The King's Viper: Author's Comments
He had to laugh at himself then, realizing that a naïve girl had instinctively managed to undermine all his bitter defenses. They were crossing a marshy patch in a river-valley when he discovered just how crumbled his fortifications were. From behind a patch of willow two swans flew low overhead, white wings beating, with a noise like the thrumming of a windmill’s sails. Eloise turned to him then with a smile so guileless and joyful that without thinking he responded with one of his one. He clamped down on it in a moment, but he was too late. Through that chink in his armor her smile flew to burst warmly in his heart.
stopped in his tracks then, unable to walk for a moment. His stomach
lurched. Eloise walked on ahead, unaware of the effect she’d
no no no! he told
himself, horrified but utterly in vain. Not now, after all
these years. Not now, and not her. Not the King’s betrothed!
The Plot: Non-supernatural, but in a medieval fantasy setting.
The novel starts with Lady Eloise, sole heir of the earldom of the Isle of Venn, being married to Baron Severin de Meynard. It's clear that this is considered a best-solution-in-unfortunate-circumstances match, to which she submits reluctantly. As they consummate the marriage Eloise breaks down in tears.
Most of the rest of the story is told in flashback, set nine months previously:
When Eloise becomes betrothed to King Arnauld of Ystria, she looks forward to a life of luxury and status at the royal court. Chaperoned by Severin de Meynard, the King's own right-hand-man and feared assassin, she sets out on a ship bound for the mainland and her wedding. However, a storm shipwrecks them on the coast of Mendea, a hostile country, and Severin decides they are going to have to make their way home on foot, incognito, through hundreds of miles of enemy territory. Severin has a reputation for amoral ruthlessness that is almost entirely deserved ... yet Eloise discovers over the ensuing weeks that there's more to him than that. Forced to trust her life to him, she finds herself falling in love. And Severin's initial disdain for the pretty noblewoman in his charge gives way to deeper and more dangerous feelings.
Dangerous, because if Eloise and Severin fail to control their growing attraction to one other—if she returns to the King no longer a virgin—then they will both be executed. Yet their passion threatens to be far stronger than their self-control. Beset by the enemies and obstacles that dog their journey, Severin and Eloise are torn between duty and their burning need for one another. Severin finally makes the fateful choice: to return her to the King and give her up forever. They must both live with the consequences and endure bitter sacrifice, though not even Severin forsees what fate has in store for them in the end.
Sexual Themes: straight, romantic, forbidden desire, anal
Notes: The King's Viper was my second e-publication for Ellora's Cave, and a bit of a contrast to the first, which was a 10K contemporary gangbang. At 53,000 words it's a short novel, it has a fantasy setting and it's an erotic romance. Much of the eroticism revolves around the two main characters not being allowed to have sex with each other, and their struggle to overcome the obstacles between them as they grow to recognise their mutual need.
My take on romance is a bit idiosyncratic. I'm not actually a huge fan of the genre. Communication failures, secret babies, mistaken identities, heroines who are too stupid to realise they are in love, and many of the other standard tropes leave me cold at best and irritated at worst. So when I write romance, I write the stuff I like - which means that the hero and heroine are smart and self-aware and are going to prove their love through suffering for each other. In The King's Viper they go through hell - they endure a shipwreck, hunger, hard labour, attacks by assorted third parties, icy cold rivers, imprisonment and torture both mental and physical. All in order to reach that Happy Ever After.
Oh - and here's another big theme in my romance writing: the hero and heroine want each other but aren't allowed to do it - because it'll get them killed. I just love all that sexual frustration!
* * *The setting of the novel is a kind of medieval Southern Europe (the climate is Mediterranean), but with significant differences. I had a plot that was highly specific with regard to geography (for example, the river crossing near the end, and the Isle of Venn being a dependent realm of the main kingdom) and I couldn't see any way of shoehorning that into real geography and history. If it helps, think of Ystria as being a bit Germanic, Mendea being a bit French and Boscia being sort of Spanish. Venn is more like Jersey than Britain, though.
The nations share a monotheistic religion that functions in a similar way to the historic Catholic Church. I had a lot of fun talking about God and the Saints ... and only later casually revealing that God's name is "Mithras." In real life, of course, Mithraism was one of the leading contenders for Official Religion of the Roman Empire, going toe-to-toe with early Christianity. Christianity won out because it had a broader base of appeal - women and slaves could have a stake in conversion - but in many ways the two were similar and had some amusing tropes in common, like a saviour-god born of a virgin at midwinter.
Because of the fantasy setting, I could mess around as I wished with social mores. Whilst I am in no way a moral relativist, I recognise of course that ethics and law do vary from society to society depending upon technological and economic factors among other things, and I feel slightly let down by fantasy worlds in which everyone thinks like a 21st-Century liberal in all the important ways. In this fictional world the social hierarchy is rigid and based on blood relationships and inheritance, not merit. One of the worst possible things you can do is kill an Only Child. Not because it's murder, or infanticide, but because it destroys a bloodline.
* * *Chapter 4: the law Eloise quotes: “It’s against the law to conscript a man in his first year of marriage,” is nicked from the ancient Israelites, as it comes straight out of the Old Testament. And there, as in my novel, it has nothing to do with romance or compassion - it's about optimising breeding potential and making sure no precious masculine bloodline is cut off.
The custom of a "left handed" or morganatic marriage (literally, the couple hold left hands during the ceremony instead of right hands) is one in which the children count as legitimate but no title or property rights are conferred by either husband or wife upon their spouse (or any subsequent offspring, though I messed about with that clause). In medieval times it was usually invoked when a prince of royal status married a commoner or a member of the lesser nobility.
Origins and Writing:
The roots of this novel are old - I started writing it back when I was working for Black Lace. In those days I did not Do Romance (in fact it was slightly discouraged at BL because there had to be sexual action every few thousand words), and didn't forsee any market for it. I was just seized by the story and had to start writing it. A few scenes further in, I put it aside as deadlines loomed, and left it on a low simmer on the back burner of my mind. Only years later did I pick up the manuscript and start writing with the intention of getting it finished.
I originally saw it as a novella, very episodic and disconnected, with an abstract background. But as I wrote it grew, and the gaps began to fill in. It ended up as a short novel. I didn't expand it all the way to full length because that would have meant bringing in subplots and secondary characters, and I wanted to keep it lean and focused upon my two heroes. I'm very pleased and grateful that e-publishing allows a writer as much leeway as they need in deciding book lengths!
The very first scene that came to me was the one in the aftermath of the shipwreck, where a bruised and exhausted Severin is stumbling along the beach at dawn, searching for Eloise's body. It was the vision that everything else hung off. I wrote out of story order, which is almost unheard-of for me. Normally I start at the beginning and work through to the end, but with this I wrote whichever scene was burning my brain the fiercest. Other 'early' scenes included the argument in the ravine where Severin tells Eloise that she won't be crowned queen after all, and the inn scene leading up to them kissing for the first time, and the one where Severin is officially forgiven by the King.
Quite late on - only after I decided to try offering it to Ellora's Cave, in fact - I wrote the whole of Chapter One , which puts the rest of the novel into flashback. I'd learned from my experience writing Wildwood for Black Lace, to kick off a novel with action, sex, and momentum - and to let the timeline go hang if necessary!
I actually had a lot of fun writing Chapter One: the challenge was to create a sex scene full of tension and fear that, upon first reading, creates the impression that Eloise dislikes and dreads her new husband, and that he is a frightening and unpleasant man who treats her without any gentleness or sympathy. After finishing the book, however, it had to be possible to re-read the opening chapter in a completely different light, making sense of all Eloise's screwed-up emotions, as the whole (and rather more complex) picture is revealed. (I'm not saying that Severin behaved perfectly, by the way, but only that he was trying his best in what were fantastically difficult circumstances.)
PHTOOOM - that's the sound of a yet another semicolon being detonated. Ellora's Cave is an American imprint and has strict grammatical standards. It transpires that Americans barely use semicolons and don't use colons in fiction at all - so my poor manuscript took a major kicking from the Punctuation Police! PHTOOOM. There goes another ... and another ... and another...
* * *
Severin is based in a general way on a number of men in movies and books. You know the sort: the cynical, self-confident, ruthless character with a goatee beard who has more drive and smarts than everyone else in the story put together, and regards the rest of the world with scathing disdain. Yes, that's right - the villain. I wanted to write a romance about a villain.
And if that makes no sense to you, read my blog post on beards here.
More specifically, he's inspired by Lord Edmund Blackadder in the second (Elizabethan) series of Blackadder. Which must be a first for the romance genre...
(But see my Ghastly Confession, below.)
"Severin" as a name is not based on Severus Snape , as you might have assumed (although Snape is a jolly good villain/anti-hero with a redemptive secret). It's a misremembering of Severian, the torturer, from Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun series.
* * *My hero is not a nice man. I mean, really. Neither by modern real-life standards - he's a cold-blooded murderer of, among others, a teenager who was only trying to resist arrest - nor by the standards of the society he belongs to: he kills heirs, and gives not a crap for the social order with the exception of the King himself. So pretty much everybody hates him. I was actually not sure he'd get past the sensibilities of the Ellora's Cave editors, but they didn't object - not even to the killing scenes. It remains to be seen if my readers are as tolerant.
The key to Severin's character is that his head rules his heart. He thinks and acts analytically, not emotionally - and it comes as a hell of shock to him when both lust and love start affecting his judgment. He's not entirely unsympathetic though (I hope!). He's determined and competent and incredibly brave. He doesn't care what people think of him and acts with genuine independence and self-will. He'd sacrifice himself for Eloise without hesitation. He allows her space to prove all her virtues, and has the generosity of spirit to recognise them. He's wholeheartedly loyal to his King - to a fault. And he does have a firm moral standpoint, even if that standpoint is shared by nobody else - to whit, that anything that preserves Arnauld as King of Ystria is a good thing, since Arnauld is a just and good ruler. He's an idealist of a kind ... the dangerous kind, admittedly. An idealist in pain.
He is drawn, hugely unwillingly, to Eloise because of her openness, her courage and because she looks up to him, something which almost no one else does. On some level, despite his ferocious disdain for the world's opinion of him, he must feel a need to be recognised as one of the good guys. But the conflict between his loyalty to the King and his feelings for her, which are the only two positives in his life, almost destroys him. The paradox is that it’s Eloise’s drawing out of his long-buried selfishness – his need for love - that ultimately redeems him from his inhumanity. It's Eloise who saves him from himself.
Another paradox: it's only because he has learned to trust Eloise that he feels able to betray her. If she'd been a weaker woman he would not have dared return her to the King.
Severin breaks another romance genre convention: he's involved with another woman when he embarks on his affair with Eloise, though it's not a love-relationship ("Of course not," he says, when Eloise asks if he's in love).
* * *
Okay, so what happens when he walks away from Eloise, knowing that he loves her, and goes back to Hilde? I believe it's one of the Rules of Romance that once the hero has met the heroine, he must never Stick It In and Jiggle It About a Bit with any other woman. But I had to ask that question - not least because Eloise is bright enough to ask the question too. Hilde uses that to try and trap Eloise into betraying herself and Severin, and it comes close to working. Jealousy is a powerful instinct, unless mastered. So as the author I had to bring the subject up. There's no definitive answer in the novel though, and Eloise doesn't ask him before the closing curtain. Frankly, if she'd brought it up on their wedding night, after all they'd been through, it would have looked incredibly petty. I'm prepared to go further: I think Eloise never asks him. I think she's grown up enough, through all she's suffered, to know it doesn't matter.
Do I know the answer? Of course. If you want the truth ... Severin tries to fuck Hilde but can't get it up. He just doesn't want her any more. He blames exhaustion and trauma, and by the next day it's no longer an issue because he's been taken away for torture.
* * *
There is an undercurrent of possible homoeroticism in the Severin/Arnauld relationship that I intend to leave ambiguous. Eloise half-recognises it.
Eloise started off as "Heloise" but then I made Severin's mistress "Hilde" and I couldn't have two "H" names for his competing sexual partners. Heloise is a medieval romantic/tragic icon.
Eloise is young - at "less than twenty" she's a lot younger than Severin, who's around thirty. This is key: she's a Daddy's Girl with a marked desire for fatherly/male approval and part of the reason she gels so well with Severin is because she casts him in the mentor/protector role. She starts the story as an obedient, sensible daughter from a kindly and somewhat sheltered home, and there's no hint of rebelliousness about her. She's bright but politically naive. She becomes betrothed to Arnauld because it is expected of her and it's an honour for her family, but she has no personal objections. If everything had gone according to plan, she would certainly have fallen in love with Arnauld after their marriage. She's empathic and compassionate - the opposite of Severin - and not nearly as much of a snob as she ought to be, given her social station.
There's more to her than that, though. She has an undiscovered steely core - one that allows her to endure all the privations of their journey, and to bear a broken heart in order to protect the man she loves ... even after he has abandoned her. She's spontaneous, grounded and humane, though her innocence is chipped away by the events of the novel and she has to grow up rapidly. She also has a really high sex-drive. It's Eloise who jumps Severin in the end, not the other way round.
She's also the only person - apart from the King - who ever sees through Severin's harsh exterior persona ... though that's more by luck than judgment. She trusts him because it makes her feel safer to believe he is trustworthy. She wants him to be a good guy, underneath all that bad reputation, because she's attracted to him. There's no indication, as far as the wider world sees it, that he does have a better side, but she just happens to strike gold.
When he decides that they must be parted, Eloise submits to his authority. She has a clear idea of the horrible consequences that will ensue if she betrays him in turn, out of hurt or anger or despair. It's her rock-solid determination to live up to Severin's trust that keeps her going:
I made my choice. It doesn’t matter whether he loves me or not. I love him, and I will not betray him.
So there you go: hard as nails. I'm not much of a one for girly, over-emotional heroines. Even when they are madly in love.
And ... a Ghastly Confession:
This is a tad embarrassing. All I can say is that it was completely unintentional. I make a point of never ever using a real person that I know, as a character in my fiction. That would be unethical and intrusive. However, whilst I was doing the last proofing read-through of the manuscript and it was WAY too late to change anything, it struck me (with the gentle subtlety of a brick between the eyes), that I may have messed up this time. Anyone who knows me well in real life could make a pretty solid-looking case for the appearance and character of Severin being based (in an exaggerated and highly romanticised manner, of course) upon someone I actually know quite well.
I swear that this was totally unconscious on my part.
However, that will probably not stop his wife kicking my ass when she reads the book.