic, I preferred Irish Thoroughbred. The lower page count made putting up with its more grating aspects easier and it really was a product of its time. Dark Witch was a disappointment and took for.ever. to read (maybe I don’t like magic in any form). I usually enjoy the mindless entertainment of a Nora Roberts romance – she isn’t the queen of the genre for no reason – but this one was not worth the time.
What is worth the time is an interview with Roberts that I found while researching her work for these posts. She talks about her decades as a romance writer, how things have changed and how they have stayed the same. It is a great read and gives a great taste of the woman behind the amazing writing success.