Once Upon A Tower, Eloisa James

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice.
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August 13, 2013

Once Upon a Tower, Eloisa James

Once Upon a Tower, Eloisa James

I wasn’t sure how Eloisa James was going to pull off a Rapunzel story in Once Upon a Tower, since she doesn’t normally write books about women who get locked away by their parents; in this case, the heroine chooses to lock herself away (but not until near the end).

The night Lady Edith–Edie–makes her debut, she is feverish and more than a little bit out of it.  However, her spacy demeanor utterly enchants Gowan Stoughton, Duke of Kinross–so much so that he betroths himself to her the very next day. Gowan thinks he’s getting a demure and mild-mannered duchess and proceeds to lead town.

Edie is neither of these things. An accomplished cellist, her music is everything to her. While she doesn’t perform in public to protect her father’s sensibilities, she is incredibly talented and music is her passion.  Betrothed to a man she doesn’t even remember, she decides to get to know him a bit better and writes him a letter.  A really, really blunt letter.

Gowan , while a bit shocked that his bride-to-be has a brain and opinions, is also enchanted by her letter and writes her back.  And eventually heads back to Town to get to know her better in person.

There’s a lot to like about this book. The way James deftly deconstructs the stereotype of the brawny Scotsman is one of the things I loved the most. Gowan is repeatedly compared to a tree, his legs like trunks and his chest is impossibly broad and, of course, he wears a kilt:

Surrounded by these sleek and silly Englishmen with covered knees, his bare legs felt twice as strong for being free of the hindrance of breeches.

He was getting sick of deflecting lascivious glances from women who appreciated his kilt for all the wrong reasons–and appeared curious about what he wore under it.

Read enough historical romances and the passionate Scotsman trope gets pretty old pretty fast. James also takes aim at the “hot-blooded Italian” trope, too.

But the main trope she–ahem–punctures is the one about virgins having amazing sex right out of the gate. There is bad sex in this book. Lots and lots of bad sex. And painful excruciating sex where Edie wants nothing more than for Gowan to just finish already. And it’s all entirely believable.

Both Edie and Gowan are virgins (yes! virgin hero!) and Edie is advised by her stepmother to fake orgasms in order to keep Gowan happy and Gowan approaches the marriage bed as he does everything else in life: methodically and with a list that can’t be deviated from.

And there is, quite possibly, the best description of an erect penis ever in a romance novel:

He looked huge, like a giant pink mushroom stalk, which was accurate, though not a very romantic metaphor.

Dear Eloisa James: Thank you so much for that description. Just thank you.

Of course, the bad sex is a metaphor for their inability to communicate with each other and once they get over the Big Misunderstanding (which results in Edie shutting herself in a tower) and learn to actually talk to each other, they’re on track for their happily-ever-after.

However, there is one thing that bothered me about this book and I find it deeply ironic that it bothers me since historical inaccuracies tend to not bother me. And what bothers me is the ahistorical use of poetry. Specifically, the poetry of William Butler Yeats.  There are direct quotations from “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” and “Brown Penny” as well as a glancing allusion to “The Second Coming”.  Apparently this is my particular historical kryptonite–and I find it ironic because this series isn’t intended to be historical at all and is, in fact, explicitly set in a quasi-Regency Fairyland.

There are also references to John Donne which, while plausible, isn’t tremendously likely since at the assumed time of the book (1820-ish), Donne would have been relatively unknown and, if known, considered crude and unfashionable.  It wasn’t until the late 19th century that his poetry and prose started to become more fashionable. Although it doesn’t surprise me one bit that Edie’s stepmother, Layla, would have been able to lay hands on a copy of Donne’s early poetry which is just full of sexy-times. (Lest you think I am making this up: Elegy 20: To His Mistress Going to Bed.) But I also wonder if there were something more likely for her to be able to pass along to Gowan–engravings or something.

On the other hand, I thought the Romeo and Juliet bits were wonderful and I found Edie’s lack of knowledge of Shakespeare sadly plausible–between her focus on the cello and the kind of reading that would have been considered appropriate for a young lady–especially with a father as uptight as hers was. References to Shakespeare in this period always make me think of Mary and Charles Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, which simplified Shakespeare for children and which, I imagine, was many young ladies’ only exposure to the texts. (Fun random fact: Mary Lamb stabbed her mother to death in 1797.)

Overall, I think that Once Upon a Tower is a really fun read with more serious undercurrents for readers who are interested in that sort of thing.  There’s a lot of satire and gentle fun poked at lots of tropes, too, which I found enjoyable but which may not be to every reader’s taste.  I wasn’t sure if I was going to continue to read this series. I loved A Kiss at Midnight and When Beauty Tamed the Beast, loathed The Duke is Mine (due to a beyond offensive depiction of a character with a cognitive disability), and was pretty neutral about The Ugly Duchess. This wasn’t as great as the first two books, but was better than the third and fourth, at least for me.

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3 Comments

  1. Liz Mc2

    I quit this series after the first two books, but part of what I enjoyed in those was the fairytale not-quite-Regency setting, which freed me from thinking about historical accuracy and suits James’ voice really well. I find in general I am fine with books that are pretty accurate, and fine with those that are clearly using the past as a kind of “fantasy” setting, and I really struggle with those in the middle, because the “unevenness” of the worldbuilding (of its tone, if that makes sense) is constantly throwing me off balance. Of course, there are tons of inaccuracies I won’t notice. I’m not strong on politics, for instance, and my sense of social behavior comes mostly from fiction written in the period–but I have read a *ton* of that, so language/tone/actions that feel really anachronistic in a book that seems to be striving for accuracy will throw me out. The wrong kind of underwear, not so much.

    That said, the Yeats thing would drive me crazy. Because he is so much a Modernist that his tone and preoccupations seem all wrong even for a pretend-Regency setting (especially “The Second Coming,” what the what?). Why not a poet from the period? It was a good one for poetry. I once read a Mary Balogh trad where the heroine thought “Someone once said it was better to have loved and lost than never love at all or something like that” and I was all “Yes, it was Tennyson and he’s not going to say it for another 30 years or so ^#(%(*%!!!” I never really recovered from that moment–I guess I think a writer (and in James’ case, a literary scholar too) should have more respect for literary history.

    We all have our buttons. 😉

  2. Natalie Luhrs

    @Liz Mc2: Oh, to be COMPLETELY fair, “The Second Coming” thing was really really really glancing–it was a reference to a falcon and its falconer and anyone who wasn’t as obsessed with Yeats as I have been in my life probably would have missed it–I was sensitized because of the damn near direct quotation from “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”.

    I just thought my reaction was really funny considering how I generally don’t give a shit about accuracy.

    I honestly don’t understand why we don’t see more Romantic poets being cited in these books–there’s a fair bit of Byron, sure, but what about the others? Keats and Shelley seems like they’d work really well.

  3. Amalia Dillin

    Like you, I loved A KISS AT MIDNIGHT and WHEN BEAUTY TAMED THE BEAST and was less enchanted with the following two books in the series, but I thought ONCE UPON A TOWER really brought us back to the strengths of this series. As someone who isn’t a poetry buff, I didn’t notice the issues there, but I’ve had the same kind of reaction to historical inaccuracies, so I hear you. I hadn’t considered the deeper meaning of the bad sex and the deconstructions of the tropes, but now I want to go back and reread it more closely for those elements!

    This is a great review! Thanks for writing it!

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