Book Review

A Rake’s Guide to Pleasure by Victoria Dahl

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Title: A Rake's Guide to Pleasure
Author: Victoria Dahl
Publication Info: Zebra August 2008
ISBN: 1420100165
Genre: Historical: European

Book Cover I loved 80% of this book. I loved that Dahl took a risk with a character who wasn’t what she seemed, who was a walking con artist, who fooled people who adored her, but still allowed that character to be likeable and brave and clever. I loved that Dahl played with the idea of identity in a society where one’s status is largely based on fiat, where if everyone agrees you are who you say you are, you’re either golden or gone. I loved that in addition to embracing that wicked virgin widow trope, Dahl also explored the freedom of women who were widowed, and what that meant for a woman who could drink, gamble, smoke, take lovers, and generally get away with damn near anything she wanted, within reason – so long as the fiat of her identity held. And I loved that the character was so brave, and so afraid, so very very unconventional and yet in essence so simple to understand that I rooted for her no matter what guise she was in.

I also had a joyous time because hero-trying-to-resist is one of my favorite constructs ever. I call it, “I can’t stop thinking about your hair, dammit” and I could read it and dream about it for hours without stop. I loved that Hart was my favorite character from Dahl’s first novel, and I was so fascinated by a duke who would stand up for his ruined sister against anyone – hello, fiat again – who was perfectly happy to be dissolute when he wanted to, but whose moral core stood with his family, full stop, so any additional words against his sister would be met with a big hammy fist in your pompus face. Hart, he doesn’t pity the fool.

The book developed like a fascinating game of what-if: what if a woman could make her way into society in the off-season by assuming a connection to a family so scattered and fractured across the country that one person’s say-so was good enough for the rest? What if a heroine showed open and deliberate ambition for money, and demonstrated a knowing appreciation for sex despite a deeper-set fear of it? What if erotic elements were introduced to a historical romance, like bondage, domination, submission, and role playing, without those elements taking over the entire story? And what if the hero was really yummy, too?

I was flying through this story when I read it, and I can tell you where I was (the NJ Transit train in the Jersey wetlands) and what I was doing (crying) when the story fractured for me. I was so happy with so much of it, and the last tenth of it, the wrapping up of the ending and the explanation of past trauma, was so crushing that I was left despondent while the characters went off and embraced each other and their happy ending. Obviously I don’t want to give away the finale, but I’ve had a very, very difficult time getting one image out of my head, and that image is so painful that it’s spectre haunts the happily-ever-after and causes me to doubt the provenance of it, and, I know this is silly, causes me to resent the heroine for unloading that painful story on me so that I could deal with the fallout while she goes and boinks Hart into epilogues of sunsets and sparkly happiness. The resolution of the mystery within the story was a little too pat, and too easily blamed on a stock character who I wish had demonstrated more nuance, especially next to the multi-dimensional hero and heroine.  And the “Why are you so sad?” “Oh, fine I’ll tell you!” Therapy Ending just about sent me over the edge when I read the final pages. Their happy ending came at a cost for me as a reader and I wish I didn’t have to pay it.

That said, there is no doubt that Dahl wields some serious talent, both in her use of imagery (Janet quoted one scene I read at least three times to re-experience its art) and her development of fascinating characters who grab you by the chin and yell, “Pay attention! I’m different and I’m awesome!” Too often I find myself reading historical romance characters that I can classify as ‘Yet-Another’ : yet another ingenue, yet another tortured rake, yet another drunken abusive parent. Dahl demonstrates her familiarity with historical tropes and the confidence and skill to play with them in such a manner that her name is one I’ll recognize and gravitate to every time I see it on a bookshelf. Even if the heroine ripped my heart out and handed it to me, and even if I was pissed as hell at the heroine for doing so, I have to give Dahl credit: she made me feel heights of benevolent pleasure for the protagonists, and agony over their pasts. To borrow a phrase from the esteemed theologians All 4 One, “She’s got skills. Makes me wanna scooby-doo.”

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Lorelie says:

    Heh, I know exactly what you mean.

    Luckily, I’m a last page peeker.  (I know, I’m awful, sue me.)  So I got the emotional impact of that revelation earlier than I should have.  Made it all better.  (Almost.)

  2. 2
    Ana says:

    YES! Great review, Sarah. I was not expecting what I got from this book: delight at two utterly different characters and the emotional punches that came with who they were and their pasts. My heart was captivated by Hart, what a hero.

    I also wished we had been spared the dealings with the villain (why must we continue to suffer villainous villains???)  so that we had only their internal , organic conflict but alas. I have become a Victoria Dahl fan with this book. And I can’t wait for Lancaster’s book.

  3. 3
    katiebabs says:

    Awesome review :D
    I agree, Victoria took some risks and it worked. Kudos to Victoria! :D

  4. 4
    Silver James says:

    *sigh* Historicals really aren’t my thing, as a rule.  You, however, have painted this one with brush strokes of more interesting nuance and richer color so that plot and characters both sound intriguing. My TBR pile (and list) will keep me reading well into next year as it is. *jots this one on the list* I’m curious now, about that Big Reveal(tm) and will have to read this one sooner than later.

    I am curious, SBSarah, why you named the hero but no mention of the heroine’s name?

  5. 5
    SB Sarah says:

    Not a deliberate omission – her name is Emma. Bad reviewer, bad!

  6. 6
    Kalen Hughes says:

    Vicki has mad skills. She and I were Golden Heart finalists together and she won our category that year (the bitch!). I’ve got this one in my TBR pile, but must find a block of time before cracking it open (and now I want to read it even more than I already did!).

  7. 7

    I’m not a huge historical reader right now, but bought the most recent Loretta Chase based on the SB review, read it on the way to SF, and really enjoyed it.  So I guess I’ve got another to add to the TBR-pile-that-I-cannot-touch-until-after-deadline.  Crap.

    [Okay, technically I touched the new JD Robb this morning, but we had a power outage, my laptop battery was dead, I couldn’t face more of The History of Chocolate in Mesoamerica. . . and frankly, I have no willpower when it comes to Eve and Roarke.  Le sigh.]

  8. 8
    SB Sarah says:

    [Okay, technically I touched the new JD Robb this morning, but we had a power outage, my laptop battery was dead, I couldn’t face more of The History of Chocolate in Mesoamerica. . . and frankly, I have no willpower when it comes to Eve and Roarke.  Le sigh.]

    But was their actual chocolate, and was it at all in danger of melting due to the power outage, thus requiring you to enjoy it? THAT is the question.

  9. 9

    I could pretend I wasn’t reading this, but I won’t. Ha!

    Sarah, thank you so much. My first SB review!!! I think that might call for a celebratory trip to the liquor store.

    I’m THRILLED that I moved you and sorry that I disturbed you. Hey, it’s just like a real relationship!

  10. 10
    Robin says:

    I think it’s interesting that we both came out with the same grade for this book, even though what we did and didn’t like was different.  I wasn’t as bothered by the story Emma told as you were, nor did I see the way she told it as therapeutic, I guess because we had gotten so many parts of the story over the course of the novel, and it was really only Hart in the dark at that point.  Plus she didn’t magically heal. 

    Totally agree with you about the whole working of the virgin widow trope (IMO this book could serve as an example of how to write a trope so that it’s actually a character, ha!).  And the clever riff on the way a society that bases most of its interactions on a superficial concept of honor (in the face of some really crappy behavior by its denizens) encourages all sorts of false fronts. 

    For me the power of the book was in bringing its characters to life beyond their type, and like others, I’m looking forward to see how Lancaster is revealed, so to speak, in the next book.

  11. 11
    aliciel says:

    Hey, wasn’t this on the ads column of SBTB a few days ago? I distinctly remember Google-ing it after I saw it there—->
    Thanks for the review, definitely putting it on the TBR list.
    Oooh, I get to follow posts from Kalen Hughes, Jessica Andersen, and Victoria Dahl! *fangirl squeeee* ;D

  12. 12
    KG says:

    Hero-trying-to-resist is my favorite, too!  Never read Dahl before, but now I will. The minute you included the word ‘bondage,’ I was all over that puppy. Nothing bugs me more than a well-written historical romance that doesn’t have hot enough sex!

    Yay!

  13. 13

    You got me!  I’m adding this one to my TBR pile!!

    And who says that reviews can’t sway readers’ interests?! GAH! If only I could get a few more (or a dozen) reviews like this on my own books….! LOL!!

  14. 14

    But was their actual chocolate, and was it at all in danger of melting due to the power outage, thus requiring you to enjoy it? THAT is the question.

    LOL!  I’m also pretty much nil in the willpower department when it comes to chocolate (which was initially introduced to the Spanish conquistadors by the Maya and other locals… v. cool historical stuff). My chocolate-for-writing-inspiration is: http://www.yachanagourmet.com/  Rainforest friendly, lower cal, supports Ecuadoran farmers using fair trade practices, and best of all during mid-summer power outages, NON-MELTING ‘cause it’s the actual cacao beans at the stage prior to becoming what we think of as chocolate.  Yummmm. 

    [Warning… this stuff is *very* high in caffeine, if my recent non-sleep habits are anything to go by.  Or else that’s just the looming deadline thing.]

    Victoria, thanks for de-lurking!  Looking forward to picking up the book for a post-deadline read-fest :)  And aliciel, thanks for including me in the squee!

  15. 15
    SB Sarah says:

    While we’re talking chocolate, this is my cannot-stop-eating addiction: Chocolove’s Dark Chocolate with Ginger, which is really smooth dark chocolate with chunks of ginger embedded in it.

    Cannot…stop…eating…omg…morrrrre.

  16. 16
  17. 17
    Tracy Grant says:

    Fascinating review that makes me really intrigued to read the book!  Like Sarah, I thought Hart was an intriguing, complex character in Vicki’s first book.

  18. 18

    I have to read this, ASAP!  I bought Dahl’s debut after reading her blog.  She has one of those irresistible personalities that comes through in whatever she does. 

    I also loved Hart in To Tempt a Scotsman.  His relationship with Alexandra was very special and I really enjoyed his interactions with Collin.  Nothing sexier than a couple of manly men engaging in fisticuffs.

  19. 19
    Jessa Slade says:

    Ooh, and I’ve got credits at Powell’s City of Books burning a whole in my wallet. Must go spend.

    If you’re in the mood for some spicy celebration, try Dagoba’s xocolatl bar. Jessica A., it might be right up your Mesoamerican alley.

  20. 20
    Kalen Hughes says:

    If you’re in the mood for some spicy celebration, try Dagoba’s xocolatl bar. Jessica A., it might be right up your Mesoamerican alley.

    They made a hot cocoa mix that will singe all the taste buds off your tongue! I have to use it sparingly in a cup of plain cocoa.

  21. 21
    Jami Alden says:

    Yeah, Vicki has mad writing skillz, but did you know she has mad dancing skillz too? 
    -Jami
    who wishes she were not on deadline so she could appreciate Victoria’s mad skillz

  22. 22
    Karen Junker says:

    At least reading is points-free for Weight Watchers…

    Thanks for tempting me, ya’ll.  ::ambles off to buy Dahl’s book::

  23. 23
    SonomaLass says:

    My first SB review!!! I think that might call for a celebratory trip to the liquor store.

    Gotta love an author who knows how to celebrate a review!  If I wasn’t already planning to read this book, this response would make me. 

    And Robin, thanks a jillion for the brewed chocolate link.  What an awesome idea—I will be trying that very soon.

    Smart Bitches are so good for my soul.

  24. 24
    katiebabs says:

    Well, I have my own special box of chocolate. Sarah knows what they are *wink wink*

  25. 25
    Vinca says:

    *sigh* So skimming the other replies, I see a lot of people saying this is a great review, but I noticed that a fair bit of those that think so have already read the book.  Having not read the book yet, I have to say I found this review incredibly annoying (enough so that I feel like coming out of lurkdom to say as much).  Reading the review, I have no clue what this book is actually about; trying to discern the plot from this review is like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle (a puzzle with at least half the edge pieces and 3 of the corners missing).  You didn’t even mention the heroine’s name til someone pointed out you’d forgot to include it.  Talking about themes and what ifs is all well and nice, but I’d like a bit more meat to the review, so at the end I’m not left trying to piece together what the plot was.

  26. 26

    A huge thanks to the bitchery for coming through with additional chocolates I must buy, all in the name of research for the third book!  [working title: Sex, Chocolate and Apocalypse.  Or not.]

    Vinca- I guess what made it a useful review for me (and I haven’t read the book, but will pick it up based on this) is that it explained how the book differs from the same-old-same-old historicals that sort of burned me out on the genre.  Do I know what it’s about?  Not so much, but that’s not a big deal for me, personally.  If I wanted to know more about the actual plot, would I have to go elsewhere?  Yep.  But like I said, I’m more about hearing ‘this is different, well written, and yanked strong emotions out of me’ from a reader who turned me on to another historical I quite liked.  Obviously, your mileage may vary!

  27. 27
    Claire says:

    hmmm, Vinca, I see your point, but I for one like reviews like that – if the review tells me the whole plot I’m then less interested in going and buying the book, seeing as I already know what’s going to happen.
    This is the first SBTB review I’ve read that’s made me actually want to go and buy the book, ‘cause now I want to find out exactly what it is Dahl does with those themes. Tell me the plot and I stop caring.

  28. 28
    Donna R. says:

    Historicals are my favorite.  And now, after reading this review, I’m going to rush out and by this one tomorrow! 

    OMG!  My word is:  length25

  29. 29
    SB Sarah says:

    Having not read the book yet, I have to say I found this review incredibly annoying (enough so that I feel like coming out of lurkdom to say as much).  Reading the review, I have no clue what this book is actually about

    Note to self: remember the plot synopsis, doofus! Note to Vinca: sorry!! My bad. My review was more reaction than summary of the book itself, so out of context my review made less sense. Oops.

  30. 30
    Kate Pearce says:

    I had the pleasure of meeting Victoria at the RWA conference for the first time (after we had already exchanged a few scurrilous emails about filthy French swear words). She was hilarious and her unique personality really shines in her books.

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