Author: Con Sellers
Mood: There is nothing you could do or be or need that would make this book the right choice.
TW: rape. All parts of this review mention it, because it’s all through the book.
Marilee is like what would happen if Louis L’Amour suddenly decided late in his career to write historical, rape-fantasy porn. You get:
- Rich descriptions of the Deep South and Southwest landscape, as experienced from horseback
- Detailed descriptions of gear, like clothing and tack and weapons
- Dialogue that instantly immerses you in the era
- One unnaturally gorgeous female character with great spirit and survival skills, but all other women (except one) only exist to be jealous of her, to be raped, or to have sex with the male lead
- A gruff male who can get away with any number of shitty actions and character flaws because women are helpless in the presence of his manly height and good looks
- One Comanche chief and one freed Black man with comparatively ‘favourable’ characterizations, versus the crude stereotypes that are all other BIPOC players
I picked up Marilee hoping for a trashy Civil War romance, and a fun change of pace from my usual Western fare. It was a change of pace alright – but definitely not fun.
I can’t explain why I even finished the damn thing! I think I just had to know how it all turned out. At its core, buried way down deep under the racism and sexual assault and despicable love interest, Marilee is about the relationship between a badass girl and her horse.
And that’s why I hate this book. There’s a great premise underneath it all that would make a fantastic book or movie in the hands of another writer. Just enough potential was dangled in front of me to make me keep reading. But it never paid off.
Marilee begins with young Marilee hiding out in a slave cabin on her family’s plantation, long after Yankees burned most of it to the ground. Decent survival skills have kept her alive. Then a Yankee soldier shows up and rapes her.
It’s jarring, but unfortunately pretty realistic for the post-war South. Marilee manages to kill him and steal his horse, a stunning stallion who she names Bradburn after the plantation. She rides out in disguise as a boy.
A group of Rebels finds her bathing and they want to rape her, but one of their troop, the surly Joe Langston, stops them. By this point in the book you’ve had several flashbacks to his youth, where this poor farmboy lost his virginity to a rich planter lady who then ditched him for a slave. Joe is extremely crass and rude, but you kind of get what made him that way.
You think okay, because this is a romance he’s going to eventually learn to stop hating all rich folks and turn out to have a good heart. Nope. He decides Marilee needs to be humbled and rapes her.
Marilee ditches the Rebs and continues her journey west, determined to make her fortune breeding horses and then return to revive the plantation. She is raped many more times by many more men along the way. Meanwhile, Langston is boinking his way across the lower states, with no shortage of women desperate to get in his pants.
Yet he can’t stop thinking about that special girl he raped that time. *Barf*
I’m not here to judge anyone’s fantasies. Just Westerns.
So even though I REALLY didn’t like the romanticizing of rape and the gratuitous use of sexual violence throughout the book, I’m not saying Marilee is terrible because it contains those scenes.
Marilee is a terrible book because:
- The characters are insanely underdeveloped for a near-500-page novel
- The romance is unbelievable because there’s not one good thing about Joe Langston
- The horse dies while shitty rapist Langston gets everything!
I already went off about the vapid characters at the start of this review, but seriously – there’s no one here to root for other than Marilee and Bradburn. And she’s only a good concept. The actual writing of her character is exactly what you’d expect from an old guy narrating a 17-year-old discovering her sexuality.
Author Con Sellers’ obituary in an Idaho newspaper says he got kicked out of the military for alcoholism, and proceeded to write a lot of porn to pay the bills. He then moved into historical romance, which I guess is how you’d classify Marilee. But you can really feel that porn-y guy behind it, the way the rape and sex scenes go on and on for many pages, the lens lingering on the women’s bodies and using a ton of colourful language, while little effort goes into any other action or storytelling.
It’s ironic that Marilee starts to think women and BIPOC people are treated like livestock, forced into breeding and manual labour as needed, when that’s exactly how Sellers treated those same characters.
- Marilee is always described by her ridiculously good looks, and Langston’s infatuation with her is always memories of her naked body – when he thinks of her personality it’s always with mockery or scorn
- The schoolteacher Elizabeth is intelligent, but as soon as she has sex she’s shrill and obsessed with marriage
- Martha is a strong, wealthy, and independent older woman whose attractive physical features start getting described as soon as Joe ‘teaches’ her the ways of sex
- The Black and Latina women are either curvy and horny or curvy and submissive
- The Comanche women are described as ugly, unhygienic, and crass
- The Comanche men are attractive and primitive
- The Apache men are ugly and violent
Then we have Joe Langston.
Langston says he’s ‘never had to rape a woman’ to get sex, but then justifies raping Marilee because her confidence reminds him of another rich woman he hates, and also he hasn’t had sex in awhile. Every time he thinks about Marilee, his perspective is that she was obviously a slut based on her body’s involuntary reactions during the assault, and that he’s sure she’s sleeping her way back up to the top.
Every woman he meets helps him survive with food and shelter, buys him more time, or teaches him something. He doesn’t do any growing on his own, it’s all handed to him by women who don’t know what he did to Marilee, women he discards once his character has gained something to move the story forward in its quest to portray him as changed.
And despite never officially apologizing to Marilee for the rape, never once asking about or acknowledging all of her trauma that he mocked and condemned through the entire book like it was her fault and/or she wanted it, just by saying the L word at her one time… We’re all supposed to buy that THIS is her happily ever after. That this woman who survived so much, who has her own hopes and dreams and the skills to back them up, belongs with Langston.
It’s an uncomfortable waving-off of the rape, like because they end up together it didn’t count or even worse, was necessary to their relationship.
There are a bunch of other things about Marilee that are at best irksome (painfully slow patches in the middle, a toddler who speaks like an adult), and at worst downright offensive (everything about the Black, Comanche, and Apache characters and scenes).
I get that Marilee and Langston would think and speak that way about other races. But the weak stereotyping used to create literally every other character intentionally makes these two white people seem like they are, in fact, superior.
There are also massive plot jumps with no warning. A chapter might be a flashback, it might be the same time as the previous chapter but in another place, or it might be several years ahead.
And yet so many people, so many WOMEN, praise Marilee on Goodreads. WHY?! Is it just because of all the drawn-out, heavily detailed sex scenes? Or did you skip those and just read the chapters focused on Marilee and her wonderful horse? I could maybe see that. And the writing itself is actually pretty good. Too bad about… everything else.
I’m insanely glad to be done with this book. I need to read a bunch of like, innocent picture books or something to undo what Marilee did to my brain.