A two-book review from the “And Now For Something A Little Different” department.
You know those women who are friends with scads of men but not so many women? What if one of those women was in a historical romance? What if she were a widow, free of those pesky expectations of innocence and demureness? What if she were bawdy, outrageous, and friends with absolute piles of handsome, rakish men who adored her and considered her one of their own? Who would reign her in? Other women, gossip, scandal, and the expectations of society at the time? What if she didn’t give a rat’s ass about gossip, scandal, or the expectations of society? Who needs other women, anyway?
So, couple all that setup with a depth of historical knowledge that will literally make your corset spin around on top of your head, some sharp dialogue, and settings that are original, fascinating, and located in the same historical period with which you may be familiar, but at often unexplored locations within that period, and you have Hughes’ two books.
That trifecta of historical research, clever setting, and wholly memorable characters, held competently by Hughes’ writing, is some powerful juju.
The first, Lord Sin, is the story of George, aka Georgianna Exley, who is what tomboys grow up to be when they’re wealthy, whip smart, sexy, and aware of their female allure, but also wicked good at things like pool, shooting, horseracing, and generally making a gleeful sport of life. Ivo Dauntry left England in disgrace six years prior for fighting a duel over George. He’s returned to find that she’s a widow, she’s surrounded by men at all hours of the day, her home is an unofficial gentleman’s club, and despite his best intentions he has absolutely no power to resist her. He’s wildly jealous of all the other men, and is completely unimpressed with George’s mandate that, should she take a man to her bed, he gets one night and one night only. Ivo wants six nights, one for each year he was in exile.
So let me warn you: this is not your average historical romance novel. For one thing: the person struggling with moral and personal virtue vs. fiery burn-your-hairs-off sexual attraction? That’d be the hero. The one who has more potential partners than a stick could be shaken at? That’d be the heroine. If you’re up for having your expectations of the heroine’s virginity and relative innocent inexperience stood on their heads, and you’re up for meeting a heroine who will stick with you awhile, head directly to this book and jump in. Ivo is cranky, George at times treats him in ways that made me cringe, but I still rooted for them. The two of them knock heads before they knock boots in ways that toss a grenade on the idea of “conflict” and kick that conflict up in its own teeth. George and Ivo do not have it easy, but when they earn it, they earn it hot and good.
Which is why I was pleased and yet somewhat bummed out to find her in the next book in Hughes’ series featured George and Ivo, but most specifically George. She’s fascinating. She’s marvelous. She’s larger than life.
She damn near chews the scenery to the point where if you put the book down you might pick it up to find little bites taken out of the pages, and no cat in sight to blame for the nibble.
Lord Scandal follows Gabriel, a mere mister of some fortune and even more some reputation, and Imogen, the “Portrait Divorcee.” Divorced on grounds of her alleged infidelity after she sat for a rather scandalous portrait (Think Madame X only more alluring, I think) and the resulting gossip humiliated her politically-ambitious husband, Imogen is an outcast in a society she once managed marvelously as a political hostess. George takes Imogen under her wing, and quietly goes about restoring Imogen to society, albeit a more racy, outrageous, and frankly fun, if you’re asking me, section of society.
One element that Hughes exploits to great advantage is the idea of cliques within the ton, as George and her cronies are of “the sporting set,” which defines them apart from other groups, though they all might end up at the same ball or gathering together. Plus, Hughes’ understanding of what sorts of activities those sporting folks might get on with makes for some witty dialogue and refreshingly different scenes. Almack’s my ass: we have horseracing, hunting parties, country parties with fox hunting and shooting – places men would only be welcome except for the iconoclast George and her companion Imogen. And before the book gets top heavy with the manly manhood, there are scenes with the women spending an afternoon reading fashion catalogs, for example, and discussing dresses and styles, which revealed what some women of status and fortune actually did with themselves during the day.
And therein lie my problems with this book: George is all about installing Imogen among her set of manly man friends, and as a divorcee, Imogen’s social options are rather limited. What better group to ignore her alleged dalliance than a crew of dudes? Dudes, obviously, won’t give a flying crap cake. Gabriel, a fixture in the rakish sporting posse, is barely allowed entrance to most social events, and the more outrageous he is, the better he was to read about, and the more fun he is to see within his social circle. But the actual conduct that made Imogen a pariah is never fully explained, nor is the impact of Gabriel’s intimate knowledge of that portrait revealed. I had to wonder what would happen when Imogen learned the extent of Gabriel’s knowledge of her – and since it wasn’t revealed in front my readerly eyes, I’m not sure I can believe it was for the best.
Imogen’s coming back from a place of deep humiliation, so of course she fears the consequences of a shocking and gossipy fling with Gabriel – and she has real reason to fear those consequences, as Hughes makes a point of underscoring just how vulnerable Imogen really is, despite Ivo and George’s protection as her friends. George, rakish social pirate that she is, comes to Imogen’s defense again and again with her own considerable power in society, but essentially, Imogen is very, very vulnerable. And thus, Imogen herself pales, unfortunately, in comparison to George. George is full-strength oils applied with a trowel. Imogen is watercolors. Lots of them, skillfully done, breathtakingly moving, but water colors. George is a canvas you can smell drying from across the street.
Even despite the more frustrating aspects of the writing – scenes that are absurdly short, for example, and ended way too soon for my tastes, and a secondary character, as I’ve noted, who is so larger than life she can easily overshadows the sequel protagonists – the strength and clever originality of the setting, coupled with a whole posse of memorable characters and a deeper knowledge of the time period than I’ve grown accustomed to from most historical romance authors, combined to create a very diverting read. Even if at times I was looking for George or Gabriel more than I was looking for Imogen, I came to appreciate and enjoy the whole set of characters that I was happy to spend more time in Hughes’ Georgian world.
But soft! What awesome from yonder website breaks? It is the giveaways, and I have five! To be specific: I have five sets of both books, Lord Sin and Lord Scandal, if you are interested in taking a gallop around Georgian England.
You want to enter? Leave a comment. Say anything, but say it in the next 24 hours. I’ll select five random winners from the total number of comments, and announce them once time is up.