I have been looking forward to this book for weeks – possibly months – but was a bit hesitant to read it because I loved the last two Dare novels, A Lady by Midnight and Any Duchess Will Do, so much that I was afraid this one wouldn't measure up.
This is a really silly thing to worry about – it's a book, get on with it – but I was trepidacious. I loved the last two books so much, I was being ridiculous about starting this one.
So, short answer: this novel wasn't the same, but that's not a bad thing. This book is unique and different, a distinctive sort of historical romance. It's a sort of novel that is at times self-aware, almost like it's winking at the reader and sharing a secret. I'm glad I read it and I liked it, but I don't think it's a step up from the past two, which are some pretty fantastic historical romances. It's a step to the left (and later some pelvic thrusting but it's a romance so you expected that, I presume) and a different space entirely.
I don't think Dare can write a romance that isn't unique, as she's got mad skills at creating clever characters and scenarios that invite empathy and emo-tingles. But with this one, I didn't get the emo-tingles as I did with the previous books.
]Izzy is the daughter of a famous novelist who has recently died, leaving her with nothing. Her late father's books are famous – so famous that there are re-enactment groups all over the country – but Izzy herself is down to one last hope: a letter that invited her to a castle as she's inherited something. She arrives at said castle, and upon seeing its decrepit condition and the surly, scarred dude inhabiting it, after a few days of no food, she faints.
Said surly dude is, of course, the surly duke who owns the castle – so he thinks. But then the inheritance is revealed: the castle belongs to Izzy. Surly duke, aka Ransom, thinks this is hogwash, but since he hasn't looked at or even opened his mail in months, it may not be hogwash at all. So Izzy refuses to leave, Ransom can't bring himself to throw her out, and the two of them have to figure out who owns the castle, how it came to be sold and then inherited by Izzy, and of course, the more personal questions, such as why is he a surly duke and why does Izzy have nowhere else to go.
This book seemed more fanciful than the Spindle Cove series in part because of the degree to which the hero and heroine are in isolation. First it's the two of them in the castle, then the vicar's daughter comes by, plus Ransom's valet, then a group of re-enacting fans of Izzy's father's books (yes, historical LARPers are all up in this story). The number of people around them grows, but these two people are very much alone in personality and in circumstance. Whereas Spindle Cove was about the community as much as it was about the hero and heroine of each book, this story has two characters by themselves a LOT of the time. Given that Izzy is nearly 30, I think her lack of chaperone wouldn't raise too many eyebrows, but once the vicar's daughter moves in, propriety is more obviously observed – and STILL they are alone a lot.
A note about the vicar's daughter, Abigail. I really liked her as a character. It would have been the easy route to take the beautiful, charming, persistent girl who is practically perfect and make her horrible, evil, deceitful and mean, but she's not. She's generous and a good friend for the sake of being a good friend. I liked that the beautiful “competition” wasn't an instant enemy for Izzy.
Izzy is the focus of the story – she grows, she changes, she learns when she's made mistakes in judgment and she owns her errors in a very honest manner that I admired. Her history is revealed in pieces, and understanding the source of her hopes and her disappointments develops her as a character. The book is all about Izzy finding and making a home for herself, and finding someone to care for, but more importantly, someone to care for her appropriately.
Ransom is pretty much a standard grumpy, isolated, brooding surly-duke throughout the book, and seemed very similar to other surly-dukes I've read. While Izzy is a unique sort of heroine, I think, Ransom is not so original, and there's less done with the standard mold of his character to re-invent or refine his character into something new. He had a sad childhood like Izzy, but his was the standard cold, distant dad who instructed everyone to show him no affection, leaving room for Izzy to be the soft touch of comfort in his life.
And with Ransom, I really, really struggled with his very rapid, almost too-quick turnaround. He goes from being a vulgar boor whose sexual advances on Izzy made me distinctly uncomfortable (there is more than one note made in the text that reads, “EW DUDE NO STOP THAT”) to a supportive, loving, amorous swoon-bag in about a chapter. It was so quick of a turnaround, I was disappointed by it's ease. Where Izzy needed to reveal herself and some painful truths about her past in order to have an open and trusting relationship (both of these characters are hesitant to trust anyone for very different but equally painful reasons), Ransom needed to admit he was wrong and change his actions and his perspective – and those changes came about too quickly for me.
And my GOD, this guy wants to have sex in every inopportune, marginally dangerous and certainly compromising location ever. I am surprised Ransom wasn't all, “Izzy, we need to go check the flagpole on the top of the turret. Together” But when they started anything amorous, the invisibility cloak would descend, even if they were in a hallway or swinging from the flagpole (they didn't actually swing from the flagpole).
But there were many fun parts, too, which also contributed to the fanciful quality of the book. I loved the little nods to classic historical romances, including (I think) stories from Julie Garwood, Laura Kinsale, and Jude Deveraux. There are nods to classic movies, romantic comedies, and many, many works that have inspired fandoms. I mean, come on, there are LARPers running around the countryside in homemade armor. All of those little nods and winks give the book a very contemporary feel, which added what I suspect may be a bit of inaccuracy to some of the events, but also a very silly and friendly sense of humor.
Like I said, this is a unique historical. It's not super angsty, trying to rip my emotions out of my ears slowly. It's not super sweet because both characters have real and sometimes painful problems – either physical, emotional or both. It's not all sparkling comedy and effervescent fluff, either. Izzy is dealing with poverty and with maintaining a legacy for her deceased father that includes repeatedly lying about how her childhood really was, and the fact that she's an adult while the rest of the fans surrounding her father's stories views her as a child, the centerpiece of that fairy tale world.
But oh, there were some truly lovely parts, too. Even with my irritation with Ransom's development, the writing sets this book almost on a different scale. Yes, I disliked certain parts of it, but there were other parts that were so incredibly lovely, it smooths the edges off the ones I disliked.
Here are some of my highlights:
It started to rain. Fat, heavy drops of summer rain – the kind that always struck her as vaguely lewd and debauched. Little potbellied drunkards, those summer raindrops, chortling on their way to earth and crashing open with glee.
Later, when the inheritance is revealed:
“Oh, but this gift isn't the same as an ermine. This is property. Don't you understand how rare that is for a woman? Property always belongs to our fathers, brothers, husbands, sons. We never get to own anything.”
“Don't tell me you're one of those women with radical ideas.”
“No,” she returned. “I'm one of those women with nothing. There are a great many of us.”
One of his pectoral muscles twitched angrily. As if registering an indignant harrumph.
AW YEAH. It's the cousin of the Pec Pop of Love! THE PEC POP OF IRRITATION!
“Every time you wake up, you let fly the most marvelous string of curses. It's never the same twice, do you know that? It's so intriguing. You're like a rooster that crows blasphemy.”
“Oh, there's a cock crowing, all right,” he muttered.
And, possibly my favorite:
“I didn't know they allowed barristers to spend their free time tromping about the first in makeshift armor.”
“Why not? We spend our work days wearing long black robes and powdered wigs.”
Was this as jaw-drop, emo-tingle magic as the last two? Unfortunately, no. If those are books I gave As to, this one is a solid and very respectable B+. And there are also so many things I didn't mention, some which I wasn't sure if it was spoilerly to do so, and others which I had to edit out because otherwise this review would have been 50,000 words long. There's a LOT going on in here.
I think this is a truly unique historical that will appeal to readers who aren't often historical fans. This story captures both a distant time period, and the present day, reflecting it in the characters – with a story and a parallel set of references beside it that grow together until the meaning of both is intertwined and layered into something I haven't read before. This is a romance that is also a little bit about the community around romance, and all the many, many people who believe in it and have their fondness for it in common.
I rarely if ever address reviews to the author, but Tessa Dare, I See What You Did There. High fives.