Stockholm Syndrome Romance: Why is it Popular?

rageIt’s tirade Friday. Rant alert. 

Let me start off by saying that I adore Naomi Novik as a writer. I’ve read her Temeraire series, which was fantastic, and I’ve seen her at panels and in interviews. She’s very knowledgeable and well-read, with a fangirl side to her, and is a huge advocate for fan-works. I was surprised that she would choose to go the Young Adult route after her success with Temeraire (basically, the Napoleonic war with dragons) but I could understand. Every author should experiment and try new things, a new path, especially if their current series is starting to wear them out. But her most recent work, Uprooted has me concerned, and it’s not just her book either.

I received a sampler of Uprooted from a co-worker, but couldn’t really get into the story. That was fine with me. But then the same co-worker started telling me later about how “Uprooted” was getting rave reviews, so I did some research. I thought to myself, perhaps I was wrong and it’s not so bad. There were great reviews about the world-building, the magic, the characters, and the fairytale inspiration. But then I started seeing the negative reviews about the romance hidden within the waves of glowing recommendations. And as I was reading them, I started getting heavy flashbacks of Twilight and Fifty Shades rage, which brings me to my topic today:

“Why is “Stockholm Syndrome” romance popular?” It’s not exactly a topic free of controversy: a character is imprisoned by their future love interest, some stuff happens that brings them closer, obstacles are overcome, and bam! True love. For a lot of readers this is hot stuff, and I want to explore why that is. This exploration is actually going to be about two topics: prisoner/captive romantic relationships, and abusive romance that turns into love. Is there a wrong way to do it? Is there a right way to do it?

Is “Uprooted” Similar to “Twilight”?

Now some of you may cry that Twilight is not a Stockholm Syndrome romance, and you’d be right. But I’m declaring it on the grounds that Bella experiences “captivity” with Edward, even though she’s not physically trapped with him. He holds her hostage in his car, watches her sleep, and essentially “traps” her in Forks by some mumbo-jumbo supernatural romance that comes out of the blue.

BUT, both works do display an abusive and/or creepy relationship that somehow is drawn up as love coming to fruition. Sarkan/Edward use intimidation and insults to both control and belittle Agnieszka/Bella, who then continue to be woe-is-me for the rest of the story. Sure both girls display some strength in the climaxes, but for a lot of readers, including myself, the blossoming romance that arises from this magic trick is amusing. There’s gotta be a fire under all this smoke, and it ain’t the sexy kind.

What I mean is that it’s so hard to believe that these ladies would instantly fall in love with these insulting (and decades older, but somehow still ageless!) love interests. What purpose does it serve to romanticize a man who calls you a horse-face one second, and then kisses you? Or who says that he’s dangerous, and she thinks “take me, I’m yours”? What was the train of thought that translated “you’re no good” to “good enough in bed”?

Now, we could get all political about it, “what is this teaching young girls!” kind of outcry, but in spite of my teeth grinding, I still stand by my belief that everyone has a right to read what they want. Hell, I’m just glad you’re reading. But my question is, how does this alleged “romance” contribute to the plot? I can understand when an abusive relationship is central to growth as characters, and they then experience an arc over the course of the story. I can’t understand an abusive relationship that pretends to be, or transforms instantly, into love without any just cause or purpose. After all, cause and purpose are the point of good plotting and storytelling. If you have an answer to my questions, please tell me.

The “Uprooted” Alternative: “Dragon’s Bait”

If you loved Uprooted, good on you. But if you were like me, and let down by the whole Stockholm Syndrome romance fail, I implore you to take a look at Dragon’s Bait by Vivian Vande Velde. It’s a novella about a young girl named Alys who is accused of witchcraft and being sent to be sacrificed to a dragon as punishment. To her surprise, the dragon Selendrile instead decides to help her exact revenge on those who falsely accused her. To me, this is how I expected Uprooted to be: the characters would bond over a shared cause or adversity by their own devices. Uprooted’s heroes share an interest in hating each other, which makes for boring story. There’s seemingly no goal, no sense of purpose other than a flawed teacher/student one. There’s no camaraderie or shared adversity to start with, qualities that are the basis of Dragon’s Bait and what makes it so appealing. (Another example of this is “Beauty and the Beast”.) Alys and Selendrile grow closer as they overcome physical obstacles, not by bickering like Sarkan and Agnieszka because she can’t do magic right or dress him correctly. That’s no realistic basis for love, to me.

“Captive Prince”: The Success of the Slow Burn

Now it’s time to look at the far end of the spectrum, a Stockholm Syndrome romance that just works. It’s believable, it changes both characters dramatically, and creates unbelievable tension, because at the end of the day one of them is under the control of the other. That’s even more brilliant than Dragon’s Bait, and I believe the best example of this is the Captive Prince trilogy by C.S. Pacat.

First things first: Captive Prince is a trilogy, and the third book isn’t coming out until February. But while Uprooted is a stand-alone novel, Captive Prince  was divided into three to give the characters the space and time they needed to bond realistically. It’s why I love it so much – it’s not a spark, but a slow burn of a romance. It’s actually really hard to categorize this book series: some consider it erotica because of its sexual content (but hello, there’s plenty of mainstream books out there that make this book look chaste), but it can also be shelved in fantasy because of its medieval setting.

Our two main characters are Damen, Prince of Akielos, and Laurent, Prince of Vere, two nations who have hated each other since as far as they can remember. When Damen’s father dies, his brother betrays him, taking the throne for himself and having Damen chained and shipped off to Vere as a “pet” slave for Laurent. But before you get your panties in a bunch that this is homo-erotica, don’t judge a book by its book jacket summary. Damen is not recognizable, and assumed to be a common slave in the court of Vere, even to the Prince. The series progresses as he struggles to keep his identity a secret while also helping Laurent in his political games. As it turns out, Laurent is in a pickle of his own, internally warring with his uncle over control of the throne.

What makes this series so successful is that the hate is palpable from the beginning. Unlike Sarkan and Agnieszka’s annoyances with each other, Laurent already holds a deep, justified prejudice against any Akielons, and has Damen nearly whipped to death at one point (the scars of which serve as a reminder of his potential cruelty for Damen throughout the books). They hate each other and each other’s cultures, and there’s justification for that hate, which drives the tension between the two as they realize that they must work together to get what they want: for Laurent’s throne and Damen’s freedom. Circumstances beyond their control push them together, even to the brink of war between their countries, and this adversity is what triggers the budding admiration. Again, don’t expect sizzling hate-romance: they don’t even touch each other until the last few chapters of the SECOND BOOK, and even then it’s only for a moment. But also, by then the romance is earned. 

Perhaps that was my main issue with Uprooted and Twilight: the romance was not earned. They did not change for each other, they did not overcome major adversities, their romances simply happened, and that kind of plot is too fleeting and forgettable for my taste. But with Captive Prince the slow burn is a major plot pay-off, a build-up of events and circumstances that forms a relationship that is believable. The whole series is spectacularly Shakespearean, moving from enemies to allies, then as friends to lovers. If you’re a writer and you want your captive to fall in love with the captor, there needs to be a bond first, which can’t really be found in Uprooted and Twilight.

If having a prisoner/captive romance gets your motors revved, more power to you. But I highly recommend that you seek out books that show a more adventurous growth towards romance, rather than something that’s rushed or based on anger.

End rant, back to our regularly scheduled programming this weekend!

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5 Comments Add yours

  1. Gaia says:

    Spot-on analysis here! I’m always uncomfortable with stories of abuse masked as bickering turning in fast-as-lightning love stories.

    As you noted, the total lack of build-up make them look stupid and unreal. Why should these girls (always girls, ugh) fall in love at first sight with boys that treat them like they mean nothing? Or tell them they’re dangerous? Or control every aspects of their life? Aside from anyone’s tastes, first-sight abusive “love stories” makes no sense in term of plot.

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  2. pascalle says:

    I feel like we read different books entirely. Uprooted demonstrated wonderful character growth and a heroine who tolerated zero nonsense once she got her feet under her, whereas Captive Prince and its sequel seemed too sadistic and hate-fueled to make any romance believable or warranted. Would you consider Howl’s Moving Castle a stockholm syndrome romance? While the plot device in question is absolutely an unfortunate trope, I feel like the term is being thrown around pretty loosely here.

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    1. majestatic says:

      I see what you mean, and perhaps we did both take away different things from the text. But you also brought up a good point: is Howl’s Moving Castle a Stockholm Syndrome romance? I haven’t read the book in years, so I’ll have to revisit it.

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    2. hoohoo says:

      This post is so weird to me because your argument relies on the idea that this book is about a budding romance between Agn and the Dragon. But it isn’t.

      This book is a coming of age, not a romance. She sleeps with the Dragon near the end of the book because she’s convinced they’re all about to die. They kiss (with some mild touching) midway through because of the excitement buzzing because Sarkan loves magic and she finally decided to pay attention. That’s it. This book isn’t about the two romantically getting involved with one another. The love in this book is between Agnieszka and Kasia. and more importantly, Agnieszka moving from the scared, helpless girl who thinks of herself as “anyone important” to a strong woman who clearly has the upperhand over the Dragon by the end of the book.

      You’d be right that Agnieszka and the Dragon’s relationship is no basis for love, which is why by the end of the book they’re *still* not in love with each other because the Dragon has yet to change, which Agnieszka acknowledges after the sex scene in internal monologue (but by the very last chapter, you can see him making small progress). Because again, it’s not about them. Their getting together is just a hook to get the story rolling and to force Agnieszka to grow up. We’re left to assume a relationship *may* be possible between them AFTER the book’s end.

      She *doesn’t* instantly fall in love with him. They kiss. They have sex. People do that with very little romantic involvement. I wish that was more acceptable in books by readers. There’s NO romantic confessions between Agneiszka and Sarkan. Only a *possible* allusion from Father Ballo because he can’t understand why Sarkan sent off Agneiszka.

      The book you’re comparing it to *is* a romance with the catch that the two are from warring countries, so OF COURSE it has to be a super slow burn for it to be realistic (and let’s be honest, The Captive Prince is weird, and that book has all kinds of weird shit in it, making this comparison even for weird for me). But that is NOT the situation Agneiszka and the Dragon are in. Comparing Agnieska’s situation to theirs is a little insane.

      Which brings me to the weird Stockholm comparison, because she chooses to follow Kasia with Marek halfway through the book (which Sarkan doesn’t argue against), and Sarkan runs away at the end as soon as he can. He’s not this “overbearing protector” like Edward/Grey, and she doesn’t cling to him.

      So, this is just a weird post to me. Because I don’t think you understood the book and were projecting some things onto it. So it’s like a review complaining about a thing that isn’t there.

      Like

      1. majestatic says:

        Oh man, I honestly forgot about this post. I was definitely a bitter little espresso when I wrote it. Good points!

        Like

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