Broken Wing, by Judith James
Ms James’ debut novel, Broken Wing is a historical romance set during the Napoleonic wars. The action covers a number of years and countries, mainly following the fate of its hero, Gabriel St Croix.
I first fell for this title because of Kristie(J)’s review. She has a way of making people crave whatever she has loved. However, around the time I got a copy (courtesy of Ms James herself, through a giveaway at Romance Novel TV—if memory serves *wince*) I happened to read this review by our very own Super Librarian. Yikes!!! Conflicting reviews ahoy, both from people whose tastes I trust!
So I put it on the TBR mountain range, knowing that sooner or later I would just grab and read it. Then orannia came up with a nifty little challenge and… here we are.
Here’s the back cover blurb:
Abandoned as a child and raised in a brothel, Gabriel St Croix has never known tenderness, friendship, or affection. Although fluent in sex, he knows nothing of love. Lost and alone inside a nightmare world, all he’s ever wanted is companionship and a place to belong. Hiding physical and emotional scars behind an icy façade, his only relationship is with a young boy he has spent the last five years protecting from the brutal reality of their environment. But all that is about to change. The boy’s family has found him, and they are coming to take him home.
Sarah Munroe blames herself for her brother’s disappearance. When he’s located, safe and unharmed despite where he has been living, Sarah vows to help the man who rescued and protected him in any way she can. With loving patience she helps Gabriel face his demons and teaches him to trust in friendship and love. But when the past catches up with him, Gabriel must face it on his own.
Becoming a mercenary pirate and a professional gambler, Gabriel travels to London, France and the Barbary Coast, in a desperate attempt to find Sarah again and all he knows of love. On the way, however, he will discover the most dangerous journey, and the greatest gamble of all, is within the darkest reaches of his own heart.
I must say that the first two paragraphs are pretty close to the first few chapters. The last sentence of the second and the entire third paragraph are… well, misleading is the best I can say.
This novel feels much like one of those beloved sagas of the late 80s, and while it really doesn’t cover all that many years, the scope is such that it feels as if it should span decades. There is a lot of telling rather than showing, probably because there is comparatively little dialogue and a little too much introspection.
While I found Gabriel’s character compelling, there was a tad too much there—too much damage, too much angst—and in the last hundred or so pages he started to seriously annoy me with it. He is indeed an unusual hero, and, particularly in the first half of the book, I enjoyed the tension of not knowing whether or not he was truly salvable.
Please note that I didn’t say “redeemable” because, as far as I’m concerned, he was never in need of redemption. But there is something broken in him, and for quite a while it’s not clear whether he’ll be able to overcome it, or live with it.
Sarah’s introduction (first paragraph, Chapter 1) has what has become a favorite description for me:
“It was widely rumored since that she dressed as a man, consorted with pirates, and counted among her numerous lovers her own half brother, Ross. All but the last charge were true.”
Sadly, she didn’t live up to it. I liked her well enough, but I felt her to be much less rounded than, not only Gabriel but some of the secondary characters. Indeed, for the first half of the novel I thought that both her brother Ross and their cousin Davey had more depth (even if they had a fraction of the page space) than she did.
My main problem came with the excessive repetition. A character would think something once, and a few paragraphs later, think the same thing again. And a chapter later, again—almost verbatim. For example, Sarah “worried that what he needed was a friend, not a lover, and feared that he would come to see her as another in a long line of people who had used him” something like four or five times in a couple of chapters.
Still, I was intrigued enough by the characters—mainly, as I said, Gabriel—, or rather, their circumstances, to continue reading and then…
Yup. Totally and completely unable to trudge on.
See, this book is just a bit over four hundred pages long, but at a point just past two thirds, I felt closure. It wasn’t perfect, but—as far as I’m concerned—the internal conflict separating Gabriel and Sarah had been solved and the external conflict wasn’t momentous, important, big enough to keep two reasonable adults apart.
As you can imagine, I was not a happy camper when that turned out to be exactly what happened. Still, I soldiered on for some fifty or so pages more, growing ever more impatient with the story. At that point I put the book aside for the time being, with the intention of picking it up a week or two later… which didn’t happen because I left for DC and forgot the book in Florida *wince*
I have since finished Broken Wing and found myself struggling to write a review that did my feelings justice, without spoiling the novel for other readers (I am going to discuss more of my issues with the novel over at orannia’s blog—she will host a discussion starting on July 31st), but my two main problems with it were a) detachment, and b) telling instead of showing.
What I mean by detachment is that I mostly felt like an observer, never very much invested in any of the characters. The only real exception to this was, interestingly, in the prologue, and in some letters found late in the second third of the book— unsurprisingly, both of these instances involve Gabriel and only Gabriel. Since I mainly read for the characters, regardless of genre, this was disappointing for me.
As for the telling, it appears in two forms. First, as I mentioned, there’s a helluva lot of introspection, during which the characters examine everything that has happened to them before (thereby telling the reader), over and over and over again. The other form of telling is when long stretches of action—in one case a full year—are narrated in the course of a handful of pages, through a succession of paragraphs that basically say, “this happened, and then this other thing, and so they decided to do this, and they did it, and then…”
In the end, because there were some intriguing aspects in the book—the hero’s background, for example; some fighting scenes late in the novel, and a few other bits, including the sheer scope of the story—the grade turned out to be higher than all my griping may make it seem.
Broken Wing gets a 6.5 out of 10 (and I’ll duck from Kristie(J)’s wrath behind Wendy)
As part of the Broken Wing Challenge, I’ve decided to add links to my fellow… erm… brave knights (damsels?)’reviews. So far we have: