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The Conquest of Lady Cassandra, by Madeline Hunter

Title: The Conquest of Lady Cassandra (Fairbourne Quartet#2)ConquestLadyCassandra
Author: Madeline Hunter
Year of Publication: 2013
Length: 336 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 2.75 stars

Someday I’m going to read one of Madeline Hunter’s series in the right order. I somehow managed to pick up #2 without having read #1, which I intend to rectify.

Cassandra Vernham is notorious but not quite ruined, thanks to a complicated bit of personal history. Six years ago, she was technically though not properly compromised by a man, and then refused to marry him. That man later got himself stupidly killed in a duel which everyone assumed was over her, further scandalizing her reputation. Estranged from her family thanks to all of this, she spends a few years in Europe with her aunt, then returns home to London and tries to get on with life as best she can. She’s not totally ostracized and still has some friends, but she’s not thoroughly accepted, either, and she tends to end up in vaguely-written items in the gossip columns. Years later, one of her rejected beau’s friends, Viscount Ambury (whose proper name is, tragically, Yates) has taken up private investigation as a bit of a hobby, and is looking into the possibility that some jewels Cassandra sold at auction were stolen — from his own family. Entanglements ensue. Cassandra needs the money because her brother is trying

This one rates just below average for me for a lot of reasons — and it isn’t even that it’s a bad book. It’s just that it left me unfulfilled. I initially gave it a solid 3 stars, but I keep thinking of more things I disliked about it, so I had to knock a bit more off.

The biggest problem is that I just don’t believe in this as a love story. It’s an interesting story, but not a believable romance. I believe that Yates and Cassandra feel attraction and friendship for each other. Once they get over a variety of trust issues, they seem to know how to communicate with each other. But I don’t believe that they feel abiding passion or deep love. The story just plain never gets us there. The heat is sexual but not emotional. Theirs will be a really good marriage of convenience — but it still feels like just that. Hunter never manages to elevate them beyond that point. The title is also misleading. There’s no conquest. Neither Cassandra’s physical nor emotional self is at any point overthrown. She makes a logical decision to preserve her aunt’s future, and she chooses Ambury as the lesser of two evils. It’s all very cerebral, very detached.

I also had issues with some unanswered questions, and while I freely admit some of that might be due to missing the first book in the series, I really doubt all of it is. Ambury’s motives throughout are somewhat vague and mutable. We never really get a good idea of what he does in his moonlighting as an investigator — how long he’s been doing it, how it makes him money, what other cases he’s taken — it’s just sort of a slapped-on detail, not a fully realized character point. The information about Cassandra’s past is sort of annoyingly withheld until very late in the book, and the last-minute turn just seems odd and out of place.

None of that is to say the book is without its advantages. I actually enjoyed the process of reading it, and got through it quickly. The story is compelling — it just isn’t what’s on the tin, you know? Watching Yates and Cassandra negotiate around each other, around their friends, around her brother, is all interesting. I like the slightly different setting (though the publishers need to know not to refer to something set in 1798 as Regency) and the sociopolitical spin that puts on things. And I’ll definitely be picking up the rest of the series, because I generally like Hunter’s writing, and I especially like how she interrogates what romance does to friendship. Not a lot of romance authors do that, even if they’re using the conceit to string together a series. Hunter’s romances, on the whole, seem more grounded in reality than others in the genre — which sometimes works for me and sometimes doesn’t. After all, this genre is generally a fantasy as much as anything involving dragons or magic.

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Sinful in Satin, by Madeline Hunter

Title: Sinful in Satin (Rarest Blooms #3)
Author: Madeline Hunter
Year of Publication: 2010
Length: 368 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 2.5 stars

I almost never fail to finish a book. And I did finish this one, eventually — but it took over a year. I lost interest on the first attempt last summer, then picked it back up and had to revisit the first half before I could go into the rest. I can’t quite put my finger, though, on why I had trouble getting into this book. It started slow, may have been the problem. The first hundred pages are an awful lot of the hero and heroine encountering each other in hallways and having awkward, abortive conversations, and the pace doesn’t pick up a whole lot from there.

The plot: Celia, as I believe we learned in earlier novels, is the daughter of a famous and successful courtesan, Alessandra, who has recently died. Celia was raised elsewhere, but was brought to her mother when she was sixteen to be prepared to take over Alessandra’s business. I was, when we first learned she was a courtesan’s daughter, really hoping for an unrepentantly non-virgin heroine — but, alas, I was disappointed. She ran off to Daphne in time to preserve her virginity. After Alessandra’s death, Celia discovers that her mother left a lot of debts — and that the man who purchased first rights to her would still like to claim them. Celia also learns that her mother’s second home, a private retreat where she did not conduct her business, has a boarder, Jonathan. What Celia does not know (but soon comes to suspect) is that Jonathan is working on behalf of the crown to try and discover if Alessandra was working as a French spy during the Napoleonic Wars.

There are some twists and turns, but none that are particularly inventive or surprising. Celia is on a quest to find out who her father is, and the scenes where she finally confronts him have some of the best emotional intensity in the book. Celia does not want to follow her mother’s path, though she manages not to demonize it or sex — but her attitude towards all of it, and towards her developing affair with Jonathan, is a little muddled. The tension of her decision-making progress doesn’t come across terribly well, because she plays everything so close to the chest — not just with the other characters but also with the reader. There’s also another subplot involving Celia’s attempts to get the Rarest Blooms an outpost station in her house in London. In some ways, I think this book couldn’t quite decide what it wanted to be and what story it wanted to be telling — and so it ended up not doing much of anything.

This was the weakest and least interesting of the Rarest Blooms series for me. The characters were not engaging enough, and the plotline meandered without any real sense of drive or urgency behind it. Even the spy subplot fails to inject the necessary excitement; books like Suzanne Enoch’s London’s Perfect Hero have done that far better. The best parts of this book are the teasing glimpses we get of Daphne and Castleford, who will be the heroine and hero of the final (and far more interesting) book in the series, Dangerous in Diamonds.

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Provocative in Pearls, by Madeline Hunter

Title: Provocative in Pearls  (Rarest Blooms #2)
Author: Madeline Hunter
Year of Publication: 2010
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Regency romance
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 3 stars (though possibly just barely)

I didn’t like this quite as well as the first book in the series, mostly because I had some trouble connecting with the heroine. She came off as a little cold, and, honestly, a little dim. Her problems had many solutions that she just wasn’t seeing, and it sort of made me want to throw things at her. It’s still a decent read, though. I warmed to the hero more than the heroine, and Hunter continues to provide intricate, engaging plotlines.

Hawkeswell is a broke earl, nigh-impoverished by inherited debts. Two years ago, he made a deal to marry the daughter of a deceased iron baron — a wealthy heiress being exactly what he needed to set his affairs in order. What he didn’t know is that the girl in question had been abused by the cousin who had wardship of her until her 21st birthday, and that she had not freely consented to the marriage at all. Verity disappeared hours after their wedding, leaving Hawkeswell to deal not only with his debts, but with suspicions regarding her apparent death in a river as well. Unfortunately, since she can’t actually be declared dead without a body, Hawkeswell can’t find another heiress to marry.

So, imagine his surprise when he stumbles across his wayward bride at the Rarest Blooms, when he visits there with his friend Sebastian and Sebastian’s wife Audrianna (heroine of the previous book, Ravishing in Red). She is, in fact, the “Lizzie” who had been living there for the past two years. Hawkeswell wastes no time reclaiming his bride, but Verity, who’s grown accustomed to a certain degree of independence (and who has turned 21 in the meantime) presses for an annulment. Hawkeswell has no reason to give it, and decides he has to seduce his wife into staying with him. In the meantime, Verity keeps hatching plans to get away, none of them very well-thought-out, all naive, all demonstrating that she has no idea how the world actually works, and all of which fail rather spectacularly.

What bothered me about the interaction between Hawkeswell and Verity is that… I just felt like things should’ve come together much more strongly than they did. Verity gives in to his seduction and accepts that means she’s pretty much stuck with him, and though affection grows, you never quite feel the swell of overpowering love. And if that had been more pronounced, I think, maybe other things would’ve fallen into line better. Verity wants to retake control of her father’s iron foundries, to improve life for the people there who have been suffering under her cousin’s rule. She can’t do so directly, however, because she’s married now, and her (controlling) share in the company passed to her husband’s name. Now, what would seem obvious to me is for her to make clear to him how important these things are to her, and fix things up there with his help. Instead, we get a somewhat clumsy solution, which stems not from cooperative power, but from Hawkeswell beating her sinister cousin into submission. Literally. I’m not all that bothered by Hawkeswell’s temper and domineering manner generally — throughout the book, he’s very firm with Verity, but frankly, she needs it — but I don’t see this as a sustainable solution to the problem. It didn’t stem from them working together as a couple, and so it fell short of being satisfying. It never really got to a point where you got the sense that Verity was willing to work with Hawkeswell rather than against him.

I was also somewhat disappointed in the ending, if only because Hunter skips right over what would be the climactic moments of the plot. Something exciting’s about to happen (again, under Hawkeswell’s steam, with Verity entirely uninvolved), and then the curtain drops at the end of a chapter, and when it picks up again… everything’s over and settled and we didn’t actually get to see any of the action. Hunter does give it a nice twist, though, in the denouement, which somewhat makes up for it. I don’t want to give it away, but what I will say is this: these are both very practical people. Even their gushing romance has a very practical edge to it. I’m simultaneously a little bored by that (it not being my mode of operation at all) and impressed at the somewhat more realistic tone to put in a romance novel.

I have no complaints about the steamy portions of the novel. Hunter continues to be willing to kick the heat up and let her characters revel in sensuality. I just wish the sex had been paired with what felt like more honest depictions of growing love.

Overall, a decent enough read, though not one I’ll feel compelled to return to anytime soon.

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Ravishing in Red, by Madeline Hunter

Title: Ravishing in Red  (The Rarest Blooms #1)Ravishing in Red
Author: Madeline Hunter
Year of Publication: 2010
Length: 341 pages
Genre: Regency romance
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 4 stars

I really enjoyed this book. More than I’ve enjoyed a new romance (or a new author) in quite some time.

Ravishing in Red is a compelling read. It nicely balances a good, steamy romance with an interesting mystery plot. Audrianna (who I will forgive for having a bit of an excessive name) is trying to clear her father’s name, after he was accused of, either negligently or traitorously, passing along non-functional gunpowder to the British army during the Napoleonic war. Disgraced, he hanged himself, leaving his wife and two daughters in a rather tight spot. When Audrianna reads a newspaper ad from someone called “the Domino” claiming to have information for him, she decides to turn up. Unfortunately for her, so does Sebastian Summerhays, the MP and younger brother of a war-injured marquess, who led the investigation against her father. They get caught in a compromising position, Sebastian accidentally gets a little bit shot, and eventually the scandal starts to spread.

In what I think is a really great move on Hunter’s part, they don’t leap to the “We must marry to protect reputations!” solution immediately, as a lot of books will do. Quite sensibly, they rather hoped the incident would blow over without scandal — but when it doesn’t, they have to take action. I also like that it’s not just about her reputation. It’s very much about his as well. The scandal paints her as a poor, beleaguered innocent caught in a bad situation and him as a conniving cad, abusing his power and authority to seduce her. Her virtue may be seen as compromised (even though it wasn’t), but in a way that the public sort of sees as romantically tragic, whereas Sebastian’s political clout is very much in jeopardy. It was a nice rebalancing of the gender issues and assumptions you generally see in the compromised-into-marriage trope.

Neither one of them is willing to give up the chase regarding the truth about the gunpowder, though, even though it pits them against each other and uncovers quite a few nasty secrets along the way. They start getting unwittingly tangled in each others’ viewpoints and considerations, and it’s a nice way of drawing the couple together, as each eventually ends up pulling for the other team a bit.

The sex is really quite good. A lot of historical authors, particularly of Regencies, pull their punches a bit when it comes to the dirty stuff. Hunter doesn’t, and I’m thrilled about it. I don’t like reading contemporary romances, but I do like to see interesting, creative sex. (There was also a very naughty moment involving a secondary character, but one who I believe gets his own book later in the series — and I’m really looking forward to it, considering that his wickedness got me even more hot and bothered than anything the hero and heroine did). I also like the Hunter indulges in the descriptions a bit, both of the physical and the emotional. It would sound absolutely ridiculous read out loud, because it verges just a touch into the overblown and excessive, but read to yourself, it’s heady and entrancing.

Much as I enjoyed the book, there are some flaws. I think both the hero and heroine get over their issues regarding each other a bit too easily. I feel like Hunter glosses over some of the trust issues a bit, burying them beneath raw lust. There’s also something about her writing style that sometimes makes shifts in point-of-view a bit jarring and abrupt.

So, overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. So much so, in fact, that I went ahead and ordered the rest of the series before I even finished this one — and I’m already halfway through Provocative in Pearls. They’re not the most outstanding romance novels I’ve ever read, but they’re quite compelling. Hunter balances the traditional romance tropes with enough other twists, turns, and complications to make these books real page-turners.

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