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[Some gore in the last few paragraphs.]

You know, after The Serpent Prince and more generally Hoyt's Princes trilogy, I don't think I can really do the whole "duel for honour in Regency England" thing anymore.

Before I start, I'd like to say I LOVE DUELLING. The trope is like catnip. Half my favourite characters are expert swordsmen/women, and especially ones who are not soldiers, but warriors. Ilario de Sylvae? Joscelin Verreuil? Gwalchmai ap Lot? It's actively embarrassing, but the chances of me loving a character go up about 100% if they are swordsmen.

Now, for the Princes trilogy - they are the first three books written by Elizabeth Hoyt, all romances set in Georgian England that focus on a trio of friends: Edward de Raaf, Earl of Ravenwood; Harry Pye, a land steward; and Simon Iddesleigh, viscount of Iddesleigh. The three meet because of the Agrarian Club, and also I must mention that their moments of friendship and camaraderie at the club are my favourite parts sometimes. (I would kill for friendship fic about the three, but there is literally no fandom to speak of.)

Now, duelling.

In the first novel, de Raaf ends up fighting another man (Chilly) because of various bad things Chilly's done. This is justified in the source text; I think at that point de Raaf sort of loses it, and he is aided and abetted by Pye and Iddesleigh (also, de Raaf cheerfully gets into a fistfight earlier in the novel; resolving things like this is not new to him.) Anna, who is the female lead, is angry that de Raaf is fighting and afraid for his safety, especially since it was rather impulsive on his behalf. de Raaf doesn't really see a huge problem with duelling, and Anna & de Raaf's fight turns into an occasion for confession, and Anna's concerns are brushed aside for the most part.

Then there is the third novel, The Serpent Prince. (Pye is no duelist, being unable to wear a sword in the first place, so the second book doesn't really enter this discussion.) Of the three, it is Iddesleigh who is the master swordsman - he is described in those words by another swordsman. He's already duelled and killed three men - three conspirators who could not allow the morals of Iddesleigh's older brother to stop them losing their investment. (The actual issue is more nuanced and the chief conspirator's story is sympathetic: it is not a novel about easy resolutions.) For Iddesleigh, although he hates what he's doing, he feels trapped between the disgust at himself and what his duelling, and a hopeless compulsion to fix what's wrong by the only method he sees is sufficient: by indirectly and individually calling the men out, and killing them.

The characters' reactions to duelling, the description of the fighting itself - all of it is described in a way that deliberately highlights the grotesqueness and the sheer horror of what hacking with steel does to human flesh. Iddesleigh has nightmares about cutting off his opponent's fingers, how they seemed to slice off like sausages, and the dawning realization on the face of his opponent; it's not a nice thing. Iddesleigh's duels are not a clean fight like de Raaf's, where Chilly's just knocked unconscious, and the narrative focusses on the repercussions more than the reasons, which is often used to slide over the unpleasant maiming parts (e.g. elf-defense - still killing, but more palatable. Takes attention off the happening, and puts it on the thought behind it. Here the focus lands squarely on the physical consequences.) The characters react viscerally and these reactions are important in the novel. Iddesleigh refuses to call it asserting and recovering honour; he can't really express what he's doing, only that he feels it's necessary. He was abroad doing frivolous things as the errant son when his brother was killed trying to enact his own sense of honour - and so Iddesleigh feels overwhelming guilt and some buried anger, especially since his brother couldn't duel at all, and still tried. It's not a novel that has easy ways out. And so The Serpent Prince becomes partly an exploration of what honour means, and about forgiveness on more than one front. Lucy, the female lead, regards duelling as murder and worries for both Iddesleigh's safety and what it's doing to his mind; Hoyt avoids glossing over the duelling and dives straight in.

And that brings me back to slapping-a-glove and pistols-at-dawn. Those actions just seem too casual, too much a surface skim of what popular culture thinks duelling is about. I am not advocating for extreme realism (and its attendant hyperbolic partner, grimdark mode) or slavish devotion to what is realistic rather than plausible/for fiction. What I do object to is the casual treatment of duelling in novels where there's exceptional emotional complexity, and where characterization is actually really important - common stereotypes of romance novels aside, I can honestly say that romance novels rely and hinge so much more on believable and sympathetic/compelling characters than do genres like fantasy and horror and science fiction; the physical setting, the historical setting, even the outside world is often elided hugely to get at the characterization, or details to support characterization. Casual glove slapping into a duel and the notion of it being honourable - and not twisted somehow - contradict the complexity elsewhere. I'll eat up tropes when it's set up that way, but the casual treatment of one and serious treatment of another doesn't work.


Crosspost: http://silverflight8.dreamwidth.org/125562.html.

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