Unconquered by Bertrice Small
Historical romance released by Ballantine Books on December 1981
A breathless novel of sensual daring and fiery adventure, UNCONQUERED introduces the brilliant outspoken Miranda, who would give up nothing for a man, and whose spirited ways and breathtaking sensuality would sweep her into perilous escapades of brutality and erotic discovery…
I read this book for the TBR challenge Old School category. Since this book was originally published in 1981, and since I started reading romance around this time (thanks, mom, for always having a stash of romance novels!), I figured this would be a great book to read. It would feel nostalgic, and I would read the entire book, not just skim it for the racy sex scenes that tender young me did covertly.
I inherited my copy from my mom when my parents moved to a much smaller house. It’s been sitting on my bookshelf for almost twenty years. As I stated above, I did skim through the book for the sex scenes (of which there were many) but didn’t actually read the book, even after mom gave me her copy. Why? Because I was afraid the book wouldn’t hold up to those fond memories I held. I probably should have kept things that way.
Unconquered definitely falls into the category of bodice ripper. The story is the sweepingly epic tale of Miranda Dunham, a young heiress from Connecticut, who finds herself forced to marry a distant cousin, Jared Dunham, because he’s tangentially responsible for the death of her father and this is his way of ‘making things right.’ The story covers the first four years of this marriage where many things happen to keep this couple apart. Vile, heinous things. Seriously, there should be multiple trigger warning on this book!
I love a good marriage of convenience trope, but I couldn’t get past Miranda. She was selfish, spoiled, entitled, and naive in a way where life happened to her for most of the book. Given when the book was written, having a heroine who really doesn’t have a lot of agency isn’t surprising. But it’s 2018 and Miranda’s story does not age well. Especially given all the brutal scenarios Ms. Small puts her young heroine through. By the end of the story, Miranda has found some backbone, because it’s either do that or end up a literal slave for the rest of her life. However, because of her sense of entitlement and her lack of growth as a character, she’s still the same person at the end as she was in the beginning.
She wouldn’t have been in a position to be in these life threatening positions if she hadn’t left Connecticut with her sister in tow in the first place. Which on the surface sounds altruistic of her, but her decisions put not only herself but the people she loves in jeopardy all because she wants to prove she has what it takes to oversee the affairs of her family. At seventeen. She also plays a bit loose with her marriage vows, but to be honest, so does Jared. Maybe they really are meant for each other.
Jared Dunham is the quintessential alpha male. He knows what he wants, in this case Miranda, and takes it. He’s seen the world and what life does to people, and though he seems to be in love/lust with Miranda and would go to the ends of the earth for her, he’s a bully and a bore. The story begins in 1811, when England is at war with France, and relations with the Americas aren’t stellar either. Since he is a rich and influential maritime merchant, Jared uses his connections to spy for the British, and almost exclusively uses sex as an intelligence gathering technique. I’m not judging the man, spycraft is a complicated thing. However, Jared is a little too comfortable with adultery for my taste.
Small uses a lot of description in her books, and Unconquered is almost painfully filled with descriptions of food and locations in the most minute detail. Initially, I initially enjoyed these descriptions because they centered the story and gave it a solid sense of space and time, but they became tedious and I found myself skimming pages upon pages trying to get back to the action.
The story is also not just about a couple falling in love, since it spans four years and Jared and Miranda marry almost immediately. This epic nature of Small’s storytelling was one of the better things about this book. I just wish the epic nature was more about a couple working through life together instead of becoming hot messes when events conspire to drive them apart.
The novel does include a lot of sex, and not all of it conventional. I applaud Small for including a bisexual character in this story, but did this character have to be a villain? Jared and Miranda themselves develop a ‘healthy’ sex life, but their scenes never read as two sexual equals. Since the couple was not together for much of the book, most of the sex revolved around them and other people. And in Miranda’s case, most of the sex was not consensual.
What had me almost not finishing this story were all the story elements that should come with trigger warnings for things such as forced seduction, rape, human trafficking, sexual sadism, and graphic murder. Written well and handled with care, not one of these things are deal breakers for me. The problem comes when these aren’t handled with sensitivity and care. Unfortunately, Unconquered does not treat these topics well. They are plot devices meant to be edgy and shocking, and to give the characters excuses for their bad behavior. No one is truly held accountable for their actions, including Jared and Miranda. Small does allow the natural consequences of actions to drive some of the plot, but consequence doesn’t equal accountability.
Also, none of these horrendous situations cause the characters to really grow. People can go through truly shitty things and come out the other side exhibiting growth. Not so these two. Jared is a bully and a bore to the end. And Miranda remains selfish and entitled. Both main characters are also magically free from any psychological trauma, which is another thing that had me wanting to close the book and walk away.
I will always cherish my fond memories of younger me stealth reading the ‘forbidden’ scenes, but Unconquered as a romance novel just doesn’t hold up anymore, unless you’re a huge fan of the early bodice ripper formula.
You can by a copy of Unconquered here.
I’ve never read any of her works. My mom always had the category romances lying around.
My mom read everything from sweet to ultra steamy, and I was an unofficial beneficiary. 🙂 When she realized what I was doing she tried to sway me over to Phyllis A. Whitney and some of the more gothic romances, but I was a precocious child and read everything!
My mom read the tame stuff around me. But, I found her copy of Peyton Place in the basement–I still have it–from when she was single. One time, Dad came home with a bunch of books (the kind with the covers ripped off), there were books in there I shouldn’t have had because they were steamy, but I got them and hid them before my mom knew.
After my mom realized I was reading her category romances, she bought me Scholastic teen romances. And, she let me read the medical romances from the 60s she had in the basement.