[This is a guest review from reader R. who found her long-lost romance thanks to the Bitchery and a HaBO that was SO funny I laughed so hard I could barely speak. Read on for more adventure in way-back romance!]
Surrender to the Night
(Or that book I ran into 18 years ago when I was 13, and finally got 3 days ago, thanks to the Smart Bitches and the Bitchery)
For real, guys, I can’t thank you enough. I feel like a niggling mystery from my early teenagerhood has finally been solved. I suppose it feels that way because that’s exactly what happened.
And oh! I HAVE SO MANY WORDS ABOUT THIS BOOK. So pull up a chair, I brought some cinnamon rolls and some coffee (but not that weak shit they actually sell at Toby’s. Oh god, I can’t do that to you. Last time we drove up there, Christmas 2009, I got a cup of coffee, and nearly spit it out and looked at my mother with HORROR and demanded to know if all Toby’s coffee was always this bad, or was this a particularly thriftful day in the ratio of coffee beans to water? She looked at me like I was crazy). (This is a common look my mother gives me. Bless.)
Anyway, here we go. (Um, I’m gonna spoil the shit out of this- [but] the book is 19 years old, so…)
First we are introduced to Our Hero, Clay. Clay is a Texan. He has a Texan ranch, with a Texan horse, and Texan BFF, and Texan boots, and has a Texan accent, and he REALLY loves boning Texan women. He’s got at least three he keeps in regular, erm, contact with. He is not a douchebag, however, and we are told this because he doesn’t like the idea of eating fried bull testicles (mountain oysters).
BUT WAIT. THERE IS MORE.
Not only is Clay a Texan in all ways Texas, he is ALSO, at the VERY SAME TIME, British Nobility. That’s right, our favorite Texan is also a Viscount and the heir apparent to an Earl. (Which leads into the hilarious line of “The Earl of Harrow is my daddy.”) But he’s more proud of being a Texan. I mean, who wouldn’t be? This viscount business just gets people all flustered. He also has a penchant for wearing open-throated shirts, mentioned the first three times we see him, to the point that the first time Jenna sees him wearing a cravat, she muses that she really didn’t expect him to be wearing anything other than an open-throated shirt. (As someone on LJ pointed out- technically all shirts are open throated- how else does you get them over your head?)
Jenna, on the other hand, is not a Texan. She is English, even though she was born in South Africa, where her father was killed as a innocent bystander of the Boer Wars, she was brought to England by her aunt or something, who was then immediately killed in a train wreck, which gave Jenna a blow to head so she went deaf, where she was then given over to the Deaf and Dumb Asylum in London, where her hearing came back two years later, and THEN she taught the younger kids until she was twenty, and then got work as a governess, where the husband tried to insist that her duties included a little what what, she objected, he insisted most insistently, she shoved him, he cracked his head open, and she ran off just ahead of a murder arrest, hid in the slummy tavern of the cover copy, pretending to be deaf, where she eventually ran into Clay.
Everyone got that?
As for why she insisted on hanging around this horrid tavern rather than, I don’t know, GETTING THE HELL OUT OF LONDON, she ran into two little plot device moppets with no mother and an absentee father and a working bathroom with running water. She Just Couldn’t Leave Them, or her opportunity for a bath (girlfriend likes to be clean). So she would beg money and make sure they had food and stuff.
Which leads us to The Plot. And really, there’s about three plots here that dart in and out of existence. First, we have Jenna and her whole murder charge issue. There are cops looking for her, so she disguises herself and is pretty smug about the whole thing. Halfway through, the Adorable Little Plot Moppets’ Absentee Father gets rounded up on a robbery charge (“They was robbing the Queen’s jewels they was!”), which was a robbery that Jenna overheard the planning phase of when she was pretending to be deaf. So first Jenna abducts the Plot Moppets, then when the Victorian London Child Protective shows up and takes the Plot Moppets away to an orphanage, she FINALLY is spurred to some action. But all the crap doesn’t even happen until the middle of the book. And, of course, there’s the Great Misunderstanding Betwixt Hero and Heroine.
Clay ends up in the crappy ass tavern because he’s slumming it with some of his English buddies (like you do). The wife of the owner of the tavern hits on him, and he’s like “no thank you I prefer my women not vile” and she plot with one of the regulars (who is involved in the robbery subplot above) to kill him because she’s pissed. What does her co-conspirator get out of the deal? Clay’s boots.
To be fair, they are nice boots. We know, because Jenna tells us. A LOT.
So Jenna, as the cover copy says, trails him to his lodgings, which is the Earl of Harrow’s London house, but also apparently serves as a frat house for the well-heeled single men of London, sneaks into his room in the dead of night, wakes him up, tells him not go slumming anymore, and leaves. She then goes back, because she’s madly in love with him, and they get it on. She muses that she really would have liked to hear some sweet nothings, rather than a “Get into bed” but beggars can’t be choosers. Literally. It’s lovely, she leaves, he finds the red hair after she had told him her hair was black, and then he finds “the disturbing evidence of her innocence.” (It’s also said later he found some of her “private hairs” so he knew she was natural redhead) (…)
At this point, Plot A rears it’s intermittent head, and Jenna sees some men asking about her, mentioning a 1000 pound reward, so she runs to Clay’s room (again, in the middle of the night) determined to tell him the whole truth and get him to help her. She blurts out the wanted for murder thing, and a number of other things about her past, and the exchange goes something like this:
Him: LIES you were a virgin and denied it when I asked which means YOU ARE A DIRTY LYING WHORE.
Her: That’s…. not how it works.
Him: WHY AM I THE ONE GETTING INTO TROUBLE WHEN YOU ARE THE LYING WHORE
Her: Whatever. Lets get it on. (“Let’s ride.”) (NO REALLY)
So, because he won’t believe the truth, and won’t let her go until she tells him the truth (….) she makes a bunch of shit up about how she’s a society girl just in it for a laugh, they have some irritated with each other but still pretty hot sex, and then she vanishes. He then goes to ALL THE PARTIES and hits on all the redheaded upper class women to find her, and he does, completely by accident: she’s working as a temporary serving girl at one of those parties.
And this is where the almost-rape scene is. He tracks her down, and demands to know the truth, and she’s like “we tried that and you didn’t believe it, so go away.” He then pulls her down to the bearskin rug (OF COURSE) and is about to have his way with her while she’s sort of fighting but doing that “Gawd he’s hot if only he weren’t such a douchebag I’m totally in love with!” thing, and the mistress of the house walks in. Jenna is sent packing and Clay is ripped a new one by this friend of his mother’s, and then he feels really guilty about the whole thing for a while. She doesn’t harbor any real resentment, except that she did lose her job and all future employment as a domestic servant (gossip network in Victorian London being worse than twitter), and he does some soul searching about being a dick. (Also he mopes a bit at not being attracted to other women anymore once his Mighty Wang found the Magic Hoo Hoo.)
Now, you’d think some of these plots would collide. But they don’t, except as to how Clay sort of wanders into all of them and “fixes” things. They eventually dispose of the robbery subplot with a trip to Brighton, a carriage accident, conveniently appearing and disappearing amnesia, Clay’s sister, and the removal of the bad guy’s hand. And just as conveniently, once the real robber, minus his hand, gives enough information that the Plot Moppets father is released and vows to be less absentee and maybe feed the moppets once in a while. (The way the plots worked was an almost closed loop- the same characters keep showing up in different places until you’re like “AHHHH there are only 12 people in all of England! The rest are just autons that don’t do anything but occasionally make commentary!”)
Jenna finally, finally, finally sucks it up enough to go turn herself in, and sits and waits, while Clay, stamping his foot and saying “BUT I AM A VISCOUNT” and finds a witness that sort of exonerates Jenna (sort of) and, of course, marries the girl. Who just inherited a bunch of money from her late father. So everyone is happy! And he buys her some really nice Texas boots of her own!
This book really does take all the elements you expect from a Zebra, and mushes them up. He’s Texan and a viscount! She has red locks, is gutter trash, but can talk in any accent she wants and ALSO likes baths! A mystery! A murder charge! Fabulous gowns just vague enough in description to pass the tests of costume historians! Plot moppets! I would have liked better interweaving of the plots, so Plot B doesn’t really feel like it came out of left field, and the ending was…. not all that satisfying, since Clay did all the heavy lifting and Jenna sat patiently in Newgate Prison. (And hell, even the ending of Plot B was “Clay gets the bad guy into a room, gets him to confess and then chops off his hand.” All Jenna did was identify the guy’s voice and nearly get shot.)
AND THE END: This had all the hallmarks of a “deadline looming!” ending. Everything suddenly gets wrapped up, the Plot Moppets are sent on their way, the kindly tavern owner is given a bunch of money for being kindly, and Jenna gets to be both a ranch wife and a viscountess. All in about four pages.
So there it is. It wasn’t the best romance I’ve ever read, and it most certainly was not the worst. And there was enough wtf-tasticness to keep me entertained. Maybe not really worth the 18-year wait, but I am so glad it was found for me.