Posts Tagged Regency romance

Mary Robinette Kowal’s “Valour and Vanity” Is a Perfect Alternate-Regency Read

Sorry about the long hiatus, folks. I was getting one of my books to bed, and that took some time…now, since A LITTLE ELFY IN BIG TROUBLE has been turned in, I can get back to reviewing.

Valour and VanityVALOUR AND VANITY is the fourth book in Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist Histories featuring Lady Jane and David, Lord Vincent — a married pair of glamourists (read: magicians) living and working in the Regency era. (Please see SBR’s previous reviews for SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY, GLAMOUR IN GLASS, and WITHOUT A SUMMER for further details.)

VALOUR AND VANITY starts off with Jane and Vincent being on a trip with Jane’s family — particularly Jane’s newlywed sister and brother-in-law. They’ve been enjoying themselves on a family mini-tour of Europe, but Jane and Vincent need to go take care of some glamourist business…as they’re nobles, and as Vincent knows Lord Byron (yes, that Byron), they’ve decided to go to the island of Murano (in Italy, now considered part of Venice) as he’s staying there. But their real purpose in Murano is to consult with the legendary glassmakers of that island.

Note that Jane is a full partner in this marriage. It’s viewed as a loving eccentricity by most, as Vincent does not like to be away from Jane for very long. But Jane’s gifts are just as strong as Vincent’s…and that’s going to be needed.


Let’s put it this way. The trip to Murano does not go off without a hitch. Instead, Jane and Vincent are robbed. Lord Byron isn’t around and his “housekeeper” (actually his mistress) doesn’t know when he’ll be back. And the man who “restores” their belongings and puts them up in style isn’t all that he seems.

So they’ve been robbed. Some of their wealth has been temporarily restored, which they take at face value. And they find a glassmaker — one “recommended” by the same shady figure who “rescued” them– and start in with the work they need to do. And they create some glamour in glass, something that may aid soldiers and others during daylight in hiding themselves rather than something for art’s sake.

Then the shady character disappears, with their belongings…most especially the enchanted glass Vincent and Jane just spent so much time creating. And the law shows up.

You’d think this would be a good thing, but it isn’t. While the law does say this shady figure was not the nobleman he was pretending to be, the law doesn’t seem to believe Jane and Vincent. Further, the shady guy managed to get the “replacement funds” Jane and Vincent had written for…which means their bank account is empty. They’re left impoverished, without resources, and have no allies.

So what’s to do?

If you’ve read the previous three books in this series, you know Jane and Vincent will not go down without a fight. Of course they’re going to find a way out of this mess. They will find allies — some quite unexpected, some expected (as Byron eventually shows and wants in on the action) — and they will do whatever they must to set the record straight.

(Note that I would not normally give away so much of the plot in a review, but Ms. Kowal’s site (and the book’s own front matter) says that VALOUR AND VANITY is much like what would happen “if Jane Austen wrote Ocean’s Eleven.”)

Anyway, while there’s plenty of plot — it’s a heist novel, after all! — the main things I adored about VALOUR AND VANITY were the quieter touches. Jane and Vincent get along very well in all circumstances, both personally and professionally, and that’s great to see. I admired their indomitable spirits, and believed that together they truly are stronger than apart.

Of course, Jane and Vincent cannot see themselves from the outside. But we can. And we know they are heroes…even though they, themselves, definitely don’t.

Bottom line? VALOUR AND VANITY couples realistic romance with genuine action, excellent historicity, entirely believable magic and genuine pathos for a perfect read.

Grade: A-plus

–reviewed by Barb

**For readers of romance: I’ve been asked to give “heat levels,” and I’m going to try to remember to do that. The “heat level” here is very mild…they’re married, and we know they enjoy marital relations. But those relations, beyond a kiss or two, are not shown.

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Romantic Four-Play as Romance Saturday Returns

As it’s been a while since I’ve done a Romance Saturday post here at Shiny Book Review (SBR), I thought I’d serve up a special treat — four reviews of four different types of romances await the reader. And as Valentine’s Day was yesterday, I thought it might be interesting if I treated this more like a dinner — with an aperitif, an appetizer, an entrée (the main course), and a dessert.

Four romances. No waiting.

Let’s get started.

Our aperitif is by Sherry Thomas and is entitled THE BURNING SKY. It’s a young adult fantasy romance set in late 19th Century England, and features Iolanthe Seabourne, Elemental Mage, and Prince Titus of Elberon, who live in an alternate reality that intersects with England in such a way that magicians frequently cross from magical Elberon into non-magical England without too much distress. Titus is a Prince, but he does not rule as another realm has forced him into vassalage. He’s a teen on the verge of adulthood, doesn’t have any idea who his father was (his mother refused to say before she died years ago in an uprising) and his recently-deceased grandfather was such a bitter old man that Titus could barely stand the sight of him. And Iolanthe is a mage who commands all four Elements — Fire, Air, Earth and Water — even though she doesn’t exactly realize it at the start of the book.

More to the point, Iolanthe is the one foretold to kill the Bane — a man who’s lived more than one lifetime and cannot be permanently killed by a normal man or woman. And because mages who can command four elements are rare, Iolanthe was hidden for years and was not trained to the limit of her ability, either, in order to keep her from the Bane’s sight.

So when Iolanthe finally betrays herself, she’s a sixteen-year-old on the run. Prince Titus is her only ally, but she doesn’t fully trust him . . . more to the point, the only way to hide her is to bring her into 19th Century England, a place she doesn’t truly understand, and ensconce her at an all-male school, the famous Eton College. And to the Prince’s credit, he quickly does this, as Eton is both his prison and his refuge.

Quickly renamed “Archer Fairfax,” Iolanthe excels at most athletic pursuits, outdoes the boys in Greek and Latin, and in general enjoys herself thoroughly. But her feelings for the Prince cannot be denied . . . will they throw off the Bane, or won’t they? And will she ever be discovered as a female in disguise?

I enjoyed THE BURNING SKY in many ways, as it’s a quick read with a decent-to-better romance as Iolanthe and Prince Titus are fun characters with a nice dynamic between them. Ms. Thomas seemed to be enjoying herself thoroughly here, and her storytelling had wit and life as well as an understated, age-appropriate passion — all good.

However, it’s not a grade-A read. It’s closer to a grade-B read — well-executed, deft, pleasant, and completely forgettable once you’ve turned the pages.

Still, I’d read more of Ms. Thomas’s fantasy, no question.

Our appetizer is an English historical romance,  THE LUCKIEST LADY IN LONDON, also by Ms. Thomas. It stars Felix Rivendale, the Marquess of Wrenworth, and the woman who eventually becomes his bride, Louisa Cantwell. She’s a woman of gentle birth but little money, and feels she must marry well . . . this is a tried-but-true plotline, but there are a few interesting touches. Lord Felix is an appealing rake whose polish masks a ferocious intellect, while Louisa’s charm and light conversation mask the fact she’s his intellectual equal. And it’s because they’re both extremely smart that their sexual passion is so strong, a particularly appealing touch.

As usual with the romances of Ms. Thomas, the dialogue is crisp and for the most part well-executed, and the reasoning behind how these two got together makes sense.

However — and this is a big however — I found little life to this romance. Lord Felix was mistreated in childhood by both parents, and his pain is palpable, but I don’t see why Louisa would go for him as there’s nothing inside her that would seemingly respond to his pain. Yet she does so without complaint, partly because she wants his immense fortune (which, to be honest, she never hides from either the reader or Lord Felix), partly because he is her intellectual equal and she doesn’t expect she’ll ever find another man who is.

If you haven’t read any of Ms. Thomas’s work, THE LUCKIEST LADY IN LONDON should divert you for a few hours. But ultimately, it is nowhere near as good as her two best romances — PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS or NOT QUITE A HUSBAND (both reviewed here) — which is why I recommend you read those instead.

Our entrée is by debut novelist Giselle Marks, whose pleasant Regency romance THE FENCING MASTER’S DAUGHTER is a nice addition to the genre. It stars Edward Charrington, the seventh Earl of Chalcombe, recently of the 3rd Dragoon Guards, and Miss Madelaine Deschamps, the aforementioned fencing master’s daughter.

The novel starts off agreeably with Madelaine rescuing Lord Edward from a vicious streetfight. Three armed assailants had downed Edward due to an old war wound suffered during the fighting in France disallowing him to fight at his usual capacity, and he would no doubt have been killed if not for Madelaine and her man-at-arms Henri fighting them off. As one man was killed and another grievously wounded, Madelaine says to everyone that Edward did the deed — and because he’s an Earl, no one questions him any further.

Of course, Edward feels guilty that he wasn’t able to handle his own affairs. But as he’d been hit hard on the head and suffered a concussion, he truly couldn’t be faulted. He does his best to find Madelaine again, as he wants to reward her . . . and did she really have the face of an angel?

And why are people trying to kill Edward, anyway? He’s just another Lord . . . he doesn’t have immense wealth, doesn’t have any known enemies, and even Napoleon’s men shouldn’t care any longer because Edward is lame and is never going to return to the battlefield.

As the romance progresses, Madelaine finds herself falling for Edward, even though she’s vowed she’ll never marry (for reasons that must be read; I refuse to spoil them). So will he manage to convince her that he’s not like other men, most of whom have been roués at absolute best? Or won’t he?

All I’m going to say further about the plot is this — I enjoyed it, thought there was some life and energy there, and greatly appreciated the touches of wit Ms. Marks sprinkled throughout her novel.

There’s a lot to like in THE FENCING MASTER’S DAUGHTER. The fight scenes are well-executed and lively, the dialogue — what there was of it — was well-rendered, I liked both Edward and Madelaine as characters and wanted them to achieve their “happily ever after” ending, and the historicity was excellent.

But there are some weak spots here that puzzled me. For one, much of the plot seemed summarized. There wasn’t nearly enough dialogue in spots to suit me. There was hardly any internal monologue — what the characters are thinking has to be deduced from external events instead. I didn’t see any reason for this, either, because what Ms. Marks did is actually harder to render than giving readers a few quoted thoughts now and again.

Further, because the historicity is so good, Ms. Marks actually went a bit overboard in her use of description. It is a perfectly period Regency romance — I cannot find fault with it on that score — but for modern-day readers, the descriptions alone may be a bit too much to bear.

With a top-notch editor, Ms. Marks’ novel would’ve been a guaranteed hit, at least in this quarter — a solid A. But because Ms. Marks did not have that top-notch editor (whoever edited for her did a workmanlike job and was competent, but didn’t address the faults listed above), this is a B-level debut instead.

Still good. Still interesting. Definitely memorable. I’d gladly read it again.

But it should’ve been even better.

Finally, our dessert course has been prepared by the redoubtable Rosemary Edghill, whose time-travel romance MET BY MOONLIGHT is back in print and available at Amazon as an independent e-book. Diana Crossways is a modern-day Wiccan priestess from Salem who owns a bookshop. It’s a stormy Halloween night (Samhain, by any other name) and she just wants to get to her coven meeting, but a rare book has been dropped off that requires her attention.

As Diana takes charge of it and starts to turn the pages, a bolt of lightning knocks out power to her shop. Something compels her to go out into the storm rather than stay inside in safety, then another bolt of lightning sends her elsewhere . . . to a forest in England directly before the “Glorious Restoration.” (If you’re not up on your English history, we’re in 1647. Thomas Cromwell has taken charge of England.) A coven is there to receive her — dripping wet, shivering with cold — and while Diana does see an enigmatic presence as well (a young man, dark and handsome, but somehow alien), she cannot dwell upon it.

Diana’s taken in by Abigail Fortune, one of the coven members, and is passed off as Abigail’s niece, Anne Mallow, from London. Abigail doesn’t know what Diana is, but as it was Samhain and that’s a holy night to those of the traditional faith (not yet called Wiccans, but the forebears of same), Abigail doesn’t question Diana overmuch, either.

“Anne” finds herself trapped in time without the creature comforts she’s used to, amidst a rigid society made worse by Cromwell’s depredations, and cannot quite catch her bearings. But then she sees the young man again, this time dressed in severe plainness, and is told his name is “Upright-Before-the-Lord.” Of course, this young man’s name is nothing of the sort, but unlike Diana, when this young man was found in the forest, he was taken in by Puritans of a particularly obnoxious vintage.

How can these two lovers be united, considering the times they live in and all that stands against them? How much help can Diana expect from the coven, especially as they must be discreet as this definitely is “the Burning Times?” And will Diana ever manage to get home again?

All of these questions are answered in ways that are satisfying, realistic, and historically honest — a neat trick that very few writers are able to pull off.

MET BY MOONLIGHT is perhaps the best time-travel romance I’ve ever read. It has heart, style, wit, verve, historicity, realism, and emotional honesty — a phenomenal and poignant read, something every romance reader should enjoy if they have any sense or brains about them.

So your final grades are as follows for this day-after-Valentine’s Day Four-Play:





–reviewed by Barb

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Eloisa James’ “The Ugly Duchess” — Good Plot, Strange Romance

Long-time romance novelist Eloisa James is known for her humorous romances, many set during the Regency period of the early 19th Century.  Some of her best romances come in sets; for example, the four book set about the Essex sisters (MUCH ADO ABOUT YOU, KISS ME, ANNABEL, THE TAMING OF THE DUKE and PLEASURE FOR PLEASURE) are interlinked, with the same characters showing up again and again as each sister gets married.  And this book, THE UGLY DUCHESS, also is part of a set — alas, not an interlinked set, but one based off various fairy tales.

As you might imagine, THE UGLY DUCHESS is a take-off of the Hans Christian Anderson story “The Ugly Duckling.”  It stars Theodora Saxby, unbeautiful heiress, and James Ryburn, the Earl of Islay and heir to the Duchy of Ashbrook.  Theo is a ward of Duke Ashbrook’s and has grown up with James, thinking of him as a brother.

However, the Duke of Ashbrook has run into major money problems, and has gambled away not only his own fortune and his son’s, but part of Theo’s as well (the part he could get his hands on).  For this reason, he insists that James, who’s just turned nineteen, marry seventeen-year-old Theo without delay despite Theo’s lack of beauty.

To James’ credit, he sees Theo (who he insists on calling the childhood nickname of “Daisy” throughout) as a woman of strong character.  Because of this, James sees that Theo is beautiful in her own way, if not necessarily in society’s, and as he’s always been great friends with her, wants to protect her.  This is why he insists that Theo be allowed to make up her own mind with regards to the nuptials — but it’s also why he doesn’t tell Theo right off the bat that the Duke has gambled away everything and then some.

Once Theo realizes that the handsome James wants to marry her, her brotherly feelings for him subside; in come the romantic feelings that she didn’t even know she had.  (This despite the fact that her mother believes something is extremely hasty about the impending nuptials; Theo’s mother has a good nose.)  She kisses him, the stars collide, the world looks dazzlingly bright — really, it’s a Kodachrome moment — and the wedding goes forward.

Theo and James share one deliriously happy night, and James thinks it might work out after all.  However, in comes the blustering Duke to thank James for his “sacrifice” (that is, being willing to marry an ugly woman), and of course Theo hears it all and throws James out.  This prompts James to storm off, leave the country, and ultimately take up a most unexpected career — he becomes a pirate.

Theo, on the other hand, stays home.  She manages to forgive the old Duke before he passes away (of shame, one would hope; the death occurs mostly off-screen); she puts all of her energy and passion into the Ashbrook estate.  Ultimately, she fixes all of the Ashbrook financial problems with a goodly amount of hard work (remember, this is a fairy tale, so Theo being a financial wizard — unbeknownst to her or anyone else at the start of the book — stays right in character with the plot), buries both the Duke and her own mother, and tries to do “the good and the right.”

And they both realize they’re lonely, and of course they miss each other, but do they communicate?

No.  Of course they don’t.

Look.  This tends to happen a lot in romances (the dearth of communication between the principals coupled with a complete lack of the usual social skills).  But as per usual, a bit of communication right away could’ve solved everyone’s problems.

Of course, then we’d have no story.

Moving on, James has decided to call himself “Jack Hawk” and has taken mistress after mistress in his new piratical career, but it’s all empty.  He’s faking it.  He knows it.  And he’s most unhappy.

As for Theo, as it’s been seven years, she’s decided to have her husband declared dead.  But wouldn’t you know it?  Her husband, James, throws off his borrowed identity and crashes the “death in absentia” ceremony, proving to one and all that he truly is alive.

So at this point, we have a couple who haven’t seen each other in seven years.  Will they get along?  Will the passion they had years ago spark to life again?  Or will it all fade away to the point that Theo asks for a divorce?

(The last question is asked merely as a formality, of course.)

Here’s my main problem with THE UGLY DUCHESS: while it’s a good novel in many respects, I don’t really buy James-the-heir’s transformation into Jack Hawk the pirate.  And because I don’t buy that transformation, I have a hard time seeing Jack — er, James — coming in and being this big, lusty man who can’t keep his hands off his newly-adjudged beautiful wife (as in the meantime, Theo’s turned into an astonishingly gorgeous woman.  Of course.)

Plus, there’s something about Theo that bothers me, too.  She’s almost too nice; she’s been slighted from the beginning due to her looks, but she takes no overt notice of this.   About the only reason we do know that it hurts her (aside from her conversations with Lord Cecil Pinkler-Ryburn, the heir presumptive to the Duchy of Ashbrook due to James’ long absence), is due to an outfit Theo wears of swan’s down — a way of twitting everyone without being vulgar.  Hmph.  (In case you’re wondering, Ms. James apologizes for the anachronism of this at the end of the book, too . . . as Hans Christian Anderson’s story wasn’t published until 1834, yet the bulk of this story is set around 1815.)

So, we have a too-nice heroine with a “macho man to the extreme” hero.  What’s going to happen?

Well, considering this is a romance novel, expect a great deal of sex coupled with Theo’s absolute submission at the altar of her new-found husband.  And a few conversations to make us feel better about it all in the bargain.

However, I didn’t see the submission of Theo as necessary or even advantageous to the plot.  This is a very strong woman we’re talking about, fairy tale character or no; she’s brought back the Duchy of Ashbrook from the brink of financial ruin.  She’s had to bury two parents — the man who raised her, the old Duke of Ashbrook (reprobate though he was), and her mother — completely alone.  She’s borne up under immense scrutiny, first from being adjudged ugly, then by all the gossips whispering nastiness after her husband left so abruptly after the wedding.

But she’s just going to submit to her husband as if he never left?

I don’t buy it.

Yet the way the story is told is charming.  The humor that you’d expect from an Eloisa James novel is present and helps give this book some life.  And it’s actually drawn from a historical parallel, as Ms. James points out in her note at the back of the book . . . but my problem wasn’t with James the gentleman pirate, per se.

It was with the whole idea that Theo should submit to him and like it, instead.

Look.  Sexual tastes come in all flavors, and I’ve read things that have disturbed me far more than this.  But for whatever reason, I just did not like the way these two came together as a couple, as it did not seem realistic whatsoever.

That said, THE UGLY DUCHESS reads well and easily.  It has funny moments.  And I mostly liked Theo, even if I did think she was too good to be true.

Grade-wise, however, that adds up to a B-minus book that you definitely should get from the library rather than buy new.

And that’s a shame.

— reviewed by Barb

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Suzanne Enoch’s “A Lady’s Guide to Improper Behavior” — Decent Romance, Better Adventure Story

Suzanne Enoch’s A LADY’S GUIDE TO IMPROPER BEHAVIOR is an interesting romance between Teresa “Tess” Weller, a London socialite and the (anonymous) author of a popular guide on decorum for Ladies of Quality, and Colonel Bartholomew “Tolly” James, late of India.  Something went badly wrong for Col. James in India, to the point that only he survived an attack by the Thuggee out of his entire company of men — yet the British East India Company refuses to admit an attack took place and has instead attempted to ruin Col. James’s reputation.

The latter part of the plot — exactly what happened to Col. James, and why is it that the British East India Company is behaving so badly? — is far more interesting than the romance, which despite its appealing characters often appears formulaic.  That said, the action-adventure part of the plot is so very good that it carried me past some of the lesser sections, and it definitely carried me through the romance between Col. James (only Tess calls him Tolly) and Tess.

What helped to redeem the romance and bring it to a level I consider acceptable-to-above (thus the appellation “decent” that you see in the title) was the fact that Tess does have a spine and a heart, as she refuses to believe  that Col. James is anything less than honorable no matter what the bigwigs at the British East India Company say.  That she’d have this strength of character was not apparent from the beginning, as Tess is definitely a character who grows and changes during the course of this novel . . . in some senses, this is more of a coming of age story for both parties than it is a romance, but I enjoyed the additional complications and felt Ms. Enoch did a good job with them.

The story improves markedly whenever Col. James is actively in the picture; his journey, from a scarred military veteran no one in authority wants to believe to finding his feet, finding his friends, proving what happened to him is the plain, flat truth and succumbing to love with the not-so-dull Tess is more than worth the price of admission.

And the fact that Tess does grow and change allows her to realize that sometimes it’s better to behave improperly by societal standards — better all the way around, as it’s more enjoyable, not to mention far more realistic (as no one can be saintly all the time) — than to insist on “proper behavior” at all times.  Because if Tess had behaved by “proper” standards, as soon as Col. James was accused of making up the attack by the Thuggee by the British East India Company bigwigs, she would’ve had to back off and leave him alone, no matter what her feelings were.  And that would’ve been the wrong answer, all the way around — (of course, had she taken that avenue, there wouldn’t have been much of a story there, and Ms. Enoch is much too gifted of a writer to do that).

Overall, A LADY’S GUIDE TO IMPROPER BEHAVIOR is worth reading for the romance, the “coming of age” issues and the action-adventure parts of the plot, but I enjoyed the action-adventure and the “coming of age” plot-strands much more.  That being said, A LADY’S GUIDE TO IMPROPER BEHAVIOR is a very good love story with some realistic complications, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Grade: B-plus.

— reviewed by Barb

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“A Beginner’s Guide to Rakes” — Fun, but . . . .

Suzanne Enoch’s A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO RAKES is a Regency romance about Diane Benchley, the Dowager Countess of Cameron (who’s in her late twenties), and the Marquis of Haybury, Oliver Warren, a gambler and rake who’s about the same age.  Two years prior to the story’s opening, when Diane was newly widowed, Oliver and Diane had a torrid affair overseas, which ended only when Oliver ran off.   This is important to know, as otherwise, the later romance between the two will not make much sense.

The reason these two are brought back together is quite unusual for the Regency genre; it seems that Diane wants to open a legal gambling house.  (This is something that wasn’t likely to happen in Regency-era England.  Gambling was known, but it was strictly illegal.)  She’s decided to open it in Adam House, the residence she inherited from her late husband, Frederick, and needs Oliver to help her set it up.  Diane intends to open up her casino with as many female employees as she possibly can, but few if any women at that time would admit to knowing how to gamble, much less have enough knowledge to become a dealer.  This is why Diane needs Oliver (and his gambling expertise) to help her train as many women as possible in the time allotted (five weeks) before her in-home casino opens. 

Of course, Oliver wants nothing to do with this plan, but Diane has a way around Oliver’s objections: blackmail.  The more she gets Oliver to help her, the more enmeshed she becomes in his life, and he in hers.  Ultimately, both find out they’d rather be with each other, as obnoxious as they can often be, than with anyone else. 

This plotline is “played straight” for the most part, which is a real problem because it has way too many elements that are out of character for the Regency era.  Here’s just a few of my objections regarding the lack of historical accuracy in Ms. Enoch’s novel:

First, while I can believe in Diane as a woman wronged who wants revenge (whether on her late, unlamented gamester husband, Frederick, or on Oliver for running off), I can’t really understand why she thinks she’d be able to run a legal gambling establishment out of her house.  That no one — not Oliver, not anyone else — tries to point out that a casino wasn’t legal at that time and place and thus couldn’t be set up the way Diane wishes is a major plot hole.

Second, while there are many strong women in history — and while at least a few of them liked having more strong women around them as trustworthy servants and employees — it stretches credulity way too much to have so many female employees at this gambling den.  Ms. Enoch sets it up that the only men who have regular employment at the Adam House casino are bouncers, but that just doesn’t work for the time and place under discussion.  At most, there were a few women who worked as illegal casino employees as dealers and the like.  But there certainly weren’t very many of them.

Third, Diane’s behavior is much too modern for the era.  She wants to rescue all of the women who work in her casino, and has a female confidante who is well-versed in knives and guns — a woman who is, more or less, Diane’s bodyguard.  None of this makes sense for the Regency period.  Not one bit of it.

Fourth, the naming conventions are wrong with regards to Diane’s name.  She should be referred to as the Dowager Countess of Cameron rather than “Lady Diane Benchley.”  (Benchley is her late husband’s family name.)  This is never rectified, and considering this is something Ms. Enoch should know in her sleep due to her many previous Regency romances, it makes no sense.

These major inconsistencies and anachronisms can’t help but mar the plot for anyone who has any historical knowledge of the Regency era whatsoever.  That’s why no matter how much fun the romance between Oliver and Diane is — and it really is fun — A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO RAKES can’t help but be a frustrating reading experience.

That said, I enjoyed the book immensely (as a type of alternate history, mind you) because the romance between Oliver and Diane was good, believable, sensual, and well-told.  But everything else about it — literally, every other single thing — doesn’t make sense in an English historical romance set in the early 19th century, much less in the Regency period.  (While the story doesn’t explicitly mention the Regency of King George III, Napoleon’s recent defeat at Waterloo is referenced, which means it’s a Regency.)

That’s why I’ve split the grades.  One is for pure enjoyment; the other is for historical accuracy (or the lack thereof), as follows:

Historical Accuracy: F.
Enjoyment: A.

The overall grade, therefore, is a C. 

— reviewed by Barb

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Olivia Drake’s “Scandal of the Year” isn’t Scandalous Enough

Olivia Drake’s new Regency romance, SCANDAL OF THE YEAR, is the third in the “Heiress in London” series and stars Blythe Crompton.  Blythe is an heiress to a major fortune and is described as beautiful (aren’t all Regency heiresses?), spirited, and dutiful.  Blythe is the youngest of three daughters, and has been brought up to believe that marrying a Duke should be her strongest and worthiest ambition.

However, all isn’t as it seems.  Her parents are imposters, and a man named James Ryding is determined to unmask them.  Ryding has been reared as a gentleman, but takes a position as one of the Crompton’s footmen in London in order to find the evidence he needs to unmask Blythe’s parents as the imposters they are so he can inherit everything as he’s the last legitimate heir to the Crompton fortune (so far as he knows).

So the elements of the plot were clear from the beginning.  There’s a “mistaken identity” thing going on.  There are many farcical elements, especially when Blythe asks James to pretend to be a foreign prince in order to divert the Duke of Savoy’s daughter, Davina (who hates Blythe due to her family’s lack of nobility), so Blythe can have a shot at marrying the Duke.  And there are the balls, the musicales, the various flotsam and jetsam expected out of a Regency romance . . . all of that is there and described in vivid detail.

But what’s missing here is some life to the plot.  Blythe was not really drawn well.  She’s shrewd, and wants to be better educated than she is, and she knows deep down in her heart that there must be more to life than marrying a Duke (especially one who’s much older than her like the Duke of Savoy, and deeply in debt due to gambling).  She wears fancy clothes, she’s used to the life of luxury, and it’s hard to empathize with her because while the heart of her life is a lie (her parents really are imposters, which we know from the start so that’s not a spoiler), the fact is, she’s a spoiled English heiress.

James Ryding, on the other hand, is drawn a little better.  His motivations are more about finding out what happened to his cousins, the real George and Edith Crompton, than finding out what happened to his fortune.  His father was a wastrel, and James knows what’s truly important: love, which can’t be bought.  A marriage that’s sound and built on a good foundation.  And taking care of people — doing the little things that count, like making sure Blythe’s toast isn’t cold when it’s delivered to her — is a major part of his make-up.  So of course I believed what he was doing was the right thing even though he did deceive Blythe from the get-go and his plan amounted to a great deal of manipulation and strife.

Still, what James did was for the right reasons, and I could forgive that.  The only question was, would Blythe forgive him, and if she did, what sort of life would they live?  (If you’re expecting an unhappy ending out of a Regency, please don’t.  But I will say Blythe did grow a little bit toward the end of the novel and I was happy to see it.)

SCANDAL OF THE YEAR, put simply, just wasn’t scandalous enough.  This is a love match that doesn’t necessarily look like one, rather than a truly shocking event like what happens during Sherry Thomas’s excellent novel PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS (set in the 1890s).  (The SBR review for this is available here.)  I expected more out of this plot than I got, and while it was a light, fluffy, breezy read — all good — it didn’t deliver on its initial promise.

Still, if you’re looking for something that’s easy to read and contains a great deal of vividly described imagery about balls, musicales, etc., you could do worse than SCANDAL OF THE YEAR.  But you should check your library first to see if they have a copy rather than going out and buying this . . . otherwise, you’d be better off reading one of Rosemary Edghill’s Regencies if you can find them (check your local library as they’re all out of print — her best was TWO OF A KIND, though TURKISH DELIGHT and THE ILL-BRED BRIDE were also excellent), or Georgette Heyer’s (your library will have these), or a number of other authors.  Because while SCANDAL OF THE YEAR isn’t a bad novel, it also isn’t great.  Ms. Drake can and should do better than this.

Grade: C

— reviewed by Barb

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Candace Camp’s “Affair” is One Fun Regency

Candace Camp’s newest Regency romance is AN AFFAIR WITHOUT END, which stars Vivian Carlyle.  Vivian’s twenty-eight, single, and happy to be so as she’s the daughter of a Duke so she’s both richer than most and more able than most women to live alone by choice.  Vivian swore off marriage long ago, as most of the married couples around her weren’t happy, and besides, she has no wish for any man to handle her affairs (as once she married, her husband would have full control over her finances as was the custom).  However, Vivian likes men a great deal, especially Oliver, the Earl of Stewkesbury.  Because she’s helping Oliver get his American nieces settled (“bringing them out,” in Regency parlance), she’s been around him frequently, and has started to realize that Oliver isn’t half the stuffed-shirt he seems to be, plus he’s much more attractive than she’d ever given him credit for, too.

As for Oliver, he’s come to realize over the past few months (as this is the third book in the Willowmere series) that Vivian is not only a very caring woman as she’s done well for three of his four American cousins, but she’s also extremely good-looking and makes his heart race like no one else.  But he’s worried; she’s a flamboyant redhead who does her own thing and says whatever she likes, and she’s mostly gotten away with it because her father is a Duke and everyone in the ton knows it.  How can he, a predictable, staid Earl, have an affair with her — the affair she wants, the one she approached him over — when it’s just not done?

Despite this somewhat unusual premise, the Regency atmosphere here is excellent; we see the expected balls, walks, outings in carriages, and it’s all quite enjoyable.  But the best reason to read AN AFFAIR WITHOUT END is because of dialogue like this, from pages 134-5, between Oliver and Vivian:

“Surely you must realize there can be nothing between us!”  He spoke in a fierce whisper, leaning toward her.

“I know nothing of the kind.  Why can’t there be?”

“Because you are a woman of genteel birth, a lady.”

“That does not make me any less a woman.”

“It makes you a woman to whom it is offering a grievous insult to kiss as I have kissed you and not marry.    And surely it must be obvious we cannot marry.”

Vivian began to chuckle.  “You think that I would not be a proper wife to you?”

“Good Gad, no.  I cannot think of anyone less suitable to be my wife.”

Note that what Oliver’s objecting to is the idea of a sexual fling between them because he knows Vivian deserves better.  But it doesn’t take him long to acquiesce because the passion there is just too great to be stopped.

The secondary romance needs to be mentioned as it’s also quite fine, that being the romance between Vivian’s brother Gregory and Oliver’s American cousin Camellia.  Gregory, a Duke’s heir, is tired of being trotted out on the marriage mart; he’s a scholar who loves the quiet countryside and makes no bones about it.  But he’s still a young man, and he wants romance like anyone else; when he meets the plain-spoken Camellia, who doesn’t care about titles or precedence or anything save Gregory the man himself, he falls and falls hard, and it’s completely understandable why.

There’s one more plot element that needs to be discussed, that of a ring of jewel thieves who are causing trouble for the ton.  Vivian loves jewelry, as her father’s favorite mistress, Kitty, taught her everything she knows.  (In our day and age, Kitty and the Duke would’ve married even if Kitty had to divorce her own spouse to do it.  But back then, the best the two could do was a somewhat-discreet affair.)  So when Kitty’s favorite necklace is stolen, Vivian is incensed and vows to do something about it.  This forces Oliver to stay around to make sure Vivian doesn’t get hurt as she’s not known for her discretion, which helps the two figure out a way to communicate without driving each other automatically straight up the wall in the process.  This hastens the romance between them, as communication is the key to any relationship, and greatly added to my reading pleasure.

This last plot element about the jewels illustrates two things that were very important.  First, Vivian has a caring heart as she knows Kitty really loved her father, which is why she becomes so incensed and vows to do something.  Second, Kitty’s presence in Vivian’s life is almost certainly where Vivian learned to successfully flout convention, which is why she would risk an affair with Oliver when she’d never before had congress with a man.  (That Vivian refuses to say she’s a virgin only adds to the fun, as she’s smart enough to know Oliver would never have given her a chance if she had.)

This is a very fun Regency romance, and it’s one “affair” I hated to come to an end.  I enjoyed every single last bit of AN AFFAIR WITHOUT END and will look forward to anything Ms. Camp writes next as it’s obvious she has her stuff together.

Grade: A.

— reviewed by Barb

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