Thursday, February 9, 2023

Wild Sweet Witch by Araby Scott


WOW. It's been a while since I read an old school bodice-ripper. I love them but they can be so exhausting and emotionally draining to read that I often space them out. This one had especially hardcore themes, being published in the early 80s (dig that electric font!). It's a story about a young Christian missionary named Carey who is taken to Tahiti by her brother since she's too wild in England (imagine the anemic brother's shock when he finds out that in Tahiti, clothes and chastity are both optional-- big whoops).

On the way there, she and the captain, Adam Falconer, end up not getting along. He doesn't like women on his ship and can't abide prudes. Carey is both. When he catches her flirting with one of his crew, he forces a kiss on her and gives her a stern warning and a bit of assault on the side, because he's a gentleman like that, before sending her on her way. On Tahiti, Carey ends up coming into her own and befriending the native people. But then evil Spaniards come and one of them tries to take Carey for his own. But what does she do? She smashes a mirror in his face.

Carey's friend catches the eye of the chief who admires her for her looks and bargaining but Carey is an inconvenient roommate he doesn't want hanging around. But friend decides a little brownface will fix everything: she'll just dye Carey's skin and hair and send her BACK on an English ship of traders, claiming that it's taboo to touch her and that she's half-French and half-Polynesian. But forbidden fruit happens to be exactly Adam's favorite flavor of fruit (ironic, since his name is Adam), and pretty soon he and "Teura" (Carey's name) are doing it all day every day and he's fancying himself in LURVE.

Up to this point, there's already tons of un-PC content and dub-con that would probably send most modern day readers scrambling to hit the "cancel" button. But things get worse. I don't want to spoil anything for anyone but the portions of this book that are set in Macao and Yerba Buena are BRUTAL. The heroine ends up in a brothel, and bad things happen to her. Somebody gets pieces of their skin peeled off, which are then used as makeshift parchment paper for missives. Araby Scott seems to take a gleeful pleasure in torturing her characters as much as possible in the last third of the book, putting them through all kinds of emotional and physical turmoil, to the point where I began to wonder if there was going to even be a happily-ever-after for these two (there was, but man, it came at a steep cost).

The story was good and I loved the exotic locales-- Tahiti, Macao, Hawaii. It's unusual to find bodice-rippers that aren't set in the U.S. or Western Europe, and I always treasure those finds. And even though this book definitely can feel like a microaggression flipbook at times, I don't think the author was going out of her way to be offensive. The book felt pretty well-researched, actually. She used tonal marks on some of the Chinese names (something I've never seen an older book written by a Western person do before), and all of the characters of color were accorded agency and not used as props. I also liked how characters would reappear throughout the plot, giving the reader closure about what happened to them. The ends of these little miniature threads were always so satisfying, too. Did I love Adam as a hero? No, not really. Some of his scenes with the heroine were hot, but he was way crueler than I like my heroes to be. The heroine was awesome, though. I love seeing a heroine who is allowed to be selfish and miserable and flawed, and she was all of that and more. Carey was the GOAT.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

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