There are certain characteristics that come to mind when we think of fictional heroes: they’re attractive, smart, good at fighting bad guys, etc. But one of the most overlooked traits is also perhaps the most important – an impeccable sense of timing. Any hero worth his salt shows up in time to save his beloved from emotional, financial, or physical peril. And if he doesn’t… well, then you end up with Harlot, Victoria Dahl’s new novella about anger, sex, angry sex, and all the other stuff that happens when a knight in shining armor shows up about six months too late.
Type: Erotic historical novella. Let’s unpack that a little: Erotic means that the sex in the book is more frequent and/or less conventional than traditional romance novels. In this case, it’s both. Historical obviously means taking place in the past, and here we’re talking the Gold Rush era or a little after. Novella means longer than a short story but shorter than a novel; Harlot clocks in at 129 pages. Now that we’ve dealt with our teachable moment, let’s continue.
The couple: Caleb Hightower is a rough around the edges young ranch hand who rejects his stepfather’s life as a banker and heads west to seek his fortune in gold after promising Jessica Willoughby that he’ll be back to marry her. Jessica is the daughter of a small town Colorado doctor. She’s smart, pretty, and sweet, although she might be lacking a little in the resourcefulness department since she falls pretty quickly into prostitution as her only option for paying her debts. Caleb turns out to also be pretty misogynistic, even for olden days, and when a combination of bad luck and coercion forces Jessica into prostitution, Caleb feels self-righteously betrayed.
Tropes: Second chance love story, asshat male hero who eventually comes around, family members who seem sort of bad turning out to be the literal worst.
The story: Caleb and Jessica are childhood sweethearts who plan to marry once Caleb returns from California with a bunch of gold. Unfortunately, while he’s gone, Jessica’s father dies, leaving her impoverished and desperate. As we all learned from Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, in olden times Colorado women can only be doctors or prostitutes, and since Jessica has no medical degree, she becomes a whore. Caleb has been in no contact because of some issue with dyslexia or possibly bad handwriting, so he doesn’t know any of this. When he comes back to Colorado and finds his refined sweetheart is selling her body, he gets super mad and decides to punish Jessica by purchasing a bunch of sex from her. Because nothing says “I’m angry” like giving someone multiple orgasms.
How’s the sex? Graphic and frequent. As mentioned before, a romance novel in the “erotic” category usually has a bunch of sex in it, and this book is no exception. Dahl doesn’t let the fact that the book is short hold her back, and if you’re looking for a steamy read, you’ll find it in Harlot. But Dahl is also working a little deeper here (no pun intended but also no regrets) in using all that sex for character and relationship development. Through the intimacy tied in with the sex, Jessica and Caleb learn the depth of their feelings for each other. They also learn the world of sex isn’t just a black and white dichotomy between pristine, marital lovemaking and dirty, sinful prostitution. And they find a lot of satisfaction discovering all of the stuff in the middle. I’m talking about sexual satisfaction. There is really a lot of sex in this book.
Is this book for you? It’s admittedly a little hard to get over the way Caleb feels entitled to his feelings of betrayal, as well as his lack of understanding of his own culpability. But if you can be patient, you’ll see that even in the old west setting, Dahl doesn’t let Caleb – WHO HAD SEX WITH PROSTITUTES IN CALIFORNIA – get away with the double standard implicit in his claim of infidelity. The best scene in the book is when Jessica finally calls him out on his bullshit and kicks him out of her (whore)house. It’s an excellent lesson on hypocrisy around sex and virtue that lots of people could stand to learn even in modern times.
Dahl’s choice of the novella form also seemed to fit. Harlot reads quickly, and there wasn’t really enough story, at least in this iteration, for a longer book. The shortened length also saves Dahl the trouble of explaining the plot pieces that don’t add up. Any reader wondering, for example, why no one in the small town that thought so highly of Jessica ever offered to pay her debts, or even just help her make a plan not involving prostitution, can assume that there wasn’t enough time to get into the details.
Conclusion: Harlot is a quick, satisfying, and incredibly hot read with some pretty great confrontations of blatant sexism. If you think traditional westerns are fine except for a lack of sex and feminist messaging, this is probably the story for you.