There are some spoilers in these reviews. To read the spoilers, highlight the invisible text.
What do my final ratings mean? BUY means I’d cough up the cash for the book. BORROW means it’s worth checking out. While I wouldn’t buy it, another reader might want to borrow it from the library or read a sample chapter online before making any rash purchases. BASH means no! Don’t waste your time. Go re-read Jane Austen or something.
Loretta Chase’s Knaves’ Wager (1990; reprinted 2013)
Knaves’ Wager focuses on a seemingly intelligent man making a stupid bet.
Lord Robert’s embarrassing the family by living with Elise, his scheming French mistress. Everyone thinks she’s just out to con the family and Lord Julian, the Marquis of Brandon, is finally called in to control his younger brother.
In his attempt to separate the two lovers, Lord Julian makes a dumb wager with Elise: if Lord Julian can seduce the virtuous Mrs. Lilith Davenant in eight weeks, Elise will leave Lord Robert and return all of his blackmail-worthy love letters. If Lord Julian fails, Elise will get everything she wants: marriage, perhaps, but most definitely money.
Lilith, however, might be the last woman to succumb to Lord Julian’s charms. She’s a virtuous widow who blames Lord Julian for her husband’s early death by dissipation. It doesn’t help that her husband owes Lord Julian thousands of pounds, and Lilith feels obligated to re-pay the debts despite her dwindling finances. To top it off, Lilith just accepted her perennial suitor, Sir Thomas Bexley, a baronet with political ambitions.
Lord Julian, however, relishes the challenge that Lilith presents. As the London season gets underway, Lilith keeps bumping into Lord Julian—whether by accident or not—and despite her better judgment, she’s attracted to him.
All these encounters brings Lilith’s spunky niece, Cecily Glenwood, to Lord Robert’s attention. He begins to realize he may not want to marry his mistress after all!
Knaves’ Wager might be more complicated than the average romance novel: it has well-developed characters and two love triangles. It somewhat reminds me of Mansfield Park. I think the connection is a deliberate one, as Lord Julian gives Lilith a copy of the book with the inscription “may life with your ‘Edmund Betram’ be truly happily ever after.” (I’m not sure if that’s a dig at Edmund―I love Edmund!―Fanny Price really loved Edmund!) Perhaps the “evil” of not marrying for love is the whole point of the literary reference.
I digress, though.
Knaves’ Wager is a quaint artifact from Loretta Chase’s early career. Like The English Witch, I dug this book out from the bowels of the Oakland Public Library, and once again I was surprised by the lack of sex. There were ample opportunities to insert sexy scenes into the novel without wrecking the plot, but I get the feeling that Chase was being held back (by an editor or a publisher) regarding the amount of sensuality allowed. If anyone out there ever wants to write Loretta Chase fanfiction, Knave’s Wager would be the place to start.
heat meter: one final rating: borrow
Angel might be Dunn’s homage to Jane Austen: the eponymous character has twice the schemes of Emma Woodhouse and half the brains of Katherine Morland. It’s a truly frightful combination.
Lady Evangelina Brenthaven’s gotten eighteen marriage proposals and yet she’s rejected them all. Bored with polite society and eager to find out if anyone would like her if she wasn’t titled and rich, Angel disguises herself with drab clothes and an assumed name. With her indulgent parents’ permission, Angel passes herself off as plain Evelyn Brand while on a country holiday with her cousins.
Angel finds play-acting fun until she realizes her cousins expect her to stay in character—they want her to do house chores and defer to the social rank of their neighbors! Not much can keep Angel’s spirits down, however, as she starts making matches for her cousin Catherine and Lady Elizabeth Markham, the daughter of a local lord.
The neighborhood is abound with eligible gentlemen, so Angel has many candidates for her friends: there’s Sir Gregory, Lady Elizabeth’s cousin; Lord Welch; Gerald Leigh, the nice but poor vicar; and the mysterious limping Mr. Marshall.
With so many men introduced as potential love interests, Angel becomes an entangled mess. Not content with a simple love triangle, this novel has a love dodecahedron. Throw in a ton of Shakespearean references, a priest hole, an attempted murder, a missing heir and voilà! Subplot madness.
This is the first Carola Dunn romance that disappointed me. Perhaps I should have lowered my expectations, seeing that Angel was only her second novel and that I had read her more polished historical romances first. Angel lacks the passion of Miss Jacobson’s Journey, the fleshed-out characters of The Improper Governess or Lord Iverbrook’s Heir, or even the elegant conceits of The Frog Earl or Crossed Quills.
I still like Carola Dunn. I haven’t called off my hunt for her other romances. I probably just won’t purchase Angel if I find it in a bookstore.
heat meter: one final rating: bash
Anne Stuart’s Never Kiss a Rake (2013)
The Russell family is in deep trouble. A shipping tycoon known for his honesty, Russell died in a suspicious accident and became the scapegoat for his company’s bankruptcy. His eldest daughter, Bryony, suspects foul play after inspecting his papers. Bryony decides to send her two sisters away so she can infiltrate the households of her father’s old business partners. With her face lightly scarred with smallpox marks, Bryony thinks she’s ugly enough to pose as the perfect housekeeper while searching for the truth.
Adrian Bruton, Earl of Kilmartryn, has secrets of his own that can land him in jail, so he’s immediately on the alert when his new housekeeper isn’t quite like the other servants. Stuck in a loveless marriage to a cruel beauty, Adrian thinks Bryony is fair game, especially if the government sent her to spy on him. What follows is a titillating cat-and-mouse game, sandwiched between bouts of domestic politics worthy of Remains of the Day or Gosford Park.
If this book was set in contemporary times, Bryony could sue Adrian for sexual harassment and win a million-dollar settlement―he continually makes suggestive comments while Bryony’s working, and at one point he pins her against the bed. The guy’s a sexual predator, and I don’t think that’s a compliment. Since this is a romance novel, however, we’re supposed to find this all charming, especially since Byrony’s always making excuses to search her boss’s bedroom for incriminating evidence.
The mystery and intrigue bits of Never Kiss a Rake are handled well, although it’s frustrating that some elements are deliberately left at a loose end. I hope this doesn’t mean that Anne Stuart’s recycling her villain for the sequels starring Byrony’s sisters! I assume they will be investigating their father’s other shady business partners. Ah, well. Some days I miss the era of standalone novels.
This is the first Anne Stuart novel I’ve read. While I do have some quibbles, Never Kiss a Rake was an enjoyable read. I’m not sure if I’d actually want to buy a copy, but I liked it enough to consider reading the author’s other novels.
heat meter: three final rating: borrow