Tag Archives: historical-regency

Cold Magic, by Kate Elliott

Title: Cold Magic (Spiritwalker #1)
Author: Kate ElliottColdMagic
Year of Publication: 2010
Length: 528 pages
Genre: alternate history fantasy/sci fi… oh gods, see below
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 3 stars

This book was… odd.

Cold Magic is, by the author’s description, “an Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency novel with airships, Phoenician spies, and the intelligent descendants of troodons”. Catherine Hassi Barahal is an orphan raised by her aunt and uncle, besties with her cousin Beatrice. They live in what is geographically England, except that the Ice Age never fully ended, so it’s still connected by marshy land to the Continent. It’s also super-racially-blended, with bloodlines from Celts and Romans and Africans all mixing together in a complex and interweaving social hierarchy. Cat and Bee are enrolled in college amid a growing conflict between the mages who seem to run Europe and the revolutionary faction that seeks to supplant magic with steam technology. What kind of magic? Well, lots of kinds. There’s cold magic and fire magic and druids and bards and other things. There might be the Fae, by way of seelie and unseelie courts, but their existence is unproven. Cat has a mysterious sort of magic which gives her super-hearing, a certain level of invisibility, and other abilities that reveal themselves through the course of the book. So does Beatrice. Oh and there are “trolls”, who come from North America and have evolved to intelligence and culture. The plot initially looks like it’s going to explore Cat and Beatrice’s lives inside this construct, but then it takes a hard left turn when a cold mage turns up at the Barahal household claiming the eldest daughter as his bride, and Cat gets shoved at him with literally no explanation. The rest of the book is Cat having no more idea than the reader what the hell is going on. It has something to do with her family, who may or may not have been spies two thousand years ago, or twenty years ago, or now. It has something to do with her magic, and something to do with her cousin’s. It has something to do with the escape of a Napolean-figure who’s actually from Spain who tried to conquer Europe a few years earlier. It has something to do with sabertooth tigers. It has something to do with airships. The one thing really driving the plot is that Cat has to get back to Bee before the winter solstice so that the cold mages don’t claim her instead.

That feeling you’re having right now, trying to make sense of that summary? Is what the entire book feels like.

I very much wanted to like this book. I read it on recommendation from a good friend whose taste I trust, and it has a lot of elements that were enticing to me. But the execution was… not what I had hoped. The result of Elliott throwing all of those aforementioned genres in a blender isn’t a well-processed smoothie — it’s a chunky, uneven mess. I spent the entire book trying to figure out if my reading comprehension had suddenly taken a leave of absence, or if the book was really just that confusingly written. Since I’m reasonably certain I’m still in possession of all the wits I started last week with, I have to assume it’s the latter.

What’s so frustrating is that there are a lot of good ideas here. (The three stars I’m giving this book come a lot from just the sheer credit of that). The Afro-Celtic angle? Awesome. I love the route that alternate history has taken here, with Rome and Carthage fighting to a standstill rather than going the Carthago delenda est road. I love the idea that the Mali Empire had a diaspora that caused Africa to colonize Europe, rather than the other way around. The blending of cultures has so much potential, and the fantasy and sci-fi genres in general could do with a lot more of that. I also love the idea of magic and science engaging in a horrible struggle for dominance, and the political and social consequences for each side are such fruitful avenues for exploration. But somehow, all of these elements just totally failed to synthesize — and I rather suspect at least part of the problem is that Elliott tried to do too many things in the same novel. The dinosaur-descendants, for example — a fascinating concept, but thrown into this novel, it’s definitely just one tangent too many. The Regency era angle is underused to the point where it may as well not exist (to anyone wondering why it’s called Regency if the year is supposedly 1837, they’re counting in “Augustan Years”, and he became emperor in 27 BCE — so the equivalent year is really 1810, not 1837. Not that you would know that from reading the book, since Elliott never explains it). The blending of cultures, while super-intriguing, is also poorly explored — it’s hard to get a clear idea of exactly what melded where and with whom and so forth. The world clearly has a shape, but the reader never gets to grasp what it is. There’s also the problem I have with A Song of Ice and Fire, which is that cultural identities wouldn’t stay the same for 2000 years no matter where you are, particularly with the amount of blending that’s apparently gone on — and family identities certainly don’t, so the idea that the Barahals have a reputation that stretches back two millennia stretches credulity.

And I also think a lot of the problem is the first-person narration. Cold Magic does a great job of exemplifying what I find so frustrating about that style — it stymies the author’s ability to explain things. Throughout the book, you get the sense that there’s a lot Cat knows which the reader doesn’t and which she doesn’t bother to explain, a lot of “given circumstances” that you just can’t allow to lie there as assumptions in an alternate history. But at the same time, the first-person narration means that the reader also can’t know anything that Cat doesn’t — and as the plot progresses through the never-unpacked mysteries, that starts to encompass a lot of salient details. I don’t mind the tangents that Cat goes down — The rules of magic are never explained, which in a fantasy novel I just find extraordinarily maddening. It’s several hundred pages in before anything gets explained about the cold mages, and even then, we don’t get a lot. And for all that we get a lot of history about things that happened two thousand years ago, we get a lot less on the recent history that has shaped the culture in which Cat lives — or even the current circumstances.

But what’s so weird is that, while leaving all of that unexplained, Elliott devotes a lot of time to repeating things that the reader already does know, but without giving them any new depth or revelations. She also spends a lot of time talking about what the food is like at inns. I love tangents, I really do. I’m the child who read the encyclopedia for fun, so I will never fault an author for wandering down world-building avenues, even if it is a bit at the expense of the plot. I don’t mind it. But the digressions in this book are just strange. Quite often, they don’t add anything to the plot and they don’t clarify the world-building. They’re either just dull (I hate reading about food) or they only add more confusion (ghost plagues in Africa! a secret codebook! other things!).

I was warned that the book might feel slow, but that definitely isn’t the word I’d use to describe it. I would go with “jerky”. The book jumps between tones so often that the reader’s likely to get whiplash. The first eighty pages aren’t slow, it’s just that you think you’re reading one kind of story, and then it suddenly becomes something completely different — which would not in of itself be a bad thing if that didn’t keep happening. You never spend enough time in any one mode to feel comfortable there before you get yanked out of it and plunged into something else, with very little sinew to connect the different ideas together. This, more than anything else, is why I was questioning my ability to process written information while reading this book, and I must say I’m gratified to see from reviews that other readers had a similar experience.

Another unfortunate thing is that I quite liked several of the characters (and they account for the remainder of the 3 stars this book gets), but, either as a consequence of the chaotic writing or of the unreliable first person narration or both, we never get a clear view of them, either. Cat herself would be interesting if her head was a more coherent place in which to spend 500 pages. She’s clearly smart, thinks on her feet, and has a backbone, but is also impulsive and a little hot-tempered, all qualities I like in a heroine, and then she gets dragged headfirst into a swirling identity crisis, which makes for good internal drama. But once again, that jerky, jarring quality of the narrative makes it difficult to feel comfortable living in her point of view. Cat’s forced-husband, Andrevai, would be such an intriguing person to know better, caught between two worlds as he is, overcompensating for insecurities, experiencing an identity crisis every bit as tormenting as Cat’s — but since Cat doesn’t, the reader doesn’t get to, and the weird semi-romance that’s going on there just ends up feeling awkward and artificial. Bee is charming and a lovely subversion of expectations. And then there’s Roderic, and I won’t explain who he is because it’s a definite spoiler, but he’s just plain delightful, and I want to know him and his entire family better. Many of the side characters are interesting, too — and so many of them are female! And female characters in positions of power! That’s exciting and commendable. I just… wish we actually got to know any of them.

I think I’m going to have to read the rest of the series, mostly in a hope that there are explanations occurring somewhere, and if there are, it will drive me up the wall not to have them. I can tell that, at least in the author’s head, this is a fully-realized and complete world with a lot of nuance and underlying complexities, and I trust that it all makes sense somehow. But if and when I do pick up the next book, it will be with the fervent hope that the writing is a lot more coherent than it was in Cold Fire.

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The Care and Taming of a Rogue, by Suzanne Enoch

Title: The Care and Taming of a Rogue CareandTaming(Adventurers’ Club #1)
Author: Suzanne Enoch
Length: 371 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read? Re-Read
Rating: 3.25 stars

I don’t like monkeys.

I should just say that from the outset, because the monkey is, well, not an insubstantial part of this book. It’s meant to be endearing, but I find monkeys just inexpressibly creepy. (Now if it had been a lemur, we could’ve talked).

That said, I think I liked this book better on the second go than I remember liking it the first time I read it. That still isn’t a resounding acclamation, mind you, but I felt less distracted while reading than I did the first time. Enoch’s Adventurers’ Series explores the lives of men who have come back from Britain’s imperialist expeditions rather the worse for wear. It’s a fairly good inversion of the cheerful “Rule Britannia” trope. Of course, the focus is still on the effect these things have on the white British people rather than on the conquered, but, you can only expect so much multi-cultural awareness from Regency romance novels, really. Enoch takes a lot of inspiration from actual historical figures, and it does allow her to explore a different section of society than you see in a lot of typical books of this kind.

So. In Book One, Captain Bennett Wolfe returns from an African expedition where his second, David Langley, left him for dead. Langley stole Bennett’s journals and published them under his own name — but with a few revisions that made Bennett look like a bumbling idiot and Langley like a great hero. When Bennett returns from the Congo to find his reputation in tatters, he sets his sights on revenge — but his temper and disregard for polite society’s rules aren’t helping him win his case.

He has a few allies, and among them is Phillipa Eddison, called Flip, an determined bluestocking. Flip has read his previous books and is willing to believe that Langley is perpetrating a deceit upon the public. Unfortunately, Bennett keeps getting distracted by his growing lust and admiration for Flip, and since he’s spent most of his adult life outside of polite society, he takes actions that are decidedly too forward. Flip chastises him for overstepping boundaries, but then spends most of the book doing a really poor job of teaching him better manners. And he’s not helped by the fact that he brought home a monkey who gets into all sorts of screwball-comedy shenanigans.

The biggest problem with this book (apart from the monkey) is that neither of the main characters are tremendously likeable. Flip does do a little too much of the “I read books and think sensibly and therefore that makes me better than Other Girls” thing, a trope which I’m finding increasingly annoying in historical romances. Being a bluestocking doesn’t have to mean looking down your nose at girls who aren’t (I should know). It isn’t egregious, and Enoch does show that she has female friends and isn’t quite as much of an intellectual recluse as she seems to think herself, which mitigates it somewhat. Bennett, who is supposed to be barely civilised, mostly just comes off as unnecessarily aggressive and a bit of a boor. He makes half-hearted attempts at appropriate courtship, but considering that Flip never actually enforces her supposed ideals about propriety. Their romance is more a collision than anything else, which keeps the book clipping along, but which doesn’t make a lot of intrinsic sense, nor does it have the ring of emotional authenticity. Flip has to help Bennett restore his reputation, but the actual conflict between the two of them — his desire for adventure versus her homebody-ness — is never really addressed, but rather hand-waved so that they can get to the HEA.

So — I would call this a thoroughly middle-of-the-road romance novel, good brain candy, but not outstanding. Not Enoch’s best work, but not painful to read, either.

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The Bridgertons: Happily Ever After, by Julia Quinn

Title: The Bridgertons: Happily Ever AfterBridgertonsEverAfter (Bridgertons #9)
Author: Julia Quinn
Year of Publication: 2013
Length: 374 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read? New!
Rating: 4 stars

The Bridgertons are one of the best-loved families in historical romance, and for good reason. JQ did something extraordinary, creating a family that was close-knit and loving, but not cloying — always believable, full of rivalries and frustrations, rife with inside jokes, and ultimately, always there for each other. Even more incredible, she managed to sustain the charm across eight books — easily twice as long as most romance novel series. I always thought that the first half of the series was stronger than the second half (as you can see from my reviews), but they’re all solid and enjoyable.

Because this family is so cherished by her fans, JQ decided to do something special — a collection of Second Epilogues, showing just what happens in Happy Ever After. Some of these had been released before, but as I don’t have an e-reader, I hadn’t read any of them, so they were all new to me. And they’re pretty delightful. In so many ways, diving into this book was like revisiting old friends and discovering them, not unchanged, but just as dear and warm and lovely as ever they were.

I’m not going to review each one individually, because it’s really the collection as a whole that made the biggest impression on me. I just love the idea of it — of showing that the story doesn’t end at the altar. The stories in this collection span a wide range of time, some of them coming just weeks after the corresponding book ends, others stretching decades into the characters’ future. The ones I ended up liking the best were in that second category — showing our beloved heroes and heroines years and years on and still madly in love with each other. I appreciate the… I don’t know, the reassurance? So much conventional “wisdom” states that passion inevitably fades over time, that fires bank down to embers, and you’re lucky if you have warmth and comfort enough to sustain a relationship past that. But I have always wanted to believe that that doesn’t have to be true — not for everyone, anyway. And the Bridgertons show me that in fictional form — couples who still desire each other even after many children, even after their own children have children. Who still tease and laugh and flirt, decades into their relationships. Who continue to face challenges and continue to grow stronger from them. I love it.

The two Second Epilogues that stick out in my mind the most are Kate & Anthony’s and Francesca and Michael’s — unsurprising, since those are among my favourite books in the series, anyway. With Kate and Anthony, we get a glorious return to Pall Mall and the Mallet of Death. This Second Epilogue is as cheeky and tempestuous as I could’ve wished, really recapturing the spirit of the original. Francesca’s Second Epilogue, much like her own story, is told in a much different tone, slower and more introspective, but absolutely brimming with passionate emotion. Colin and Penelope’s was, sadly, one of the less sterling sections — sad because they vie for the top spot of my favourite Bridgerton novel. It’s a midquel, actually, for To Sir Philip, With Love, where we find out how Eloise learned Penelope’s great secret; unfortunately, the events aren’t that gripping, and the story sort of meanders.

I do sort of wish that at least one couple out of the eight had remained childless but content with that, even if it wouldn’t really be historically accurate, just because it’d be nice to see childfree families represented in the genre at all — but, I know that’s sort of an unreasonable request, given the market. I also wish that Violet’s novella had been longer — hell, I wish she’d get a whole book of her own, but JQ has always said that will never be the case. But I would’ve liked to have seen more of her and Edmund’s courtship — and of their marriage. The vignettes didn’t fully satisfy, as JQ moves on to the tragedy and its aftermath rather quickly. I see where she wanted to go with it, to show Violet’s entire arc, but I would’ve appreciated a little more

I very much can’t recommend this book to anyone who hasn’t previously read all of the Bridgerton novels — but, of course, I recommend those to all readers of romance, so this can just be the cherry on the sundae. And I do feel it fair to warn that there isn’t a lot of heat in any of these vignettes — JQ drops a few sizzling moments the readers’ way (in Anthony’s and Francesca’s stories, notably, which may also contribute to my favorable impression of those), but on the whole, these stories just aren’t long enough to sustain real sex scenes. By their very nature, they also don’t stand alone very well. Nostalgia definitely plays a large role in my enjoyment of them, but if you’ve missed the Bridgertons as I have, then I thoroughly recommend returning to their world with Happily Ever After.

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The Lost Duke of Wyndham and Mr Cavendish, I Presume, by Julia Quinn

Title: The Lost Duke of Wyndham and Mr Cavendish, I PresumeLostDukeofWyndham
Author: Julia Quinn
Year of Publication: 2008
Length: 371 pages / 370 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: re-read
Rating: 3 stars / 2.5 stars

Another double-header! These books are so closely interlinked that it just makes sense to review them as one — and, honestly, that’s the biggest problem with them. Julia Quinn chose to tell the same story twice, from different viewpoints — and while I admire the effort and like the idea, the execution was a little lackluster. The second book repeats far too much information and too many conversations. I think these stories better could’ve been combined into one slightly longer book, still exploring both couples, but unfortunately that’s not the way the romance novel publishing industry works.MrCavendish

So how do we end up with these two intertwined stories? Thanks to the heroes. Jack Audley is a highwayman who waylays the Dowager Duchess of Wyndham and her companion, Grace, on their way home one night — trouble is, the Dowager recognises him as the spitting image of her second son, who died traveling from Ireland to England years earlier. Her first son having also died without issue, the title is currently held by Thomas, the son of her third son. Thomas is engaged to marry Amelia, a neighboring daughter of an earl, but has sort of been dragging his feet on the matter. In order to figure out which of the two men is the real Duke of Wyndham, the Dowager insists on dragging everyone to Ireland to find out if John’s parents were legally married, which will settle the matter. So, there we are: two heroes, two heroines, one story.

I like Jack and Grace’s story better, though I don’t know if that’s because Thomas and Amelia’s story comes second, and thus it always feels like retread. Jack and Grace have a charming “love at first sight” dynamic. I think, for modern readers, that concept can often fall flat if not handled properly, but Quinn weaves them through it rather well. There’s a tenderness to them, along with the magnetic passion that you would expect from such a sudden attraction. Jack’s emotional journey is an interesting one, as we get to explore both the circumstances that led to him becoming a highwayman and his knee-jerk reaction to reject the life of entwined luxury and responsibility that the dukedom implies. Grace, too, has bounced up and down the social ladder in her life, and it’s one of the things that matches them nicely. It’s also a lot of fun to watch Grace deal with the decidedly unpleasant Dowager Duchess (such a contrast to JQ’s favourite dragon, Lady Danbury). The Lost Duke feels, on the whole, to be the stronger book.

The trap that JQ falls into with Mr Cavendish is in not spending enough time with Thomas, who does know what’s going on, and instead leaving the reader more often with Amelia, who is totally clueless for two thirds of the book. She’s assuming the reader knows what’s going on, as I imagine most do, but it’s still odd to be put into the head of someone so utterly out of the loop for the bulk of the story. What’s amazing there is that, rather than filling the gaps with new incidents, JQ still manages to repeat so much material — generally conversations with Grace or conversations Amelia overhears. The story between her and Thomas also just feels less genuine to me. I could believe their growing to attraction if, say, he’d been engaged to her yet never actually met her — but clearly he sees her all the time. So why does the spark not get set off till now? It doesn’t help that Thomas is a reserved, detached sort of person, and that doesn’t change much when we get inside his head. He isn’t a bad person, but he isn’t tremendously likable, either, and that makes his part of the story more difficult to enjoy.

So, ultimately, I don’t think this experiment in storytelling format worked as well as JQ intended it to. I’m not against the idea on principle, but the approach needs to be different, offering truly divergent perspectives on the same events. I agree with other reviews I’ve seen suggesting that the two books not be read back-to-back, as was probably my mistake with this re-read, because you really will feel the retread quite keenly. But, then again, I don’t know that they improve all that much with greater separation, either.

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Darcy and Elizabeth: Days and Nights at Pemberley, by Linda Berdoll

Title: Darcy & Elizabeth: Days and Nights at PemberleyDarcyElizabeth
Author: Linda Berdoll
Year of Publication: 2006
Length: 448 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read: Re-Read, though clearly it stuck in my mind very little
Rating: 2 stars, barely

Unfortunately, while Berdoll’s first Pride and Prejudice sequel was at least entertaining, if flawed, the follow-up falls completely flat. This book was badly in want of better editing. The first one hundred pages are a recap of the previous book — far too much time to spend catching readers back up, and poorly orchestrated, at that. Berdoll jumps to and fro in her own timeline without any solid anchoring, such that it becomes difficult to follow the sequence of events. This problem persists throughout the book. Berdoll frequently jumps back months or even years to visit other characters, and while this narrative device can work, her efforts are far from seamless. It becomes particularly distracting when she bounces back to investigate in greater detail something she already talked about once or twice before in the “main” narrative thread, but offers contradictory information as to the sequence of events. The jarring shifts are worst at the very end of the book, when she inexplicably interrupts the climactic sequence (involving George Wickham, back from presumed death and more dastardly than ever) not once but twice to go check in on other characters. If Berdoll meant this to build suspense, it fails, building only frustration.

Characterization suffers in this book as well. Though Darcy is much the same as ever, Lizzy hardly ever rises to the spirited nature we’ve come to expect from her. She spends the first half of the book hesitant and unsure of herself, and while on the one hand I appreciate the realistic treatment of a woman’s post-pregnancy bodily concerns, it went on for far too long and made Lizzy far too much unlike herself. The new characters added to the narrative mostly feel like retreads from the first book — unsurprising, since half of them are relatives or otherwise connected. In some places, it feels like Berdoll actually wanted to write a book about the experience of the lower classes during this period, but thought that no publisher would take that on, so she stuffed the material into something that she knew had a market. I appreciate the desire to show, as she did in the first book, a world outside that of the gentry, but the interplay between the stories here lacks finesse.

Berdoll also fails in the premise of a family focus for this book. None of the children, by any set of parents, are granted the chance to have a personality. They are admirable props while infants, rendered invisible once they’ve grown enough to speak. Jane’s and Lydia’s children remain entirely off-screen, and are referred to so infrequently that I often wondered precisely where they were and who was looking after them. If you read this novel hoping to see much of the Darcys as parents, you’ll be disappointed in that as well; the children don’t age above a year, and there’s precious little beyond breast-feeding and knee-dandling going on with them. Family life has no depth in this book, no nuance. The fecundity of the various characters is a plot device and no more, which I found disappointing.

There are enjoyable episodes in this book, but ultimately, the total muddle Berdoll makes of her own timeline and her haphazard manner of storytelling make it difficult to enjoy them. I see that she published a third installment to the series in 2011, but I feel no compulsion to acquire it.

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Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife: Pride and Prejudice Continued, by Linda Berdoll

Title: Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife: Pride and Prejudice ContinuedMrDarcy
Author: Linda Berdoll
Year of Publication: 2004
Length: 465 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read: Re-Read, though it had been so long that it might as well have been new
Rating: 3 stars

A quick glance at this book on GoodReads or Amazon will quickly reveal a rather vitriolic hate for it among many readers, voicing objections that are not wholly without foundation — but which I don’t necessarily share, either. I first read this book and its sequel ages ago, and honestly, barely remembered the details of them. I’ve recently had my interest in P&P spinoffs prickled, however, by the truly excellent Lizzie Bennet Diaries (which I intend to review once the series has ended). With that on my brain, I first re-read Pride and Prejudice itself, and then turned to Berdoll’s inventive sequels for further fulfillment.

I will confess from the start that, while I enjoy those of Austen’s works I have read, I am not a fanatic, nor have I completed her canon. As such, I suspect I am far less protective of the characters than other readers would be, and so the liberties that Berdoll takes with the characters don’t trouble me as much. I can empathize, however. I suspect those readers feel the same way about this book that I feel about the Pink Carnation series. For those readers, I suggest some other Austen derivatives which I found less engaging, but which they may find less offensive. I think these things are a very definite case of Your Mileage May Vary.

Berdoll sets out in this book to continue the story of Darcy and Elizabeth past the chastity of the altar. Happily, the couple well-matched in intellect and temperament find themselves likewise equals in passion. Berdoll devotes many pages to their exploration of “connubial bliss” — admittedly in a somewhat odd mixture of explicit details and coy evasions. Their honeymoon period is long indeed, with the couple seemingly unable to keep their hands off of each other. Beyond the bedroom, we follow the Darcys through the first few years of their marriage, and as much as Elizabeth has to adjust being mistress of an estate as grand as Pemberley, Darcy also has to adjust to sharing his life with someone. It’s fun to watch them negotiate that out, particularly given some of the wrenches Berdoll throws in their way. Much as they might wish to stay in their cozy privacy, there is a whole lot of world out there, ready and anxious to insert itself into the Darcys’ lives.

I think a lot of other reviewers, their heads spinning from the sauciness, miss some of the other things Berdoll attempts which are really quite notable. She doesn’t only address Austen’s lack of sexual experience; she also addresses Austen’s lack of social experience outside of her own sphere. However good a social satirist Austen was for her own class, her books don’t treat much with, well, anyone else. What she knew was the country gentry, and so that is what she portrays. Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife remembers that life in London was none so pleasant for those without funds or titles. It remembers that the Napoleonic Wars happened (an omission I always found particularly curious in Austen’s works, considering how much energy she does expend on officers and regiments). It remembers that infant mortality was high, as was maternal mortality; that disease and accidents could strike swiftly. It remembers that upper-class society at the time had no expectation that husbands would remain faithful to their wives.

Now, notice that I do say that these inclusions were “attempts” — I think Berdoll misses the mark sometimes, veering from historical authenticity into near-lurid melodrama and never quite finding the right balance — but even so, I think it admirable to give Austen’s work a mindful dose of reality. Darcy and Elizabeth have to weather all manner of tragedy, and if it is at times overwrought, it also gives the book a little more depth and nuance than you would find in a typical historical romance.

Berdoll also expands not only on other characters from Austen’s canon, but also on some new faces as well — and many of them characters from outside the Darcys’ social class. We get more insight into Georgiana, whom Berdoll eventually invests with the spirit to break free of her brother’s well-meant but undoubtably patriarchal dominance, into Colonel Fitzwilliam, always feeling a bit of a loose end, into Lydia’s unhappy marriage and into Jane’s domesticity. We also meet Pemberley’s housekeeper, Darcy’s valet, and various women from Darcy’s past. Berdoll will occasionally break off from the main narrative for a chapter in order to explore those characters. This is a writing style that I know not all readers will favor, but it’s one I like. I’m less concerned with a straightforward plot than I am explorations of characters, and so it doesn’t trouble me in the slightest to have a chapter that veers from the narrative to tell us the background of Elizabeth’s maidservant, of a French courtesan, or of a misbegotten stable boy. I like the diversions. They give more of a sense of a complete world.

One very valid complaint levelled at Berdoll is that she is over-enamoured of her thesaurus, and I confess the truth of it. She props up her narrative with an abundance of polysyllabic words and on contorted euphemisms for various body parts and functions. Even that didn’t bother me so much, though. It seemed far more heavy-handed in the first part of the book, and either I just got accustomed to it or it became more moderate as the book went on. I also think that, coming to this immediately after re-reading Pride and Prejudice itself, I was better armed to appreciate what Berdoll was attempting to do. The style is somewhere between a tribute to and a gentle mockery of Austen’s own (if you’ve read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, think of it as similar to that, only not quite as adeptly handled). With that in mind, I can forgive the verbosity to an extent. Plus, well, I like words. I tend towards the effusive (my mother, I suspect, would say “affected”) in my own speech and writing, so Berdoll’s style rarely rubs me the wrong way. There were only a few occasions where a sentence was so burdened that it irritated me; the rest of the time, I chose to relax and let the consciously antiquated diction wash over me.

All in all, I think this book comes down to a matter of taste — which leaves me unable to make a particularly good recommendation one way or the other. It will not be for everyone, and I don’t know that I would argue that it’s a good book even for those readers who will not take offence at Berdoll’s liberties. There are definitely flaws both in the aim and the execution. I found it entertaining, however. For a nearly 500-page book, it still moves quickly, and the characters are, if not totally in line with what Austen may have imagined or faithful to what her devotees would wish, still reasonably extrapolated from those origins. I suppose the best I can do is suggest that, if you think the book would interest you, read the first few pages on Amazon. From that, you should be able to determine whether the style will infuriate or amuse you.

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What Happens in London, by Julia Quinn

Title: What Happens in LondonWhatHappensinLondon
Author: Julia Quinn
Year of Publication: 2009
Length: 372 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: re-read
Rating: 3 stars. Ish.

I feel like I liked this book better when I first read it, although sometimes just the sheer excitement of having a new JQ novel can do that to me. On revisiting — well, I don’t hate it. I actually like half of the premise quite a bit. But the other half is odd and silly and never pans out properly, the whole thing takes quite a while to get going, and then when it does get going, the last act sort of comes out of nowhere.

I do like the characters, and they’re probably the reason this book gets even a middling rating. Sir Harry Valentine is a son from a troubled home who escaped his embarrassing drunk of a father and his emotionally deadened mother by going into the army. Thanks to a ferocious Russian grandmother, he’s quite proficient in languages besides his own, which made him valuable to King and Country. Even with the wars over, he continues to work for the War Office, mostly translating documents — and somehow these circumstances lead to rumours swirling around him possibly having murdered his fiance? It’s very odd, because nothing ever explains how those rumours came about, nor why Olivia becomes so fixated on them that she feels compelled to spy on him after he moves in next-door. The eventual confrontation over that is the part of it that comes to nothing — it just sort of feels like an odd plot device that belonged somewhere else. The better part of the story involves Harry feeling the need to protect Olivia from the attentions of a visiting Russian prince, Alexei, whom the War Office has asked him to keep an eye on. Except even there there’s a bit of a muddle, because the potentially dark and serious plotline gets totally derailed by ludicrous literature. Harry bizarrely ends up reading Mrs. Butterworth and the Mad Baron to the Prince, and then his cousin Sebastian and younger brother Edward start up a staged reading, and it all goes distinctly odd from there.

All of these details and plotlines and detours sort of get in the way of Harry and Olivia’s love story, though. Which is a shame, because they’re both pretty interesting characters. Olivia is forthright but charming; Harry is observant and snarky. Each is a lot of fun, individually. But they sort of go from outright disliking each other to serious involvement in rather a hurry, and while I’m perfectly willing to believe in love stories that move at lightning pace, I need to at least feel it happening — and I couldn’t, here, and I think it’s because of all the other clutter in the book. The story elements never quite fit together in the right way. It’s as though they’re all jostling for attention, and as a result, anything deeper gets totally lost.

In the last forty pages of the book, Olivia gets kidnapped by the Russian ambassador — a villain who I don’t think ever even gets a name, which should give you a good impression of his general importance to the plotline. This could have been better done. We needed some hints beforehand, beyond the vagueness of Harry’s instructions to watch the Prince. He’s not much of a convincing red herring, especially since there’s nothing really to red herring for. The ambassador just wants his cousin to fork over some cash. That’s it. That’s all. Despite having a hero in the War Office and introducing all sorts of exciting foreign elements, JQ doesn’t really do anything with them. There’s no espionage, no scheming, no sinister plots. Olivia just gets kidnapped out of the blue, and I found it quite odd and jarring.

So, on the whole, this was a pleasant enough read, but it never really came together in a way that I found satisfying. Not one of JQ’s worst, but not one of her best, either.

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Rules to Catch a Devilish Duke, by Suzanne Enoch

Title: Rules to Catch a Devilish DukeRulestoCatch
Author: Suzanne Enoch
Year of Publication: 2012
Length: 343 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 4.5 stars

Well, this is one of the best historical romances I’ve read in a long time. I really mean that. I tore through this in about 24 hours because I just couldn’t stand to be parted from it.

Sophia is exactly the sort of heroine I have been yearning for: cheerfully independent, even in the face of difficulties; not a virgin and not ashamed about it; knows what she wants sexually and isn’t afraid of her passions; good-natured and forgiving but not a pushover; decisive and undeterred from pursuing what she wants out of life. Of course, the reason she can get away with being all of these things is because she lives a life outside the bounds of the good ton. Sophia White is the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Hennessey, sired on his wife’s maid. Raised in obscurity, Sophia eventually finds a comfortable place at the Tantalus Club (a gentlemen’s club owned by a woman and staffed entirely by ladies, if you haven’t read the earlier books in the series or my reviews of them) — and she appears in both of the previous books in the series as a supporting character. This was going along well for her until her father randomly chose to care about her existence again — not to acknowledge her, but to threaten her. Tired of being ribbed by his peers about his by-blow’s occupation, he’s arranged for her to marry an alarmingly pious vicar in Cornwall; if Sophia doesn’t agree, he will use his power to destroy the Tantalus Club and everyone Sophia cares about.

Adam Baswich, Duke of Greaves, unwittingly provides Sophia with an opportunity for one last hurrah before her sentencing. He invites her to a Christmas house party at his estate in Yorkshire, ostensibly to keep Camille and Keating (see Taming an Impossible Rogue) company. But as Sophia is traveling to the estate, the bridge over the river collapses, dunking her in it. Adam rescues her, but that leaves them as the only people on the correct side of the river until the bridge is repaired, except for Adam’s unbelievably snotty elder sister. (And I do find this a bit of a plot stretch — I mean, really, no one could build a raft or a pontoon or something? I mean, this is the River Aire they’re talking about — not exactly a huge impediment — but I’m willing to forgive it because of what it leads to). Now, why was the Duke giving such a large house party? Apparently it’s his custom at Christmas, as he’s someone who clings to company so as not to be left alone with his own mind (I empathise, Adam); but this year, there’s something more pressing: he also invites a dozen eligible young ladies so that he can choose a bride from among them. His father’s will stipulates that he marry by age 30 and produce an heir by age 31, or else all the property and money goes to his sister’s son. (Side note: I know I’ve read another book in the past year with that exact same stipulation. I think it might’ve been one of Mary Balogh’s? I don’t appear to have reviewed it, if I did, but regardless — I find it very odd and improbable. The requirement to marry makes sense, but surely any English peer would know what a dicey thing getting an heir is, and would not set a time limit on that). But since none of the eligible ladies can get across the river until the bridge is repaired, Adam has to settle for Sophia’s company. And what company it turns out to be.

The most excellent thing about this book is that Adam and Sophia are so beautifully well-suited for each other. Their interactions while they’re alone at his estate are just gorgeous — warm and funny, passionate and teasing, thoughtful and challenging — everything that a marriage should be. But they can’t see it, bless ’em. They do build a real friendship, which is so important and honestly pretty rare in romance novels. Adam is astonished to discover that there’s a woman he actually enjoys spending time around and conversing with, and Sophia is pleased not to be treated like a leper or a whore. They are so gorgeous together. The friendship is there, but powerful attraction is as well, and it doesn’t take long for them to fall into bed together — but the way it happens is sort of fantastic. They’re playing cards and wagering kisses, until Sophia — Sophia! — suggests playing strip piquet instead. I thought it was brilliant. Enoch does a great job turning up the heat in that scene, too — not just giving in to the hormones immediately, but letting it simmer, then bubble, then broil over. I know that feeling, the long tease, knowing precisely where the night’s going to end but suspending gratification to make it all the better — and Enoch captures the tantalising delight of it so well. The sex scenes throughout this book are magnificent, not least because we don’t have to deal with any of that “teach the virgin to accept pleasure” nonsense. Nope, Sophia knows what she wants and grabs at it, quite literally in a few cases. It’s so refreshing.

But, the bridge gets repaired, and Adam and Sophia have to face the music. Adam sets to trying to pick a bride out from the herd he invited over, but though he tries to reconcile himself to the idea of Lady Caroline Emery, least offensive of the bunch, he of course can’t stay away from Sophia. Sophia, meanwhile, is having to fend off all kinds of gross behaviour from men and women alike. If she’s not getting sneered at and insulted, she’s being propositioned. The men all want to know if she’s Adam’s mistress — and I actually really enjoy the interplay around this. Because she isn’t. She doesn’t want to be, and she lets Adam know that right from the start. A lover, but not a mistress, not someone who’s kept and paid for. Unfortunately, because of the circumstances of their world, that also leaves her unprotected. And that creates quite a bit of drama for them both.

I knock half a point off because the end is a little unsatisfying — it all crashes together very quickly, with literally no denouement whatsoever. I want to know more, to be assured of their future happiness! How do they deal with the vicar? How do they handle life back in London? Does Adam manage to get the heir he needs in the fourteen months remaining to him? Enoch had better wrap those details up with a cameo in the next book, or I might have a bit of a hissy fit. And I also dock for an unflattering portrayal of Cornwall, which really is a lovely region with gorgeous landscapes and the nicest people I’ve ever met anywhere in the world. On the whole, though, Rules to Catch a Devilish Duke is a lot of fun, and I highly recommend it.

I’m excited for the next book in the series to come out in a few months. I’m curious who the next heroine will be (as Enoch’s website doesn’t say and I haven’t looked it up elsewhere yet) — my money is on Emily Portsmouth, because far too much has been made of her keeping her true identity a secret for her to just be a side mention, but I also wouldn’t mind seeing Lady Caroline Emery get a story of her own. She seems a likely sort.

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Taming an Impossible Rogue, by Suzanne Enoch

Title: Taming an Impossible Rogue (Scandalous Brides #2)TaminganImpossibleRogue
Author: Suzanne Enoch
Year of Publication: 2012
Length: 352 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 2.5 stars

I still enjoyed dipping into the world of the Tantalus Club, but this one just didn’t do it for me. I found the heroine lackluster and the hero hard to like, and that impeded my enjoyment.

The basic outline of the story isn’t bad: Camille Pryce ran away from her wedding a year ago on the sudden realisation that she did not want to spend her life with the groom. Not hard to believe, considering that the marriage was arranged when she was three days old, and yet the groom, the Marquis of Fenton, never saw fit to so much as introduce himself to her at any point in the past twenty-one years. Turned away by both friends and relatives, Camille eventually ended up at the Tantalus Club, a scandalous gentlemen’s club owned by a woman and exclusively staffed by women (see Scandalous Brides #1, A Beginner’s Guide to Rakes). It takes Fenton a year to decide he would still like to marry Camille after all — and his reasoning here is less-than-flawless. He’s tired of his peers poking fun at him for the runaway bride, but I can’t imagine that any Marquis with a stick up his rear as large as the one Fenton seems to have ramroding his spine would take a supposedly fallen woman back rather than dissolving the betrothal and finding someone else to marry. So the rationale is a little odd, but whatever his justification, he wants her back — but he can’t get into the Tantalus Club to see her, as Camille has had him barred. Fenton decides to send his cousin, Keating Blackwood, instead, for reasons that are equally unclear. You’d think Fenton could convince somebody to help him out who didn’t have such a thorough reputation for seduction, and probably for less than the ten thousand pounds he promises Keating. But Keating is charming and therefore that will lure Camille out or… something? Like I said, Fenton’s powers of decision-making are really far from flawless.

It doesn’t help matters that Keating, apart from being a notorious rake, is also a sot and a murderer. Yes, you read that right. Six years ago, he had an affair with a married woman, her husband found out, pursued him back to his house, and Keating shot him in self-defence — but definitely killed him, and has been skulking outside of polite society ever since, apparently at the bottom of a vodka bottle. It’s hugely unattractive. For the first few chapters, most of what we know about Keating is that he has an unpleasant attitude, is constantly either drunk or hungover, and doesn’t bathe or change his clothes often enough to mask the odor of alcohol. And this is our supposed hero. Now, don’t let anyone think I’m saying that alcoholics can’t change or aren’t deserving of love — but none of that is ever addressed, except that he just magically stops drinking once he starts falling in love with Camille. The entire problem — and at the beginning of the book, it’s a huge problem — is glossed over. It’s like Enoch wanted to give herself a huge challenge and set out to make as thoroughly unredeemable a hero as possible, but then instead of actually going through the effort to work through his manifold flaws, just sort of hand-waves them all with The Power of Love. It’s unconvincing and wildly unfulfilling.

Anyway. Keating needs the ten thousand pounds to pay off the woman whose husband he kills, not for herself but for the son she claims is Keating’s. He takes Fenton up on his offer and starts trying to reconcile the couple — but, of course, starts falling for Camille himself. Honestly, this book might’ve been better if Fenton was a little less of an overt jackass. If he hadn’t been totally unsuitable, Camille’s dilemma might’ve made more sense. As it was, I could really see no impetus whatsoever for her to go back to him. Clearly she had already gotten used to living outside the bounds of proper society, and clearly she did not really want to go back to a life where she would be continually punished for her supposed “error in judgment”. This book might’ve been more interesting if she’d had more of a spine and done something wonderfully shocking and unexpected, like proposing to Keating rather than waiting for him to come to his senses about her. She almost looked like she might’ve been headed on that road, when she decided to sleep with him because, hey, if everyone figures she’s ruined anyway, why not? But no. Instead, she endures all manner of insults, first from Fenton, then from her family and other ex-friends, about her “shameful” actions. It’s perfectly clear that no one in her life will ever let her live this down, even if the public scandal subsides, but she — for no good reason whatsoever — agrees to go back to Fenton and be downtodden forever.

The “twist” ending for Keating is something I saw coming two hundred pages away, and the climax is a hastily thrown together jumble. Overall, Taming an Impossible Rogue was a huge disappointment. The side characters were more interesting and more likeable than the main characters — Keating enlists his friend the Duke of Greaves as a support, and Camille clings to Sophia, a friend from the club. A lot of what propelled me through this book was the promise of getting on to the next in the series, where those secondaries become the main characters. On its own, Taming is skippable.

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A Beginner’s Guide to Rakes, by Suzanne Enoch

Title: A Beginner’s Guide to Rakes (Scandalous Brides #1)BeginnersGuidetoRakes
Author: Suzanne Enoch
Year of Publication: 2011
Length: 352 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 3.25 stars

Okay, so this book was actually closer to 4 stars until about the last thirty pages.

A Beginner’s Guide to Rakes is the first book in Suzanne Enoch’s latest series, Scandalous Brides. Though, having glanced at the back covers of the other two, I suspect it would be better named the Tantalus Club series, since that seems to be the common thread yoking them all together. What is the Tantalus Club? Precisely the question that Diane Benchley wants you asking. The lovely widow has just returned from abroad, where her bankrupt husband died, leaving her with a mountain of debts to settle. She managed to do it by selling off almost all of his unentailed property except one location, a home in London. That, she gets into her own hands with a bit of clever forgery — illegal, but deserved, she feels, since her husband ignored her and then left her with nothing. She intends to transform the house into an upscale gaming hall, staffed entirely by women — but she needs some cash to get the enterprise started. So she approaches one of the wealthiest men she knows — Oliver Warren, Marquis of Haybury, who also happens to be her ex-lover. She and Oliver met in Vienna just after her husband’s death. They entered into a torrid affair, but after two weeks, he fled back to England, leaving her heartbroken. Why go to him? Because she has a sworn statement from another man labeling him as a cheat, an accusation which could ruin him. Oliver agrees to loan Diane the money — but with some hesitations and stipulations.

This book actually reminds me a lot of another Enoch book, The Rake — the focus on wagering, the antagonistic former lovers reuniting, the odd living circumstances — but it is, on the whole, more tightly plotted than that book. The characters’ decisions and reasoning, on the whole, make better sense, and they at least seem aware of their own hypocrisies and ulterior motives. It lacks some of the sharp comedy, though, which is why I still think I like The Rake better, but A Beginner’s Guide to Rakes is still thoroughly enjoyable. Diane is smart and savvy, and if she hangs onto her belligerent dislike for Oliver rather longer than I expected — well, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Oliver really has to work to get her affection and her trust back, and to his credit, he realises that. Ultimately, you really do get the sense that they suit each other very well — they’re both far from perfect people, but they’re imperfect in similar ways and in ways that work well together. Diane’s club meets with both success and condemnation, as is probably to be expected (and here it also reminds me of Kathryn Schmidt’s A Game of Scandal, another romance where the heroine runs a gaming club, and of Lisa Kleypas’s Then Came You, which features another deliberately scandalous heroine), and she has to negotiate both her business and her rediscovered romance. Trouble comes when the brother of her dead husband makes a play for her property — and Diane has to choose to trust Oliver and rely on him to help sort things out. It’s a good plot, not standard fare, and the characters are, if a little bit brittle and sharp with each other, at least unusual and well-rendered.

All of that said, there are some flaws. Enoch seems to have discovered the word “chit” and refuses to let it go; it got distractingly repetitive usage in this book. More significantly, however — remember how I said the plot hung together better than that in The Rake? That was true until the last thirty pages. Diane and Oliver’s plot to entrap Anthony makes… almost no sense. I had already thought of about six better ones before it was revealed. It sort of seemed like the convolutions of the plot got away from Enoch, and she wasn’t quite sure how to tie them back together. The solution is haphazard at best, and if we’re meant to believe this is the best two very clever people could come up with? It definitely falls short.

On the whole, though, I enjoyed this book, and I’m excited to see where the rest of the series goes. The Tantalus Club provides an interesting backdrop, and there’s a lot of potential there for out-of-the-ordinary heroines. (I’m hoping for more non-virgins; bonus points if they actually had *gasp!* pre-marital sex; and even more bonus points if that sex was *gasp!* not an earlier “indiscretion” with the eventual hero; and even more bonus points if they *gasp!* don’t regret it. But that may be hoping for far, far too much).

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