Review: Savage Thunder, by Johanna Lindsey

Johanna Lindsey’s backlist went on sale in digital, and I bought Savage Thunder (first published in 1989 by Avon), drawn, as anyone must be, by the original Fabio cover. Savage Thunder is the second book in Lindsay’s Wyoming Trilogy, preceded by Brave the Wild Wind (1980) and followed by Angel (1992). It opens on Callan Ranch, in the Wyoming Territory in 1878, with the hero, Colt Thunder, being whipped by a sadistic ranch hand for daring to court local rich girl Jenny Callan. Colt’s crime was passing as white, when in reality he is a “half-breed”: his mother was Cheyenne and his father white. Colt, born White Thunder, was raised by his mother in the Northern Plains to be a “full-fledged Cheyenne warrior”, but three years ago had come to live with his half-sister Jessie (the heroine of Brave the Wild Wind) who “took it upon herself to turn him into a white man.” This is a great opening chapter — much more harrowingly violent than I’m used to in historical romance, with an exciting last-minute rescue (by a woman!) — and it sets up Colt’s distrust of white women, which will be a major barrier to his relationship with the heroine.

The second chapter is equally good. In Cheshire, England, Jocelyn Fleming, the Duchess of Eaton is attending to her much older dying husband. Jocelyn and the ailing Duke had a platonic but loving relationship, more father-daughter or patient-nurse than husband-wife. With his dying breath, the Duke convinces nineteen year old Jocelyn she must leave England until she comes of age, to avoid becoming a victim of his scheming cousins. I have two things to say about this chapter: (1) there is more plot in chapter two of Savage Thunder than in most 300 page historical romances published today, and (2) the heroine is a virgin widow!

In one of many long descriptive passages which stop the action dead in this book, the duke takes several minutes off from active dying to ponder Jocelyn’s looks: “coloring was too flamboyant for the ton, her red hair too bright, like a bursting flame, her lime-green eyes too unusual in their paleness, and much too expressive. … Nor did she conform with other redheads, as there wasn’t a single freckle on her flawless ivory skin, skin so pale it was nearly translucent.” She has a “stubborn lift to her chin”, she’s “a touch over average in height”, “she had always been an active girl …  which would account for the narrow slimness of her shape.” And she had lost weight in the past month…”. This is a pretty classic move in romance, especially older romances: describe the heroine in terms that a contemporary white Western reader would identify as the epitome of beauty (skinny, athletic, tall), which serves both to make the heroine seem gorgeous, but at the same time sympathetic, because she fails to meet the beauty standards of her own time. It’s also a nice way to identify the hero, especially if, as in other books, he’s a member of her same social class: he’s the only guy (or one of the few, if he has a rival) who sees her beauty.

Chapter Three is set three years later. Jocelyn and her small army of servants have been traveling the world, and are now in the Arizona Territory. They’ve managed to elude “John Longnose” the hired gun who is always just one step behind. Longnose is, naturally, sadistic. Having been fired by the duke’s cousins for failing to retrieve Jocelyn before she came of age, now “he was going to kill that red-haired bitch for the pleasure of it.” Jocelyn’s immediate concern, other than making it to California where her ship, the Jocel, is waiting, is to have sex. Her main worry is that her new husband — whomever that ends up being — not be made aware of her late husband’s “affliction”, and that her late husband’s name not be “blackened with ugly gossip.” Jocelyn considered having a doctor do it, but “the thought of instruments being poked inside her to cut her membrane left her shuddering with distaste.” Encouraged by Vanessa, who advised that “A woman has needs every bit as strong as a man’s,” Jocelyn also thinks that “It’s time to see what the fuss is all about.” I wondered if there was also an inheritance problem with unconsummated marriage, but I don’t recall anything being said about that in the book.

A shootout with Longnose on a narrow pass leads to Jocelyn’s carriage being upended and her being rescued by a man with a “deep lazy drawl”, long straight black hair, and deeply bronzed hairless skin. “His strangeness unnerved her”, but she’s immediately attracted to him. Jocelyn decides pretty much then and there that she will take this handsome stranger as her lover.  He wants her right back, even though “he hadn’t been attracted to her kind in years.”

The conceit of this novel is that Jocelyn is unaware of racial prejudice, because she is from England:

“I was born in this country, but folks got a different name for me, lady. I’m a half-breed.”

“How interesting,” she said, aware his tone had turned bitter again, but choosing to ignore it. “It sounds like something to do with stock and crossbreeding. What does it have to do with people?”

He stared at her a moment as if she were crazy; then he swore under his breath before snarling, “What the hell do you think it has to do with people? It means I’m only half-white.”

His tone gave her pause, but still she asked, “And the other half?”

Again he gave her  a look that said she ought to be locked up for the safety of others. “Indian,” he bit out. “Cheyenne, in my case. And if that doesn’t set you back on your toes, it ought to.”

“Why?”

“Christ, woman, you ought to learn something about a country before you visit it!”

“But I always do,” she replied, only slightly wary that he had shouted at her. “I know a good deal about this one.”

“Then you must have missed the part about Indians and white being sworn enemies,” he sneered. “Ask in the next town you come to. They’ll give you an earful about why you shouldn’t be standing here talking to me.”

“If you have something against whites, as you call them, it hasn’t anything to do with me, does it?” she replied, undaunted. “I’m not your enemy, sir. Good Lord, how could you even insinuate that I might be, when I feel nothing but gratitude for your timely assistance?”

I’m sure I don’t need to comment on the ridiculousness of the idea that Jocelyn is somehow immune to the social prejudices of her day, or that Colt, who is himself the product of a consensual relationship between a white man and an Indian woman, and whose “half-breed” sister is happily married to a white man, is not aware of the complexities of Anglo-Indian interactions. Interestingly, Colt is described as acting white when he cuts his hair and puts on a suit, yet the fact that he has internalized anti-Indian racist attitudes passes without comment. More surprisingly, as this exchange shows, the narrative skirts perilously close to painting Colt as himself a racist (a “reverse racist” in today’s right wing lingo). Several times, Jocelyn accuses Colt of bringing his problems on himself by “flaunting his heritage,” an accusation which the text doesn’t fully rebut. And his half-sister Jessie agrees: he just has to get over his anger and self-loathing and realize he really is good enough to overcome his “heritage” and deserve the love of a pure white woman.

The narrative describes (stereotypes of) race and ethnicity as determinants of character and action over and over, So, for example: “Some countries bred men more aggressive than others, or at least more bold in their desires.” And “Getting a Mexican to agree to kill a woman was nearly impossible.” In her party are Philippe Marivaux, “the temperamental French chef” and Babette, the slutty French maid. There was a “sheikh whats-his-name” whose amorous attentions Jocelyn dodged in Morocco. The author takes pains to invoke positive stereotypes of Indians when describing Colt: “so damn proud”, “defiantly erect”, “the fierce pride of the Indian.” She  uses terms reserved for Indians to describe depraved white characters, like Colt’s attacker in the first chapter (“if any man looked like a savage, Pratt did”, “What you did here is the lowest kind of savagery, fit only for animals.”).

Even when she invokes a negative stereotype in relation to Colt, she attempts to use Colt’s status as hero to turn it into something romantic: “brave, lethal and dangerous, the savage wildness of the Injun unleashed, striking fear into the hearts of civilized men.” Same for their first sexual encounter (one of only two in the book, by the way): Jocelyn is “thrilled beyond measure” but “frightened too… She couldn’t help it, not when she recalled that he had never once been gentle with her, and looked anything but gentle now.” She knows she will be “getting raw passion instead of lovemaking,” and her fear “In a primitive way… inflamed him even more.” He says, “It’ll be a rough ride… can you take it?” A little savagery is handy when it comes to getting saved from the bad guy and for sexxoring, I guess.

As far as the sex itself, I loved their first sex scene, even though I still don’t really understand it. Jocelyn is the sexual aggressor, and she’s been trying to get Colt to have sex with her the entire first half of the book. He refuses, because (a) he doesn’t believe a white woman can really want him, and (b) he’s afraid he’ll hurt her. The way the scene was written is so odd: on the one hand, we get all of these descriptions of Colt’s leashed savagery, his barely-there control over himself. The scene is permeated with a kind of danger and dread. He even says, “Scream now, Duchess, while you’ve got the chance.” Yet, he would not even be in her room if it hadn’t been for her luring him there on some pretense, for the express purpose of having sex with him. She’s actually not afraid, but thinks she has to pretend to be reluctant or he won’t have sex with her. When he commences dirty talk, she looks scared, but thinks “God, I hope so.” She holds back her moans, realizing Colt is mad for not being able to stay away, and realizes: “It was up to her to tame the fury before it got out of hand.” There are so many things going on I think I could write on it for a week and not figure this scene out, but one thing that occurred to me was the need to make sex seem scary in order to make it seem awesome.  Or maybe it was just the need to make feminine desire seem scary, displaced onto a hero who is frankly very much a beta, and rarely in any kind control over this heroine who has vast riches, her own small army, tremendous class and race advantage, and seems incapable of feeling fear, at least outside of the bedroom.

The second sex scene, much later in the book, is the infamous one on a galloping horse. It was pretty ridiculous: “By the time the horse came to a standstill, she had climaxed three times with soul-searing intensity.” More interesting to me is that afterwards, despite the fact that Jocelyn has now had two amazing sexual encounters with Colt, and can’t wait to get back inside his pants again, her desire continues to be described in the language of fear and danger.

Savage Thunder is 400 or so pages, and in addition to the plot-stopping descriptions, there’s actually plot-stopping plot. I mean, a scene with Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday? Clearly the author was going for “epic”, so even Longnose and his henchmen get their own pov sections. As for the romance, while I was pleased that the relationship between Jocelyn and Colt was mostly pretty respectful (I dreaded the “distrust” theme planted in the opening chapter, because I’ve read and hated those romances where the hero abuses the heroine on some stupid suspicion), I wasn’t 100% convinced these two belonged together, I think because the emphasis was on their looks and sexual attraction. I was especially disappointed in the ending, one of those where Colt, after spending hundreds of pages pushing Jocelyn away, has a sudden and unexplained change of heart. I’m glad I read Savage Thunder, exposing me as it did to a virgin widow and horseback sex, but I’ll probably wait a little while to pick up another Lindsey.

15 responses

  1. I find Lindsey’s writing style irritating, but that certainly does sound like a fascinating sex scene… perhaps I’ll pick this one up to browse through, if the library has it.

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  2. @willaful: It was pretty great. There are two more things I couldn’t squeeze into the review but I’ll say about it here: (1) She’s actually kicked him OUT of the room already, but since she failed to lock the door before taking off her gown, when he re-enters the room on the pretense of checking to see if the door is locked, but her naked body’s magnetic pull is impossible to resist. (2) She falls asleep before his orgasm is over.

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  3. I hope the horse wasn’t traumatized. Now that I think of it, there’s a Cherry Adair book in which the h/h have sex while riding a camel, the logistics (and appeal) of which confuse me.

    Anyway, thank you for an interesting review, though I don’t think Lindsey is for me*. I wonder if the multiple POVs and sort of unrelated subplots were common to retro western romances? I just read one by Marsha Canham that was definitely had a lot going on (she threw in Billy the Kid).

    * Are there any Lindsey books that really are must-reads?

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  4. Ahhh… the wonder that is a Johanna Lindsay book. I’ve read exactly 3. One I can’t remember the name of but the heroine was an expert swordswoman who wore “Spanish leather” boots in 9th Century(?) England who is kidnapped by a Viking — it was really awful. I actually enjoyed “Fires in Winter” wherein a Russian prince kidnaps an English noblewoman thinking she is a mere servant and his servants give her an aphrodisiac (so the Prince won’t be displeased by her unwillingness). There’s also a scene in which the terrible aunt of the Prince canes the heroine. I say “enjoyed” because it was a melodramatic mess of WTF and had an excellent grovelling scene. My favorite of her books (and not because of writing, plot or anything noble) is “Warrior’s Woman” which is a super cheesy Sci-fi romance that is beyond the pale of bad bad bad, but I have to reread it about once every 5 years to convince myself that, yes that was as bad as I recalled!

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  5. @Meri: Those are great questions which I can’t answer, although see Pamelia’s quasi-recommendation of Fires in Winter.

    I am told there is anal sex on horseback in the Cain’s Reckoning by Sarah McCarty, which I’ve read, but cannot recall, but Lindsey was “in the leaD” on that one.

    @pamelia: I am definitely reading Warrior’s Woman as my next Lindsey. It’s included in the $3.99 Kindle sale.

    @Nicola O.: Yeah, maybe that is it. I don’t know… it’s like, she wants it, she’s excited, she;s feeling good, he’s not actually doing anything scary, … but she’s scared. I almost thought she was scared of her own sexuality.

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  6. @Jessica: “I almost thought she was scared of her own sexuality. ”

    Very common theme in category romances from the 70s – 80s. The nervous nipple woman counterpart to the angry boner man.

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  7. I read every single Lindsey when I was in high school (behind the covers of other books so my mother wouldn’t take it away from me. I mean, Fabio on the cover was pretty lurid…for a teen reader, I guess!). Your review brought back memories. I don’t remember the specifics (except that horseback scene. Kind of impossible to forget, once you’ve read it.) but Lindsey will always be the queen of romance for me.

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  8. The mixed race (bi-racial, half-breed) plot element is really pretty common in western romances. Notice that Colt must surrender all markers of his Indian heritage and “become white”–hence the haircut and suit. It’s an integral part of his HEA. The race-purity mythos of the US is that strong. As an non-USer, Jocelyn can be oblivious to the racial anger. (Were it written by a UK author, Jocelyn probably would’ve displayed a much more colonial sense of race toward the whole Indian heritage.) For her, the Indian would be the Noble Savage, very idealized and romanticized.

    Colt is supposed to be scary; he’s an Indian, a savage, a wild animal. As any civilized white girl, she’s supposed to be afraid of him. He becomes much more, um, heroic when he sheds the Indian-ness and assumes white conditions and values.

    Lindsey’s plot premises and sex gymnastics tend to be, er, creative but her stereotyped racism is pretty much mainstream.

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  9. @Maryan: Colt was really quite passive and reactive. His tendency was to respond to Jocelyn, and she was always painting him into a corner, narrowing his range of choices drastically. I found myself wondering if there was a bit of a sex role reversal seemingly made possible by their class and race differences.

    I was thinking of you when I read a journal article, ““Squaw Men,” “Half-Breeds,” and Amalgamators: “Late Nineteenth-Century Anglo-American Attitudes Toward Indian-White Race-Mixing ” from the American Indian Culture and Research Journal after reading the Lindsey. The author kind of goes through all the documented sources of public opinion (political, scholarly, literary, etc.) on “amalgamation” in the late nineteenth century in the US, and it’s so interesting to see the diversity of views. He talks about dime novels, and their complicated relationship with mixed race protagonists. He mentions Ann S. Stephens’ Beadle dime novels, especially the character William Danforth, who was educated in the finest English schools, and had his mixed parentage kept secret from him. He falls in love with a white girl, and seems headed for a happy ending when he finds out he is “part” Indian. He ends up killing himself when he realizes he has “mixed blood.” As problematic as much of Savage Thunder is, I guess I would count it an improvement on that!

    @Mary @ Book Swarm: Since I only started reading romance about five years ago, I’m always a little envious of those readers who have strong positive memories of their earliest reads. I think Lindsey is a great story teller, and the book was much more subtle on questions of sex and power than I would have predicted given what I’ve heard from some veteran readers about older romances.

    @Sue CCCP: It makes no sense whatsoever. But if you are a fan of the genre, it’s not that you accept it unquestioningly, you just sort of see it as an author taking a genre staple — really amazing sex — a little too far, and feel glad you’ve got a joke to share with fellow readers. I suspect if you aren’t a romance reader, just that scene would make you throw the book against the wall.

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  10. “Plot-stopping description.” That’s just perfect. It’s so typical in older romances, and I still see it all over Harlequins.

    I’m a huge Lindsey fan and I’m currently rereading a lot of her books that I bought during the sale. And I’ve been smacking myself upside the head. Still love the books, in a nostalgic way, but I would most likely hate them if I were reading them for the first time today.

    That horse sex scene was epic. I think that was the scene that made Lindsey an autobuy for me back then. (Hey, I was a teen. Get off my back.)

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  11. I read this one (and many other Lindsays) when I was a teenager. One of my first romance novels was A Pirate’s Love (in a box of books a friend of my mother’s gave her and which I raided). Totally rapey that one. I don’t think I could enjoy it now but my 12 or 13 year old self did. 🙂

    I don’t think I can really enjoy Linsday anymore but I have fond memories. Colt Thunder – what a fantastic hero name – belongs in a soap opera I think, right next to Stride Mightily. 😀

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  12. Jessica, I just discovered your blog. Love it! Now I’m going to have to dig into my Lindsay library (I still have the originals on my classics shelves) and re-read one or two. Her books topped bestseller lists when I first started writing romance, lo, these many years ago, and I wrote partly in response to books like Savage Thunder. I wrote a couple of long western historicals for Avon Books while doing my doctoral coursework.

    As to the long descriptions that get in the way of plot, those were typical of the era. Particularly in westerns, the landscape functions as a character in its own right. It’s usually harsh, dangerous, and often beautiful. There might also be long descriptions of houses, towns, rooms, clothing and other civilized scenery because these books reflect American literary conversations about taming the wilderness. When these books were written, those descriptive passages had more resonance than they do now, because of cultural change, a move toward shorter books and shifting style preferences. I liked the description way back when, but I’m not sure I will now.

    Your comments on the danger and dread aspects of the sex scenes are so interesting. I remember that as being pretty common. I just finished editing one of my books for digital re-issue and found a fair bit of the same thing. It startled me so I’ve been thinking about it and how I interpreted that as a reader. I liked it, and I think it had to do with the fact that I found dealing with men to be fairly fraught. Intimacy was more charged with danger than it seems to be now. I had more of a sense of the risk of being taken over by any man that I became intimate with. I was in my twenties, and married to a man who didn’t make any bid whatsoever for my autonomy. That didn’t work for me in real life. But I liked reading about those alpha men. It was a safe way to engage with a type of masculinity that I had hugely conflicting feelings about. I imagine a lot of women did. In my own book, I lessened those aspects with judicious editing. An adverb here. An exclamation point there. That level of danger and dread seems awkward now.

    There’s another common Native American romance hero besides the wild savage and the mixed-race fellow: the white Indian. There’s a wh0le literature on this, as I recall. This is the white guy who spent enough time living with a tribe to identify more strongly with them than his original ethnic group. John Dunbar from “Dances with Wolves” is one of these guys. This hero occupies an uneasy borderland between cultures, so he’s different, which is exciting and challenging (and kind of dangerous), but he also knows what the white heroine brings to the party. Because he appears to have rejected that, there’s an automatic conflict. Still, it’s creates a more conventional sexual relationship because the hero always has his white male power and privilege in place.

    In Savage Thunder, some of the ways in which the heroine takes the upper hand with Colt might be reflective of the efforts of women to take more active, historically male roles in society. Jocelyn’s high social status allowed readers to accept her doing this in 1878 Wyoming. I chose to write a white Indian hero first because I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the power dynamics of an Indian hero and a white heroine. I’d lived on or near Indian reservations when I was a kid. Real people. No differences in intimate relationships that I could see. But I didn’t yet know how to structure the ethnic dynamics so that they referenced the conversations going on in western romance without succumbing to the stereotypes that left Native cultures on the down side of the power slide in the romance.

    Thanks for the fun review. I’ll be reading regularly. 🙂

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  13. Oh, goodness, please don’t give up with Savage Thunder. You simply must try Prisoner Of My Desire. This new generation thinks Fifty Shades of Grey is erotic—if they only knew what their mothers were reading in the eighties! 😮

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