Monthly Archives: February 2012

Scandal in Spring, by Lisa Kleypas

Title: Scandal in Spring (Wallflowers #4)
Author: Lisa Kleypas
Year of Publication: 2006
Length: 374 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 3.5 stars

This is one that doesn’t stick with me quite as well as the other Wallflowers books, and I’m not sure why. We’re back at the Westcliff manor to marry off the last of the Wallflowers, Lillian’s impish sister Daisy. The story starts off with her getting pretty brutalised emotionally by her father, who calls her a parasite and dares her to explain how the world has benefited from her existence. Ouch. He informs her that she has till the end of the season to find an English aristocrat to marry (the reason they hopped the pond in the first place), or he’s taking her back to New York to marry Matthew Swift, his protegee. Daisy revolts at the idea; Matthew as she remembers him is scrawny, dull, and overbearing, with all of her father’s worst business faults wrapped up in an unattractive package.

Well, imagine her surprise when the man himself turns up at the manor, filled out and handsome and doing charming things like making wishes in the well and freeing geese from snares. We learn, from Matthew’s internal dialogue, that he’s been in love with Daisy for ages, but that he never let himself believe in a future with her because of some mysterious skeletons in his closet. But, as is so often the case, the attraction becomes too compelling to ignore, and though he attempts to help Daisy to an entirely different husband, it becomes apparent to everyone involved that he wants her for himself. Daisy, at first infuriated by his high-handed manner, finds herself amiably provoked by him and eventually developing deeper feelings. Along the way, Daisy also learns to stand up for herself a bit, and she makes it clear that she won’t stand for a husband who dismisses her as inconsequential. She also comes to realise — and this is an interesting point for a romance novel to make — that the kind of ideal husband she has in mind (someone a lot like herself, romantic and bookish and impractical), would not at all make a good match for her. Scandal in Spring stresses a more practical balance in matrimony than a lot of books in the genre do, which is an interesting approach.

Needless to say, as is nearly always the case with Kleypas, the sex scenes are everything you hope for when you pick up one of these books. Kleypas has a talent for melding the physical and the emotional in a way that’s quite satisfying, and her erotica is never paint-by-numbers. I also enjoy that, for all she’s a historically-appropriate virgin, Daisy is not a frail and wilting flower. She takes initiative and demonstrates real sexual hunger of her own, without any of the virtuous, apprehensive hemming and hawing about it that can get so old so fast.

I think I would like this book more if the skeletons in Matthew’s closet had packed more of a punch. As it is, you sort of forget about them for most of the book, and then when they do pop up at the end, it’s clearly only to provide that necessary last-minute peril to the Happy Ever After. The subplot doesn’t really end up affecting much. It gives Matthew a reason (sort of) not to jump at the chance to marry Daisy in the first place, and it provides the third-act twist, but other than that, it’s pretty blurry and useless. I would much rather Kleypas have spent that time and those pages showing us some of Daisy and Matthew’s marriage. This was one story that didn’t need to end at the altar; I feel like they could still have a lot to work out with balancing their different natures, and there could’ve been a more interesting conflict there than the slightly odd hard right turn the story takes with the revelation of Matthew’s background.

Overall, Scandal in Spring is a perfectly adequate historical romance. It serves its purpose, it tells a nice story, it entertains for a few hours. Ultimately, thought, it’s not one of the ones that makes a tremendous impression. It’s not one I’ll pick up unless I’m deliberately revisiting the whole series, but it’s certainly no hardship to get through when I decide that’s what I’m doing.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

Timeless, by Gail Carriger

Title: Timeless (Parasol Protectorate #5)
Author: Gail Carriger
Year of Publication: 2012
Length: 386 pages
Genre: steampunk adventure
New or Re-Read?: New!
Rating: 4.5 stars
Spoiler Warning: For the series as a whole, Changeless-forward, really

I said in my review of Heartless that the Parasol Protectorate series just keeps getting better, and Timeless did not disappoint me. I think it’s the best of the series. All of the characters are handled well, Carriger’s descriptions are both vivid and precise, and her dialogue, as always, sparkles with wit and humour. Like the rest of the series, this is steampunk with a fine froth and a sense of humour. Timeless also continues the exploration of the political ramifications of the collision of the paranormal and the scientific, delving far back into he AU’s history as well as setting the stage for its future.

Timeless jumps two years forward from Heartless, two years that have been peaceful — well, as peaceful as anything is likely to get in the Maccon household, especially considering they live in a vampire’s closet so that said vampire can serve as adoptive father to two-year-old Prudence, who happens to be a metanatural. Born from her supernatural werewolf father and preternatural Alexia, Prudence possesses the capability to absorb a supernatural’s aspect — leaving said supernatural mortal until such time as Alexia can use her preternatural abilities to cancel everything out. It certainly makes life interesting — not least for their neighbours — but all in all, things seem to be sorting themselves out.

And then Alexia gets, by way of the local vampire queen, a summons to appear with her daughter in Alexandria (yes, the one in Egypt) before Matakara, the oldest vampire living. At the same time, Sidhaeg — Conall’s multi-great-granddaughter and Alpha of his old Scottish pack — shows up, looking for her missing Beta, who had been in Egypt on a mission for her. The Beta reappears, but gets murdered before he can get more than a few words out to Alexia. So Alexia packs up her family — and the Tunstells and their acting troupe — and heads out via steamer (werewolves being notoriously poor floaters). From there, the story whirls through a sequence of mishaps, supernatural political entanglements, and strange occurrences. The action clips along at a great pace, both in Alexandria and back at home, as the Maccons abroad and the wolf pack back at home both try to sort out the mystery of the God-Breaker Plague.

The really great thing here, which started to become prominent in Blameless and Heartless, is Carriger’s ability to not forget character development admist all the action. For a lot of the book, that really shines in Biffy and Lyall, though we do get a fair bit out of Alexia and Conall as well. Biffy’s swiftly becoming my favourite character in the whole series, really, because he goes through such a transformative journey from when we meet him to the end of this book. Without giving too much away, Carriger handles the various aspects of his personality and relationship dynamics really well, with a lot of tenderness and a lot of psychological awareness. She handles the expanding cast of characters without sacrificing any emotional realism, and she jumps back and forth between the two plotlines in a way that makes sure the reader never loses sight of what’s going on.

Carriger also does a nice job weaving multicultural elements into the story. I particularly like the “Drifters”, balloon-living nomads of the North African desert. We don’t get to spend a whole lot of time with them, but you get a sense of real cultural texture nonetheless. I love the idea of this herd of balloons, linked together by nets that the women and children use for social interaction. Her descriptions of steampunk Alexandria and Upper Egypt are a great blend of imaginative and clearly well-researched, and the cast of extras that the Maccon/Tunstell party meets there adds even more colour and excitement to the series.

I also commend Carriger for her ability to portray a toddler character — a notoriously difficult challenge in writing, and one that many authors seem to avoid at all costs. I’m convinced the difficulties in writing such young characters is the reason most happy-ever-afters end at the altar, or at least with the birth. But Carriger strikes it perfectly with Prudence. She has the right size vocabulary to reflect the state where vocalisation hasn’t quite caught up to cognitive reasoning; Prudence understands more than she can express, and this does seem to frustrate her at times. She also manages to make Prudence charming without being saccharine, another admirable feat; Prudence demonstrates the right balance of adorability, manic impulse, and short attention span for a two-year-old. She’s also part of the story without overwhelming it, which I appreciate; too often when series do incorporate kids, it becomes all about them. Alexia’s attitude goes a long way towards keeping this from becoming a trite or obnoxious trope.

I’ve said throughout the series that Carriger is at her best when she’s writing for herself, with her own style, rather than emulating other genres, and in Timeless, she seems to have trusted that impulse entirely. There are no moments of narrative awkwardness, where the story feels like something else has collided into it from the outside; rather, we are treated to the continuing adventures of Alexia et al in Carriger’s own witty voice. It’s a delight. My only criticism is that the denouement ties up a little too quickly. I could’ve used a bit more exploration of the new constructs our characters find themselves in at the end of the series, about how they’re going to move forward from here on out. Ultimately, it just ended way too soon; I could have happily spent a lot more time with these characters.

Timeless is an adventure story that manages to be lighthearted and emotionally tugging at the same time. Carriger gives us characters we can care about, but without ever taking herself too seriously. The series as a whole has fantastic energy, superb wit, and a sparkle that I’ve yet to find in other steampunk literature. The Parasol Protectorate series is just plain fun. I’m tremendously sorry to say goodbye to this series, but I’m delighted that Carriger’s world will be continuing in the YA Finishing School Series and the adult Parasol Protectorate Abroad series. The former will take place some twenty-five years earlier in the AU’s history; the latter is due to feature our Prudence, all grown up and taking on the world. Both are due out in 2013, and I eagerly anticipate their arrival.

2 Comments

Filed under Reviews

Sandman, Volume 6: Fables and Reflections, by Neil Gaiman

Title: Sandman, Volume 6: Fables and Reflections
Author: Neil Gaiman
Year of Publication: 1993
Length: 264 pages
Genre: fantasy/magical realism – graphic novel
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 3.5 stars

This collection has some really great stories, and some that I find rather unengaging. As with Dream Country, there’s really no through-line here, so it’s probably best to take each story individually.

Fear of Falling– The opening story, which, honestly, I find a little pedestrian. It’s the sort of thing every writer indulges in sooner or later, I guess: a story about creation, a story about when it fails, a story about fearing success. The best thing in this episode is the advice Morpheus gives to the struggling writer/director in his dream: “Is it that bad to fail, that hard to fall? Sometimes you wake, and sometimes, yes, you die. But there is a third alternative.”

Three Septembers and a January – I love this story to bits. It is the true tale of one of history’s quirks, Joshua Abraham Norton, the First Emperor of the United States from 1859 until his death in 1880. As Joshua is contemplating suicide, Despair tempts her older brother Dream into a bet: to see if Dream can claim and keep him, rescuing him from Despair, without his falling into Desire or Delirium. Against his better judgment, Dream takes the bet, and gives Joshua a dream of being Emperor — and so he becomes. What follows is an incredibly charming story of how he sets himself up in imperial majesty, never mind his actual poverty. He becomes a beloved local celebrity in San Francisco, cherished for his eccentricities, protected from persecution, selfless and benevolent in all his dealings. Desire cannot tempt him, and as Delirium notes, “His madness keeps him sane.” The best thing about this story is that, as I said, it is entirely true — or, given that (as we learned several volume ago) things need not have happened to be true, I should better say — it happened, it is historical reality, well-documented. It’s a wonderful inspiration, a testament to the power of a dream to sustain a life, to keep someone going. Cocooned in his perfectly sane madness, Emperor Norton is inviolable.

Thermidor – Lady Johanna Constantine, who we met back in Hob Gadling’s origin story, is on a mission from Morpheus in the fading days of the Reign of Terror. An Englishwoman, undercover in Paris, steals the head of Orpheus, the Dreamlord’s son (the head, incidentally, is still alive and talking, which we’ll learn more about later) and take it to safety. Robespierre, we learn, seeks to destroy the head, as he seeks to destroy everything he dismisses as superstition, sacrificed to the altar of Reason. The story progresses through several philosophical tangents, exploring the nature of liberty, the double-edged sword of revolution, and the place that the mystical and the impossible have in a post-Enlightenment world (a thread which the series will pick up again later). I like this story a lot, largely for that mix of historical reality and the fantasy of the Dreamworld. I also loved seeing Johanna Constantine in action, and I always wished she would have become a more regularly featured character.

The Hunt – In the modern age, a grandfather tells his reluctant granddaughter a story of their people. In the Old Country, a young man named Vassily meets a gypsy woman, who in exchange for dinner gives him a chain with a picture of a beautiful duke’s daughter on it, and he decides to set out in search of her. From there, it becomes largely an Eastern European/Russian fairy tale — with a couple of notable diversions. For one thing, the thin veil over the story is that “the people” are werewolves. For another, Vassily runs into Lucien, Dream’s librarian, who has misplaced a book that has fallen into Vassily’s hands — and thus, when Vassily most needs assistance, Lucien becomes the unlikely fairy godmother to help him out of trouble.

August – Late in the reign of Emperor Augustus, formerly mere Caius Octavius, the emperor disguises himself as a beggar for a day and discusses the world he rules with an actor named Lycius. I really enjoy this story in some ways, and it irritates me in others. It’s incredibly inactive — most of the panels are Augustus and Lycius just sitting on a stoop, talking. Some of the history is good, but a lot of it is completely wrong, the stuff of popular misconceptions about Roman society. I don’t know whether I’m disappointed in Gaiman for shoddy research, when he’s usually so precise about it, or if I should let it slide on the basis of this being 20 years old and thus an entire generation of scholarship behind. The most interesting part is the explanation of why Augustus set the boundaries of the Roman empire where he did — and, historically, the Empire’s swift decline began when they over-extended themselves. By Gaiman’s account, this had to do with a prophecy, that Rome would either flame and sputter for a few hundred years, or else spread to the ends of the earth and rule for ten thousand years. (Personally, I’d give quite a lot to see a graphic novel series on that version of history). Overall, this one somehow falls flat for me, which is odd, since the material should’ve been a gimme.

Soft Places – A young Marco Polo gets lost in a desert sandstorm and finds himself stumbling through the veils of time and reality, meeting with people from the past and the future, as well as our old friend Fiddler’s Green. I like the inherent concept behind this one — the very idea of “soft places” where reality thins, time bends, and the mystical collides with the mundane — but somehow this is an issue that never sticks with me. Somehow the characters just don’t reach out and grab, and while the art pretty perfectly reflects the story, that also means it ends up a whitewash in my mind. So, Soft Places is effective in weird ways, but not one of my favourites from this volume.

Orpheus – This is a good if not particularly inventive retelling of the myth of Orpheus, the musician whose bride dies on their wedding day, who goes to the Underworld to find her, only to lose her through his own lack of faith before he reaches the realm of the living again. The best thing about this storyline, which spans several issues, is the integration of the Endless into the tale. Orpheus is, in this version of the tale, the son of Calliope and Morpheus — an interesting twist, since most versions put him as the son of Calliope and Apollo, and in “August”, Augusts mistakes Morpheus for Apollo. That’s one of those little ways Gaiman twines his stories together, that you might not appreciate on the first or even the fifth read, but which curls there, underneath, waiting for you to notice it. Anyway — we meet, for the first time, the entire family of the Endless gathered for Orpheus’s wedding to Eurydice, including the missing prodigal, here called only Olethros — which translates as “Destruction”. When Eurydice dies, as in the myth, Orpheus wants to go to the Underworld for her; here, the decision involves the Endless. Dream initially refuses to help, and father and son quarrel, but Uncle Destruction sends Orpheus to talk to Death — who says the way to get in and out of the Underworld alive is for her to agree not to perform her function on him. The myth progresses as we know it, all the way through the less-often-told story of Bacchantes tearing him to pieces (in a few rather gruesomely detailed pages) and his still-sentient head floating down the river.

The Parliament of Rooks – Another one that fails to impress me. Of all the elements of the Dreamworld, the Eve-Cain-Abel part always seemed weird and out of place to me. They always seem like they’ve come in from a very different kind of storytelling, and so I never much enjoy their presence. The best note in this story is Eve’s tale of the three wives of Adam, from the Jewish apocrypha.

Ramadan – This story has some of the best art in the series, though I find the tale itself somewhat lacking. The sultan of Baghdad believes that he is living in the most glorious city in the most glorious time ever created, and he strikes a deal with Morpheus to keep it so forever, in the Dreamworld. And so Morpheus locks the city in a magic ball, removing its glory from the real world but preserving it forever in fantasy. The story ends in what was then modern Baghdad, in 1993 — eerily similar to what is modern Baghdad in 2012, war-ravaged and destitute, but still a place where a young boy might dream of a golden past.

Overall, there’s a lot in this volume about the place where dreams and the mundane world collide, and that’s a theme I really enjoy. There are also a lot of threads, less pronounced, about family, other relationships, and their value. From Vassily’s choice to prize a soulmate above wealth and carnal delights, to Augustus’s pronounced familial disappointments, to the amazing love that wraps Emperor Norton, to, of course, the tangled web of the Endless. It centers, ultimately, on Morpheus’s fraught relationship with his son. Orpheus disowns him in a moment of despair, and unyielding Morpheus refuses to reconcile even after tragedy befalls his son. If you know where the story’s headed, you can feel what it’s beginning to spin to in this volume, as certain aspects of the story pick up more energy and as more information falls into place. Fables and Reflections is thus oddly situated between plot-advancing and ponderous, displaying both the overall arc of the series and the imaginative exploration at which Gaiman excels.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

The September Queen, by Gillian Bagwell

Title: The September Queen
Author: Gillian Bagwell
Year of Publication: 2011
Length: 389 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 3 wobbly stars

I have tremendously mixed feelings about this book. The 3-star rating is sort of an average, which is why it’s wobbly and rather blurry around the edges. There are things I liked about it better than that, and there are things I disliked it on the level of a 2-star book.

The September Queen is the story of Jane Lane, who played a critical part in helping Charles Stuart, who would become Charles II, escape from England following his defeat to Parliamentarian forces at the Battle of Worcester. During their flight, Charles and Jane become lovers. Most of the book takes place during the Interregnum, an under-represented period in historical fiction, but the events cast their shadows both forward and backward, as the narration reveals what came before and the nuances of the political struggle, and as most readers inclined to pick up this book probably know that Charles does, in fact, reclaim the throne of England. (Hope I didn’t just spoil the 17th century for anyone, there).

So, we begin with Charles about to make what would be his last great stand against Cromwell’s forces, through the eyes of a well-bred girl from the local gentry. I was inclined to be on Jane’s side from the start.

I have come to the great age of five and twenty, and but one man has stirred my heart, and that came to naught. An old maid, her eldest sister, Withy, would say.

What is wrong with me? Jane wondered. Why can I not like any man well enough to want to wed him? It is not as though I am such a great prize. Pretty enough, I suppose, in face and form, but no great beauty. Witty, and learned, but those features are of little use in a woman, of little use to a man who wants a wife to be mistress of his estate and mother to his heirs.

What if there will never be someone for me?

I empathize. As the book went on, though, it got a bit harder for me. Jane wishes for adventure and gets far, far more than she bargained for — and in that sense, her story rings as a cautionary tale. And she loses herself in the bargain. She falls desperately in love with Charles while helping him escape and spends the rest of the book mooning over him, despite not seeing him for years at a time. Years. Years during which she lives a celibate life, shuffled between the courts of his relatives, while Charles is out doing pretty much everyone he encounters, occasionally dropping Jane a line to let her know that he’s going to give her some money someday. It’s a terribly uneven relationship, and it paints Jane in a pretty pathetic light. I do appreciate that, eventually, at the end, she tells Charles just what he’s done to her. She forces him to own up to that, and it’s a very powerful moment. But this flicker of self-awareness and empowerment comes far too late in the story, and she backs away from it pretty quickly.

As I read more books about the Interregnum and Restoration (the period appears to be growing in popularity, perhaps as authors and readers both realise that it has a whole lot more sex appeal built right in than the Tudors did), the overwhelming message seems to be one that reinforces the importance of female fidelity, while casually shrugging off male philandering. If you really love him, this model says, it doesn’t matter how many other women he’s seeing. He’ll value you for staying true even when he ignores you for years at a time. That’s how you know that your love is pure, and that you’re superior to all those other avaricious/libidinous whores. Since so much of Jane’s story is a historical blank, I would have loved to have seen Bagwell take some more exciting risks with it — give her a love affair with someone else, some other dashing Cavalier in exile, rather than just swallowing her feelings for ten years and enduring like a good little neglected cast-off. Instead, she ends up in emotional paralysis for a full decade and for most of the book — and that’s both frustrating and a little boring to read. Ultimately, it made it much harder for me to like Jane as a character. I lost respect for her, more and more so as the book went on and she shied away from every opportunity to assert herself. I would have liked to have seen some show of spirit from this woman that Bagwell so clearly wanted us to believe was intelligent, capable, and special. Perhaps this is why I’ve always had a soft spot for Barbara Palmer, even though in many ways she really was a nasty piece of work. She was a fascinating study in contrasts, vivacious and temperamental, kind and cruel, extravagant and exuberant, envied and detested — and she, at least, didn’t allow Charles to hold her to a higher moral standard than he held himself to. Perhaps some historical novelist will take up the challenge of Barbara soon — I would find it a tremendously welcome change from the narrative of pathetic, doomed fidelity.

Other things I disliked were more on the side of technique. Jane is, emotional paralysis aside, a little too perfect. Everyone adores her, from men she spurns to half the princesses and queens in Europe. Though she undoubtedly has trouble in her life, she has no personal enemies whatsoever — or even personal rivals. She never encounters most of those she competes with for the king’s affection, or encounters them only briefly and at a distance. Not only is it rather unbelievable, it makes the story a little dull in places. I was aching for something — anything — by way of actual conflict. In the first half of the book, we at least get the excitement of evading Cromwell’s army, but in the second half of the book? Nada. Even Jane’s conflicted feelings about Charles mostly take place at a distance, and when her cousin and then her brother find out about her affair, their anger with her lasts less than two pages. This utter lack of personal conflict gives the book a rather meandering feel, without a real drive, particularly since the exciting historical events happen at such a distance once Jane is removed from the immediacy of Charles’s story.

My other major criticism is of pacing. The first half of the book takes place in a matter of days; the latter half over a decade. That alone makes for a somewhat odd read. There are ways in which I feel this book might’ve been better if it had been more of the first and hardly any of the second. Even within each half, though, there are definite pacing oddities, and for the first hundred pages or so, the book seems very uncertain what it wants its mood or even its genre to be. The story doesn’t flow particularly well.

Overall, this is a very sad book, I think. The reader knows from the start, if she knows anything at all about Charles II, that the romance is doomed. Honestly, I’m surprised that in the thorough peppering of Shakespearean quotations (appropriate in places, annoyingly intrusive in others), Bagwell resisted the urge to refer to Charles as “one who loved not wisely but too well” — which is (taking the quote removed from original context) how I’ve always thought of him. Bounteous with his affections, not a drop of malice in him — but utterly faithless, incapable of loyalty, and very much an “out of sight, out of mind” sort of man. And so I find Jane’s story very sad — and not in a moving or cathartic way, just in a vaguely dissatisfying way. Charles ruins her life, flat-out. Not only does he tear her from her home, her family, her country, her friends, not only is he the direct cause of dire misfortune for her, but he steals her heart and never gives it back. It makes him seem tremendously selfish, among other faults. He strings her along for ten years, knowing he can’t promise her fulfillment but unwilling to let her go. She loses a decade to him, and, despite the ending (which I’m trying very hard not to spoil), I never got the sense she ever really breaks free of his influence. Which I think is more tragic than anything else that happens to her.

So, really, I don’t know how to recommend this book. If you don’t mind being as conflicted as I was, or if you just plain like the Restoration that much, it’s worth the read. I do commend Bagwell for taking on such a little-known heroine. It was a treat to read a historical novel without an awareness of the major details of the story; I mean, though I knew she couldn’t end up with Charles, I didn’t know what would happen to her, if she would marry eventually and who, where her travels would take her. I got to find all of that out as I went along, which is almost never the case for such a thorough history geek like me. (And I somehow mastered the urge to get on the DNB and spoil myself, which is even more impressive). I did also enjoy the sexy bits — while they lasted. One of the many genres The September Queen tries on in those first hundred pages is straight-up romance novel, and those are actually some of the best bits (not least because they seem to have the strongest sense of intention). As I stated at the beginning of the review, this book averages out to 3 stars… but just barely, and that mostly on the credit of taking on an obscure character. After having enjoyed The Darling Strumpet so much, this one rather let me down.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

Devil in Winter, by Lisa Kleypas

Title: The Devil in Winter (Wallflowers #3)
Author: Lisa Kleypas
Year of Publication: 2006
Length: 374 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4 stars
Spoiler Warning: For the events at the end of It Happened One Autumn

This book surprised me when I first read it, I recall. I had been tremendously intrigued by St. Vincent in the earlier books, but after his abduction of Lillian at the end of It Happened One Autumn, I really wasn’t sure how I felt about a kidnapper and potential rapist serving as the hero of the novel. As for Evie, well, I had nothing against her, but she faded into the background of the first two Wallflowers novels — the most wallflowery of the wallflowers, as it were. I felt less personal resonance with her, though she did remind me of people I’ve known.

But really, that Kleypas crafted her in that way was masterful. Through the first two books, Evie is the shyest of the Wallflowers, victim of a pronounced stutter which makes conversation painful — all the moreso when she’s nervous, which, of course, she is around precisely the men she’s meant to be attracting. She’s also, as we had hints of earlier but have confirmed in Devil in Winter, the victim of substantial abuse from her family. She’s the daughter of a well-born lady who ran off with Ivo Jenner, owner of a gaming club (who readers may remember as a secondary character in one of Kleypas’s Regency novels, Dreaming of You). Her mother died, and a gaming club being no place to raise a young girl, her father allowed her mother’s family to reclaim her. As Jenner’s done quite well for himself, Evie stands to inherit an enormous fortune on his death — which looks to be soon, as he’s quite ill. Her mother’s family, after years of punishing her for her mother’s behaviour, now seek to force her to marry a cousin so that her money will stay in the family.

Thus is the setup at the beginning of Devil in Winter, when Evie takes desperate action no one could have predicted: she runs to visit Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent, and asks him to marry her. No one is more surprised than St. Vincent, but he takes the bait, since his family’s financial ruin has driven him to desperate measures already (see: his attempted kidnapping of Lillian). So away they hie them to Gretna Green for a quick wedding. In this section, I  appreciated Kleypas’s vivid descriptions of the cold and 19th-century methods of combating it on their way up to Scotland. Weather is a frequently ignored component of storytelling, unless there’s the need for a suitably dramatic storm. It was nice to get such detailed description to evoke the journey. They get their marriage of convenience, Evie insists they’ll only have enough sexual congress to consummate and then no more, except she ends up rather liking it, St. Vincent finds himself more attracted to her than to any woman before her — and so forth.

In many ways, the plot of Devil in Winter would be quite conventional — the rake reformed by the blushing virgin — if not for the unusual setting. Here as elsewhere, I appreciate Kleypas’s willingness to delve into non-standard elements of British society in the 19th century. For when Jenner dies, St. Vincent finds himself unexpected drawn to the business, furious to realize that Jenner was being cheated in his infirmity, and astonishingly capable of setting matters to rights. Not that his transition from utter reprobate into manager of a gaming den is smooth. He has to prove himself in a few fights, untangle a financial mess, raise the club’s standards to attract a better clientele, and, oh yeah, also save his new wife’s life from a jealous man believing himself to be Jenner’s son and rightful heir. The story turns when St. Vincent literally takes a bullet meant for Evie; what follows is a somewhat typical sickbed plotline, where St. Vincent’s life being in danger makes Evie realise just how much he means to her.

Again, the plot itself is somewhat formulaic, but Kleypas’s characters are what make it special. St. Vincent’s character comes across particularly well, with a great, unique voice, and watching Evie’s transformation from helplessness to self-assertion is a nice journey to follow. Kleypas actually deals with the aftermath of abuse and the tremendous strength it takes to come out of that, giving Evie a degree of psychological realism that I always appreciate, even in a fluff book. As ever, Kleypas fills out her world remarkably well — particularly in the person of dashing Romani croupier Cam Rohan (of whom more in a later book). We also see the further progression of the friendship that holds this series together. That friendship gets tested here — which is a nice touch, that it isn’t just assumed and easy — because, after all, Evie does marry a man who kidnapped and at least threatened to rape one of her best friends. But Annabelle and Daisy help to mend fences, and Lillian and Sebastian manage to come to terms (it helps when he nearly gets himself killed for Evie’s sake). Overall, a solid and enjoyable installment in the Wallflowers series.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews