Once a Soldier by Mary Jo Putney
Genre: Historical Romance
I wanted to like this book. I wanted to be able to say that I enjoyed it, because I like historical romance and, in the past, I’ve liked Mary Jo Putney’s work. Unfortunately, however, I barely made it through this book.
Once a Soldier is purportedly a historical romance, but it’s missing both accurate historical details (it’s set in a fictional country and the characters frequently do things that are unbelievable for the time) and a compelling romance (despite the fact that there are not one, but two, romances in this book). The majority of the book is either related to war and battles or to wine or to rebuilding San Gabriel (the fictional country) following the Napoleonic wars in the mid 1800s.
I generally found the first 85% of this book to be dull and lifeless, full of details that, for me, didn’t add anything to the story. The events weren’t what I was looking for in a historical romance, and I didn’t care about the characters at all. Their romances and struggles were flat and unrealistic. I will say that I thought the ending read more like a historical romance and wasn’t too bad (although the happy coincidences are a frustrating way to deal with conflicts and struggles the characters faced).
The women in this book were completely wrong for the time period. Athena, our heroine, is supposed to be different; she’s supposed to be tall, independent, and strong. Sure, fine, I can handle that. I don’t need cookie cutter characters. What I don’t like, though, is that she does things that I can’t see any woman of the time doing. For example — and this is a spoiler, but honestly, since I don’t recommend this book, I’m not too worried — Athena and Princess Sofia (a twenty-three year old who is supposedly the heiress to the throne of San Gabriel) caused a landslide/avalanche to save the country’s wine when the French invaded. Another time, Athena dressed up like a nun in a war zone to save real nuns and children. Even for a “different” character in this period, I just don’t think either of these things is plausible.
The characters didn’t seem to have much chemistry with each other and the romances were “lightning strikes” types, where the characters were immediately in love with each other without knowing each other at all. Additionally, they were all way too informal and modern in addressing each other — at one point, Princess Sofia invited a wine merchant she’d just met to call her by her first name. This just wouldn’t have happened in this time period.
The main romance between Major Lord William Masterson (called Will by everyone in the book) and Athena (an illegitimate daughter of an unnamed-until-the-end lord) was boring and also completely unbelievable for the time. A few years ago, there was an article circulating about getting to know a potential mate through asking a series of difficult questions, which helps to build intimacy and trust. This book adopted that method in the early nineteenth century, and Athena and Will spend time asking each other personal questions. I just don’t think this would have happened then, and I can barely see it happening now.
One thing about Athena that just really drove me crazy was her attitude about sex. For the majority of the book, she tells Will she doesn’t want to be his mistress (an irrational leap she made after one small kiss) because she doesn’t want an illegitimate child. This isn’t so bad. Fast forward through a lot of pages, and on the eve of an impending attack by a rogue French force, she decides she doesn’t want to die without having sex with him. Okay, fine, not sure it would have happened, but sure. Then we find out that she’s been someone’s mistress before!! Her excuse through the whole book falls totally flat at that point. I just don’t think those two beliefs and behaviors are consistent, and it drives me crazy.
I honestly wish I had more positive things to say about this book, but it really wasn’t for me. It’s possible that someone who doesn’t mind a romance novel sans romance would like it, or maybe someone who’s not so focused on whether characters’ behaviors make sense for the time. For me, though, it wasn’t a good fit and I don’t recommend it. I gave it one star.
*ARC from Kensington Books via NetGalley