Title: Libertine’s Kiss
Author: Judith James
Year of Publication: 2010
Length: 384 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: New book and a new author
Rating: 4 stars
I’ve been saying for a while that I wish more historical romance authors would plumb new, under-explored eras for their potential. The overwhelming majority of historical romances are Regency romances — and there’s nothing wrong with those, I adore them (clearly), but they do make up a hefty chunk of the market. What’s left tends to be vague medieval tales — often not set with any specific historical framework in mind, but dropped rather blindly into Ye Olde Englande or Bonny Scotland, with only the vaguest gesture at authenticity. Others will wander a little later, heading on through the Victorian era (Lisa Kleypas has done this particularly well) — but by and large, Regencies still seem to rule the roost.
Libertine’s Kiss takes place in one of the eras I’ve long considered ripe for the plucking: Restoration England, just following the return of lively, lusty Charles II to the throne. Far from being a stable and ever-growing empire, England’s just coming out of a few decades of civil war, and that turmoil sets the backdrop for Libertine’s Kiss. Elizabeth and William were childhood friends, verging on sweethearts, but the political upsets separated them, and so when, years later, William stumbles into the house of a Puritan widow, wounded and seeking aid, he doesn’t recognize her. She knows him, though, and they share a steamy night together (and you’ve got to love a book that gets to the sex less than 30 pages in). They get separated again, though, and as the political wheel turns, Lizzie loses her lands and wealth thanks to her father’s sympathies once the royalists are back in power. She goes to court to appeal to King Charles for redress of her grievances… only to discover William again.
What I love about this is that it’s romance with a dark side, romance with a seedy underbelly. There are not nice and neat sets of rules to be obeyed like in Regency romances. Preserving one’s reputation is far less of a concern. Indeed, a girl can hardly count herself as being worth notice unless there’s some scandal attached to her name — as Elizabeth Walters discovers. And both the characters have some psychological trauma — Lizzie from an abusive spouse, William from an abusive tutor in his childhood. Both of them are, in a way, damaged goods, but it’s William who has the more visible scars — he drinks too much, he’s a shameless rake (not a toothless breed as in Regency romances, but here a real seducer and debaucher), he has a scathing and vicious wit… and yet, underneath all of that, you can still see the hero. It’s nice to see an author not flinch from giving this sort of depth to the characters, to let a story go to those dark places.
Despite the darkness, this book is a lot of fun — especially once Lizzie decides to make the best of the situation and enjoy herself as a merry widow. Lizzie and William both have a lot of hurt and a lot of pain in their pasts, but you can see them helping each other back to the light. They have to face their demons, and once they do — fireworks. Literally. 😉
The book is populated with some of the other wonderful (and real) characters of the era — Samuel Pepys, Barbara Palmer, and King Charles himself. James also weaves in some fantastic poetry, much of it borrowed from the fantastic Earl of Rochester, others from Robert Herrick, John Donne, Edmund Spenser, and so on. It’s nice to see an author relying on verse that isn’t Shakespeare’s — much though I do love Shakespeare, it’s almost become a cliche in historical romances to use his lines as supplements. James shows a lot of creativity, particularly in how she weaves the story of Britomart from The Faerie Queene into Lizzie and William’s story, and she proves herself quite well-read. My favourite poetic insertion:
A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness:
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction–
An erring lace, which here and there
Enthrals the crimson stomacher–
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribbands to flow confusedly–
A winning wave, deserving note,
In the tempestuous petticoat–
A careless shoe-string, in whose tie
I see a wild civility–
Do more bewitch me than when art
Is too precise in every part.
William recites this to Lizzie while explaining to her the court fashion to appear a bit disheveled — another nice touch, showing that James knows her sartorial details as well. And I love Restoration clothes — curls and ribbons and fripperies, all designed to look as though they’re about to fall right off. It’s the sort of lush indulgence that permeates the atmosphere of the whole book. James’s writing style is particularly well-suited for this time period, as she gives herself over to the sort of heady descriptions and sensuous delights that the folk of the Restoration court so appreciated.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I’d love to see more of its ilk out on the market. I recommend this book to anyone who’s looking to break out of the standard fare of historical romance. With James, you get the Happy Ever After, but you have to endure quite a bit more to get there. If you’re up for a bumpier, darker, and altogether thrilling ride, Libertine’s Kiss might be just the thing.