ONE HAS THIS PREJUDICE against passion epics. Perhaps it's because they somehow manage to make an experience that's as distinctive and individual as sex sound like something right off the rack. One size fits all.
One of the famous makers, novelistically speaking, is Kathleen E. Woodiwiss, author of The Flame and the Flower, The Wolf and the Dove and Shanna. Her latest, Ashes in the Wind, is your basic little sex romance, less seamy than some, cut in an outside model and all gussied up with different accessories.
The style is reversible, two books for the price of one. The first half is pure historical romance set in Civil War-torn New Orleans, with periodic bulletins coming in from the battlefront. Halfway along, the novel suddenly appears to give up all hope of becoming another Gone With the Wind, moves to Minnesota, dispenses with the historical frills and gets down to business, which is standard Gothic, complete with sinister mansion, brooding master and menacing mystery.
Aside from the occupational hazard of stupidity, Alaina MacGaren and Cole Latimer serve well enough as the lovers. She is passionate, and he is fur-chested (as we are assured at least eight times, certainly a relief in view of those Northern winters). Captain Latimer makes major halfway through the book, which shows how capable he is, and Alaina, curiously referred to throughout as a "twit," is not even really a half-twit, handling her heroine's duties pretty adequately, I thought.
Alaina's style is only slightly cramped by having to spend the first 200 pages of the book as a boy. Imaginatively and against all odds, the author manages to get the couple together during this period quite heterosexually and with no ambiguous overtones, something of an accomplishment in these days and books. (The hero accidentally beds the heroine in a classic case of mistaken identity, but then, as Alaina points out, war is hell.)
No one really expects such novels to be well-written, and this one's no disappointment. Technically, Ashes is a burned-out case, with cliches falling out on every page. The vivacious southern beauty and the gallant Union captain (who has orbs of blue) defy the leering villain (a chicken-hearted coward) and overcome beds of pain and brinks of death from Louisiana to points north. Stygian depths and cruel jaws of death figure largely in the action, but experienced readers will not flinch, for they know that eventually strange excitement will pulse, flames of desire will burn, and fibers of being will yearn. That's what it's all about, and all's well that ends well, as our hero remarks in one of the book's happier applications of banality.
In case you wondered, the "ashes" of the title refer partly to some quoted, unattributed verse, and, more interestingly, to the spent condition of the lovers after their "fiery fusion." Sadly enough, due to exigencies of the plot, they are not allowed to make ashes of themselves as much as they would like. Ambivalence is built into passion romances, and Ashes is no exception. For example, marriage as a commitment is irrelevant until the ceremony unites the principals themselves. Then, suddenly, marriage becomes all that is spiritually precious and must be guarded as life itself. Similarly, sex itself is both sacred and marketable. A gold medallion in the story eventually becomes a sign of the lovers' eternal sentiment, but it makes its first appearance all too symbolically as payment for sexual services rendered.
Everything's gone to potboiler in this book, and, what with one thing and another -- piracy, rape, murder -- it gets up quite a head of steam. No matter what reviewers say, women all over the country will try it and like it. It gets your mind off inflation and takes care of your fantasy life so you can get a good night's sleep. Its characters are silly, its plot is formula, and its writing is awful. Actually, I rather enjoyed it.