ATTASU: The Last Viking by Sandra Hill

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

As ATTASU is a more in-depth feature than my standard reviews, this entire post has a spoiler warning for plot details, including the ending, of The Last Viking.

Truly, women think they want a weak-sapped man, but what they really crave is a real man, like Tim Taylor, and me.

Sandra Hill's been the victim of a mean prank. You've probably seen it, a post on social media that features the cover of her 2006 novel, Rough and Ready followed by some outlandish and terrible passages. A few of them, the screenshots of "dick heaven" and "dick attack", are real. "Dick Parkinson's", "galloping abs", and the whole "wet boobs still wet from the shower water" are not. Still, despite knowing this was (mostly) a troll, a reader requested I feature Ms. Hill on ATTASU. As delightful as a squadron of time traveling Navy SEALS sounds, you can find quite a few reviews of Rough and Ready. Instead, I went back to the start of the series for a time travel plot I haven't read before: the ancient man and the modern woman set in the glorious age of 1997.

1997. In terms of the romance genre, it might as well be 997, right? Certainly, this is what those who think I judge the book too harshly will opine.

In 1997, Julia Quinn was writing her second series, (Brighter Than the Sun is a four-star book that I will vouch stands up to twenty-teen scrutiny). We're not even going to count how many books Nora Roberts had released at this point, though Montana Sky, published the previous year, remains one of the most beloved in the romance genre. Romancelandia's titan, Beverly Jackson also gave us Indigo in 1996 and followed it up with Topaz in '97. And if we can go back another year, Loretta Chase's Lord of Scoundrels is still topping AAR's top 100 romance list, twenty years later. Kleypas, Brockway, Susan E. Phillips, all award-winning authors who released novels in the mid-late 90s and none of them are...this.

The Last Viking is terrible. It's poorly written, badly paced, and rarely have I seen a book that so hates its target audience. The last book I read that was this misogynistic was Fabio's Pirate if we all recall how much I hated that review. We're introduced to Rolf with him licking the nipples of his boat's figurehead in "salty appreciation", ostensibly to show the reader what a lusty male our love interest will be, and it only gets worse from there.


Row, row, row your boat . ."

The weird italicized sentences are a reoccurring device. They start most scenes, but not all. Sometimes they're song lyrics or puns, but frequently they're just bits that might be the main characters' thoughts. So why not have them be their thoughts and dispense with this weird formatting decision? (Speaking of weird formatting decisions, let's revisit this in a few minutes when we get to Rolf and his grasp on the English language.)

Rolf is sailing during the Devil's Moon when his ship is struck by lightning and he and Ingrid, the saltily appreciated figurehead, are swept through a whirlpool and into Professor Meredith Foster's front yard. Meredith is obviously a professor of medieval studies, specializing in Norse history, with a half-built Viking longboat in her yard. Because for all my defense of the genre, romance is built on its coincidences and misunderstandings. Meredith arrives home to find an invader in her house. She's held at knifepoint by what she assumes is a historical reenactor hired by her brother to help her finish her boat. Because every SCA member I've come across says hello with a knife to the throat. But maybe, are you wondering what Rolf looks like? I bet you are.

"In fact, he looked a lot like a Viking Age version of that actor, Kevin Sorbo, from the old Hercules program on television."

(Hercules was smack in the middle of its six-season run in 1997. It makes absolutely no sense to refer to a currently airing show as an old program, though if these are the editing details that I'm getting hung up on, spoiler: the rest of the book is a trip.)

Fortunately for Meredith and us as readers, Rolf has a magic belt that allows him to speak and understand English and also seems to ease his transition into modern life. By the end of his first full day in Maine, Rolf is obsessed with indoor plumbing, some sort of shampoo called drek, (which has a very different connotation here in 2018,) and can even use a computer. The hilarious "adapting to future technology" scenes teased in the synopsis are over before they even begin.

Instead, what The Last Viking truly is is Home Improvement fan-fiction mixed with an MRA wet dream. Rolf is the kind of alphahole asshole I can't stand. His machismo is supposed to highlight the time travel and differences in his world and ours, but (spoiler) because he ends up being completely right and validated, what the book is actually saying is "wasn't it better when we could kidnap women and marry them at knifepoint?"

As covered, Rolf enjoys a lot of the modern world's comforts, but none more so than Mike the TA and his trip to Home Depot.

"[T]hey’d entered Am-eric-hah’s version of Valhalla, a real man’s paradise—the power-tool section of the hardware store."

You know what, it's not even the power tools. They were a big thing in the 90s, a status symbol for a certain kind of men. Rolf's choice of tv: Bob Vila's This Old House and Home Improvement show a segment of the American population was certainly charmed by the idea of working with your hands. I'll even allow that power tools would seem like a magic luxury, unimaginable to a shipbuilder who made his own wooden nails. No, my two biggest problems with this sentence are the hackneyed phonetic spelling and the phrase "real men".

Rolf speaks perfect English by the end of his first scene, thanks to his magic belt, (which features a holy relic in a hidden compartment that Rolf was on his way to return to an English abbey to stop a famine in Norway for reasons.) That is, Rolf speaks perfect English except for the occasional word that is spelled phonetically for...humor? We're first on the receiving end of this writing quirk when Rolf learns Meredith's name. He calls her Merry-Death and will do so for the remainder of the book, even after they're married and he's given up returning to his own time. But even that and Am-eric-hah are ok. They're not funny, but they seem consistent enough with the book's internal logic. The belt seemingly can't translate words that don't have a similar, corresponding meaning in Old Norse. Electrice-city and come-pewter thus do make sense that he'd struggle with them. But he first calls his hero, Tim Allen, Timalley. That doesn't fit, nor does the fact that he evolves to call Tim by his correct name, but never does with Meredith.

But I wouldn't be upset and calling this one of my "biggest problems" in a book I've already admitted is terrible if it wasn't for Meredith's job title.

"Half of your words have no meaning to me. What language is this that you . . . we are speaking?" He rubbed the clasp of his belt while he spoke, as if for luck or answers.

[ . . . ]

"Like profess-whore. I can hardly credit you as a whore.”

Oh boy. There's a lot to unpack here. First, "professor" is not remotely pronounced "profess-whore", so the structure of our joke and our worldbuilding are already unsound. Secondly, while professor does only date back to the 14th century, so does profess. The belt should have no more knowledge of one than the other. Teacher, however, does have roots in Old English, a sister language to Old Norse and one Rolf claims to speak. His belt should easily have substituted tæcan long before making a crude and unfunny joke that Meredith is too plain to be a prostitute.

The book hates Meredith and this loops back around to problem the second, the "real man".

Meredith has problems. She's a doormat for her overbearing scholar parents, her flighty sister, even her dead grandfather, as she's taken a sabbatical from Columbia to teach at his small college in Maine and complete his dream of a longship. She has no friends, she's divorced, and as we find out in a tear-filled, (and rage-inducing,) confession, infertile. So when Rolf shows up and starts barking orders, despite her resistance, her life magically becomes better. Her parents are cowed, her sister gives her custody of her daughter so she's not lonely, she makes friends with her TA and some of the SCA reenactors who show up, and of course, she learns the sexual fulfillment of being with a "real man", which seemingly involves a lot of hair and also semen that can cure infertility. You knew it was going there.

Some of this attitude is the time period in which the book was published. Of the award-winners I listed back at the beginning, I actually didn't like Lord of Scoundrels for a similar reason. I found the hero too domineering. I find female submission to be one of the most popular tropes in mainstream romance, (though research into sexual preferences shows male submission is actually more popular in real life.) because there is something enjoyable in the thought of laying back and letting someone else take all your cares away. I also find these stories come in waves; we just had a big one in 2012 after the success of Fifty Shades. We're not here to shame people who are into femsub fic or alpha tropes. The problem is the female character has to be into it. Meredith is not. From the first page to the last, she fights Rolf to keep her independence. He marries her bound, against her will, because she refuses to commit herself to him when he's going to try to return to the Middle Ages. That goes well beyond the "I know best so let me sort out the building arrangements" thing they have going. Instead, Rolf thinks of Meredith's talking as "lackwit female prattle" and asks, "If she loved him, she would want to please him, wouldn’t she?" That's not love. Meredith, you should run like your tampon string is on fire.

Instead, blinded by lust for Kevin Sorbo, Meredith runs straight to Rolf's bed after the wedding. Because he'll sleep with whores, but he'll only make love to his wife. So after he realizes he's in love with her, he has to force her to marry him so they can finally get it on. Because that makes sense and betrays zero unhealthy ideas about sex work and intercourse. This is what we're here for, right? You want to know if anyone's going to have a dick attack.

Well, no. Dick attack was clearly the author's attempt at writing modern, male internal dialogue. Since here she's writing ancient, male internal dialogue, what we get is some of the purplest prose this side of the gothic.

“Drops of moisture from our first mating linger here,” he pointed out huskily, “like morning mist on seaside grass.”

[. . .]

“You feel like velvet fire licking at my staff,” he gasped as he pulled out, then drove in again, long and slow and sinfully pleasurable. “And you feel like hot marble,”

[. . . ]

“Your woman dew anoints me like molten lava,”

This same scene also features everyone's favorite euphemism, manroot, as well as "womanly nest", which I'm not even sure I know what that is? These all seem very silly now, but again part of this is the time period and the style. God knows I'm not defending these passages, they're awful, but I think even more offensive is when Hill tries to make sex fun.

Glad someone's getting wet around here.

Best you fortify your ramparts, my lady of the running tongue. This warrior is about to lay siege to your every portal.

This warrior is about to lay siege to your eVERY PORTAL. I need a lie-down. (Also he only even seizes one portal. Promises promises, Rolf.)

“Especially since I shared with you the secret of the famous Viking S-spot, which even you agreed was far superior to your modern G-spot.”

This is a reoccurring joke. It's never explained. Not where it is, how it provides pleasure, or why a Viking erogenous zone would follow the naming conventions of Gräfenberg. But Rolf tells every man he meets about the S-spot and sends them home to please their female partners. Another example of how a return to the age of raping and pillaging would actually benefit the 90s. Right.

But wait, I hear you all say. This review is wrapping up and we didn't get to the bottom of "Home Improvement fanfiction"? About that. So a third of the way through the book, Meredith's TA, Mike is reintroduced. He's here to serve as an eventual friend to Mer after Rolf leaves, but also to give Rolf the male bonding scenes we were all clamoring for. Mike has one defining personality trait. Despite being a graduate student in medieval studies, chosen for a prestigious assistant position, all we know of Mike is that he's a horndog. A horndog in love with one Pamela Anderson. He makes this known loudly and frequently. The Baywatch (and Home Improvement) actress is mentioned sixteen times in twenty chapters. When Mike and Rolf meet, Mike immediately starts waxing poetic about how hot Pam is. Because the author's definitely met a man before. Definitely. So Rolf, being an alpha and a fixer takes it upon himself to call Pam's agent. How does he get that information? No idea. But here's the worst part: it works. We start getting needy phone messages from NINETEEN NINETY-SEVEN, PLAYBOY COVERGIRL PAMELA ANDERSON.

"Will you pursue this Pamela creature till you gain the bedding? I heard that she phoned you repeatedly this past week."
In fact, this works so well that Rolf takes it upon himself to make another series of wildly expensive long distance calls to LA and track down Tim Allen. He loves Tim Allen. He references Tim, actor and character, repeatedly and the author even goes so far as to insert their like-minded philosophies into the background of scenes.

" [. . .] Tim Taylor was explaining to his wife Jill why big breasts were God- given male magnets."

So Rolf wants Tim to come help him build his longboat. Unsurprisingly, considering he got one of the hottest women in the world's phone number, he speaks to a long line of agents and producers who all agree it is a great idea for Tim and the actors to fly to Maine and use the longboat in an episode. This doesn't actually happen and you think the plot line has been dropped until! *deep breath*

Meredith finally accepts both that Rolf is a time traveler and she's in love with him.She has nothing holding her to the twentieth century, so she asks him to take her back to 997 with him.Rolf refuses because he's already had one wife die.Meredith won't marry him if he won't take her, he won't leave without marrying her.The aforementioned kidnap wedding occurs, our heroes finally sleep together, and they spend two blissful weeks waiting for Rolf to finish his boat and the Devil's Moon to rise again.On the day of the moon, there's a tearful sending off.We get a flash-forward to the next day where we're told that Rolf's boat was once again struck by lightning, sunk, and he and his figurehead, Ingrid, are once again sucked into a whirlpool.Except it leaves him in 1997 instead of returning to the past.Rolf's picked up by two fishermen who take him to shore in exchange for knowledge of where the S-spot is.Rolf checks into a hotel and sees a news report of his "death", featuring Meredith crying. He realizes he'd be a real douche to do this to her again and again since he can't stop trying to get back to his time as long as he has this saint's relic.So he flys to Norway to do some research and finds out the famine actually broke the day he went through the whirlpool so his destiny isn't to take the relic back, it's to keep it in the future where it can't affect the weather?So then he travels to England and where the abbey was in his time, but it's just ruins.Then a ghost of the saint burried at the abbey shows up, takes the relic, tells Rolf to follow his destiny and points to a single rose, which somehow signifies Meredith even though by now we know she's pregnant so it should be two roses.Rolf then goes to London or Paris or something to auction off all his Viking jewelry and then finally after six weeks returns to Maine to tell Mer he's not dead.Initially their reunion is a happy one and they bang on her desk,but then he lets it slip that he got his new clothes in London and Meredith is rightly pissed that Rolf faked his death, didn't tell her his research had proved he didn't have to go back to the past, galavanted across Europe without so much as a postcard, and then showed up like nothing happened.They have their big Big Mis, Mer kicks him out of the cabin, and we get a couple chapters of angst until Meredith's niece tells her to turn on Home Improvement.


Upon turning on Home Improvement, what is Meredith, and by proxy the audience, treated to? Rolf of course!  Tim Taylor has decided to soup up his speedboat and hires Rolf to teach him how to construct a longboat, which are famous for their ability to go fast and be manned by one person, obviously. Al and Wilson are also there, trying vainly to make jokes as Rolf flubs his lines, curses, and speaks directly to Meredith through the camera in one of the strangest scenes I have come across. I'm forced to believe Ms. Hill believes television shows are actually plays performed by very small men living in her tv? Even more bizarre is the fact that Rolf is invited back. Anyway, the next day Meredith goes home, secure in her knowledge that Rolf is still in LA where the show is filmed, but surprise! He's in her house and takes her at knifepoint again until she agrees to kiss and make up.

While I try to keep ATTASU a funny but enlightening look at books that go off the beaten path, unfortunately, this time around, I'm just sad. Hill has written eleven books in the series, so obviously they're resonating with someone out there. I've liked a lot of romance novels that I didn't find erotic, but I liked the plot. I've read some that the plot was shit, but something in the love scenes spoke to me. But I'll never understand books that seem to actively hate and harm their female readership. Yes, there's a certain delight in reading a really bad scene, laughing at a truly outlandish description, but it's not worth risking supporting problematic content like this. I can give you a hundred books with a dominating love interest without the near-rape and kidnapping. And that's not a plot point you can blame on the 90s.

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