I went into this book with some expectations, having heard a bit about how controversial it is. Words like "offensive" and "forced seduction" were bandied about a lot, and so I thought Claiming the Courtesan would test the limits of the genre in a way that's challenging and provocative, or, at the very least, interesting. How very wrong I was. I really really really didn't like this book. I couldn't decide if it was simply dated or if the bodice ripper 80s feel was part of a more deliberate attempt to subvert and disturb. I'm guessing the latter was the intent, but the book failed so horribly at it that the former was the case. I thought the whole thing was just plain crazy, and not in a good way.
Synopsis: Verity Ashton, alias Soraya, is the coolest courtesan out there. All the randy dukes and viscounts and even plain misters are fighting and killing themselves over her. After six years of waiting, Justin, the Duke of Kylemore has her for his own. When the story starts, they've been together for a year, and Verity, per the agreements of her contract with him, is terminating their relationship. Since she's worried he'll put up a fuss, she sneaks off without telling him to start her new life as a fake widow living in the country, doing good works. Soraya is dead and gone to her. The Duke, so that we can have a story, goes crazy, chases after her, catches her, and carts her off to the highlands so that he can wreck his vengeance and have his wicked way with her a million bazillion times. And that's exactly what he does - maybe my count is a bit off, but it certainly seemed like all they do is boink.
The book hints at the possibility of the duke's madness, through the age old fear that since his father was crazy, maybe he could be too. This could have been interesting in a cool and edgy way, and I think the book aspires towards a gothic feel in this sense, but its reach far exceeds its grasp. Of course Justin's not really crazy - he can't be the dashing hero of the romance if he were. But to me the guy is nuts - as in his character is an incoherent babbling mess of extreme emotions that are never examined or explored. He's obsessed! He's angry! He's sad! He's ashamed! He's angry! He's still obsessed! His only consistency is that he's horny. All the time. I couldn't care less for Justin's supposed remorse and shame after each time he rapes Verity. Nor is his obsession with her remotely sexy. If this kind of schizophrenia isn't bad enough, the book manages to be boring as well. Schizoid and dry as dust? Who knew such a combination was even possible. The prose is florid, over exaggerated, clunky, awkward, and repetitive.
The redundancy is thanks to Verity as well, who goes on and on about how she hates Justin. She tries to resist him, but he sure can give her the best sex of her life, or make her fly around in the stars or whatever this author calls it. The sex scenes were torture to read - not because half of them are rape, but because they're so boring. So I couldn't even muster up any outrage or sympathy on Verity's behalf. The situation had a lot of potential, but rather than a complex exploration of Justin's actions and their repercussions, all I got was melodrama. Verity and Justin are a couple of cardboard cut outs indulging in erratic outbursts, all of which is supposed to pass for powerful emotion.
The first half is about the hero and heroine having sex then berating themselves and the other for it afterwards, then going at it again, then berating each other again... you get the drill. This is the "controversial" part I assume. As detailed above, that didn't work for me, not because it was offensive, but because it was boring and didn't make any sense. The book only goes downhill from there when the author tries to convince me that Verity and Justine are falling in love with each other. Cue every cliché you can imagine. The plot was tired and predictable. Verity and Justin each have their sob stories. By invoking the old formula, even if the author's intent was to subvert it, she only manages to entrench her story all the more solidly in the tedium of two transparent characters who aren't nearly as evil/tough as they're advertised. In this respect, the book is one big lie. Justin isn't ruthless and cold. He's a tortured soul. He just needs some TLC. And the big "revelation" of his dark, sad, terrible childhood - it was nothing! I couldn't believe that was what all the fuss was about, particularly since this "big secret" was practically spelled out for us early on. So Justin just seemed like a big baby to me. I couldn't take him seriously at all.
Verity is even worse though. She's a courtesan, right? But so that the author can pussyfoot around this scandalous detail, she gives Verity a split personality disorder. There's Soraya the whore and Verity the Madonna. This supposed "conflict" is never more than superficially addressed, and the whole book is drawn according to a garish black and white divide. Verity is your typical harebrained martyr. She only started out on her path of sin in order to save her brother and sister. Campbell goes so far as to actually recover Verity's long lost virginity. I kid you not. As Verity, she goes from acting the virgin to becoming a pseudo-virgin. Campbell actually did that. She actually went there and has the hero rejoicing in how sweet and wonderful and innocent Verity is when he finds out she's only had three lovers, including him. As part of her goodness, she has to play the ministering angel to the duke's tortured rake act - he's a suffering fellow creature. She just can't say no to him! He has nightmares, and she heals and comforts him after he rapes her. Because she loves him. Don't ask me to try and understand the logic of that. The book never explores their relationship. It just goes on and on about a deep, awesome "connection" between the two of them, without ever venturing to demonstrate what this "connection" might be exactly - besides flying through the stars in climaxes from heaven, that is.
Soon after Verity thinks she loves Justin, she decides this means she has to run away. She's not too bright, remember. She runs off into the wilderness (we're supposed to believe that this is a sign of her courage.) Her flight causes Justin to have his random epiphany that maybe he shouldn't have kidnapped and raped her, and he's so, so sorry, he hates himself, he's evil, what has he done! He has to save her from herself because she could die out in the wilds of Scotland. Because she is stupid, she almost does, and falls off a cliff. Yep. It's awesome. Less awesome is the fact that he manages to save her and pull her to safety, not only because her demise would mean the end of the book, but also because the author manages to make this terrifying brush with death drag on at a torturously slow, stumbling pace.
The rest of the book involves endless vacillations on the parts of Verity and Justin. He bends over backwards in his remorse, agonizing over how she could never love him after what he did to her, (you think?) all while still wanting to shag her brains out. He will be good and let her go though (this is supposed to make me like him I guess.) As for Verity, she loves him, but knows that it would never work out because he's a duke and she's a whore and his loving her will destroy him (whatever that means.) So she has to give him up. She does this over and over again, saying she has to leave him, then hunting him down again so that she can tell him again that she has to leave him, WHILE NEVER ACTUALLY LEAVING HIM.
This book is neither daring nor different. It's the same old story told badly. And I couldn't even begin to formulate an opinion on the book's "controversial" nature or lack thereof re: rape/forced seduction, because the plot is executed so shoddily that I have nothing to work with. If you want to read a true redemption/healing story, I'd recommend Beau Crusoe. The hero has nightmares in that book as well, and madness is an issue too, but Beau Crusoe depicts real emotions and believable characters, with beautiful writing thrown into the bargain - none of which can be found in Claiming the Courtesan.