The PHS's new monthly column, #OurRomanticHeritage, takes a look at romance novels that have inspired and influenced writers today. Robyn Rychards is taking on Sylvia Thorpe's 1970s historical romance The Sword and the Shadow.
At the time I stumbled across The Sword and the Shadow I was a young but avid romance reader whose only exposure to historical romance was Barbara Cartland’s books. Now, what she did as a romance writer was impressive, but to a fledgling writer, who learned best how to write romance by reading it, Cartland’s stories quickly began to feel repetitive.
Therefore, perusing a used book store one Saturday morning looking for historical romance, I picked up Sylvia Thorpe’s book. Back then the picture on the cover played a huge part in whether or not I’d buy a book, but the book itself is what enticed me to pay three times what I normally would for a used book. To put it another way, I could’ve had three romances instead of just the one, and that should’ve been my first clue that this book was going to have a far-reaching impact on me.
The first line of the blurb that started me down that slippery slope: Young and headstrong, Lady Frances found it hard to obey Captain Crispin Barbican. I loved her already. And the next line, She simply was not used to being ordered around—by anyone. Dang. I wanted to read about her. I wanted to be her. And the best way to do that? Fork over a good chunk of my babysitting money to get the book.
Still, three books or one? (Can you tell I’m cheap?) So I opened the book and started reading. Was it going to be as good as the cover and blurb led me to believe? This was where I learned the value of the first page of a story. The first paragraph did me in. For more than the fact that it starts out in the hero’s point of view. I loved knowing what was going on in the hero’s head and back then such things were very hard to come by in the romance world. So, this is what I was greeted with:
Captain Crispin Barbican (OMG what a name!!)—captain by virtue of the fact that he had commanded a buccaneer craft under the great Morgan—sat in a waterfront tavern in Bristol and tried to determine the future course of his life. He lounged on a high-backed settle, booted legs outstretched and a pipe between his lips, and stared reflectively into the fire blazing upon the open hearth, indifferent alike to the babel of voices about him and the frankly admiring glances of the slatternly serving-wench who passed to and fro among the tables.
Before the heroine enters the scene I have fallen in love with that swashbuckling hero. He goes on to become even more glorious. As I continue reading, that opening scene has him dispatch a man who’s hassling him by merely standing up, grabbing him by the back of his collar and throwing him across the room, then calmly giving the tavern owner the money to cover the damages.
And to this day I can see him lounging in front of that fire whenever I think of that book, and I have never forgotten his name.
Standing in that bookstore, reading the first few pages of that book, I had to buy it. It became the first book I’d ever read that I couldn’t put down until I’d finished it. I finished it that day.
Few people today know who Sylvia Thorpe is. None of her books became classics and they didn’t really have any kind of social impact or profound things to tell the world, but her one book had a huge impact on me and my writing. She also spoiled me for reading. After that book I had a hard time finding any that compared.
Also at the time I read it, long before I got serious about writing, I absorbed some things from it subconsciously that helped me with my writing. Such as writing a heroine with spunk, sass, feistiness; whatever is the key quality these days that has her standing up to the hero and giving as good as she gets. But even more importantly, creating memorable, engaging characters. A task, for sure, but something that I instinctively strive for and certainly the kind of character I always enjoy reading.
Speaking of memorable characters, Sylvia Thorpe created some memorable villains as well. Now this story has pirates, so of course there are going to be some nasty characters about, but the real villain of this book hovers in the background for quite sometime, alluded to and even described by a pirate, Sarne—nicknamed the Torturer—who had met him, to Crispin. So when we finally meet him on the page he’s been a lurking evil in the reader’s mind. A real skill of writing in itself, but something that leaves the reader with high expectations when he finally explodes onto the page a third of the way through the story.
Crispin took the delicate hand in his own strong fingers and looked down curiously at that handsome, ageless face. The [man] was studying him narrowly, his head twisted sideways in a tortuous movement necessitated by the Captain’s great height, and for an instant Crispin met the full brilliance of his dark, unfathomable eyes. He knew then that Sarne’s description was apt; the man was a devil, with ... a driving ambition which would be merciless to those who stood in its way. And Frances accounted herself safe in the hands of this monster.
There’s nothing you can do but keep reading in horror as Frances walks willingly into the clutches of such a man. And Crispin lets her.
And that is the bar that was set for me at the age of fifteen. To create a story and characters that keep the reader engaged from the moment they pick up your book. Someday. Someday.
Have you read The Sword and the Shadow or any of Sylvia Thorpe's other books? Tell us what you think of it, and share other books that you think form #OurRomanticHeritage with us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
Robyn's latest release, Escape to Paradise, is out now. For more information about her and her writing, check out her website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.