I admit, I am not a fan of the novella. I think novellas, short stories, and book length fiction are very different things, and a writer who has strength in one may not have strength in the others. While anthologies are often the cup-of-oh-yes-please for some readers, they aren’t often my preference simply because the short format can cut the very parts I like best: building tension, character development, and clever, interesting dialogue. Often the dialogue is sacrificed for backstory information, when it should be revealed through the dialogue. The development of characters and tension between them is often the minority against the plot contained in the narrative, which due to too much complexity or lack of familiarity with the format, demands the majority of the page. Because I’m disappointed more often than not, I shy away from novellas.
It is a damn good thing I didn’t when it came to Tessa Dare’s “The Legend of the Werestag.” Despite the very heavy paranormal cues in the title, this is a historical novella with a perfect compliment of dialogue, sexual and emotional tension, characters who are flawed and real, and a happy ending that is believable and so welcome. I rooted for the protagonists, I was very curious about the story, and I was disappointed by the fact that it was over. Fortunately for me, Tessa Dare has historical novels coming out this year so, thanks to this novella, I’m an eager reader waiting for more.
Lady Cecily Hale has waited for years for her childhood friend and the object of a seriously ardent affection to return from war. Unfortunately, Luke Trenton has returned a changed man, one who rejects her affection and acts as if the beginnings of their romance were meaningless and long forgotten. An evening of gothic entertainment and a hunt through the woods for a werestag, the subject of a local legend, lead Cecily and Luke to confront one another, their past, and their potential future.
Yeah, it reads like a blurb but dude, it’s a novella. How much plot do you want me to give away?!
The elements I mentioned above, tension, character, and dialogue, are present in such form and with such skill that I forgot I was reading a novella, and never once attributed a shortcoming to the format. In fact, I was hard pressed to find a shortcoming. The narrative spends time in both protagonist’s point-of-view, and their voices were distinct such that tags to tell me who was speaking often became unnecessary – a hallmark of excellent characterization.
What had me truly hooked was the writing, the way a character could say one thing, and with a word of description or a deft hand at communicating the tone of a character’s words, reveal something else entirely:
She cleared her throat. “Will you come with us, out to the woods?”
“Are you going to marry Denny?” He spoke in an easy, conversational tone. As though his answer depended on hers.
She briefly considered chastising his impudence, refusing to answer. But why not give an honest reply? He’d already made her humiliation complete, by virtue of his perfect indifference. She could sink no lower by revealing it. “There is no formal understanding between us. But everyone assumes I will marry him, yes.”
“Because you are so madly in love?”
Cecily gave a despairing sniff. “Please. Because we are cousins of some vague sort, and we can reunite the ancestral fortune.” She stared up at the gilt ceiling trim. “What else would people assume? For what other earthly reason would I have remained unmarried through four seasons? Certainly not because I’ve been clinging to a ridiculous infatuation all this time. Certainly not because I’ve wasted the best years of my youth and spurned innumerable suitors, pining after a man who had long forgotten me. No, no one would ever credit that reasoning. They could never think me such a ninny as that.”
Dare also builds one of my favorite constructions: the smoldering tortured hero who cannot bear anyone to know his true feelings, even if he, or the author, or both, conspire to reveal him despite his best attempts to hide.
“I will not,” she choked out, pulling away. “I will put you out of my mind forever. You are not so very handsome, you know, for all that.”
“No, I’m not,” he said, chuckling. “And there’s the wonder of it. It’s nothing to do with me, and everything to do with you. I know you, Cecily. You may try to put me out of your mind. You may even succeed. But you’ve built a home for me in your heart, and you’re too generous a soul to cast me out now.”
She shook her head. “I—”
Lest you think from the excerpts above that Cecily doesn’t have a spine, she’s got one. And she walks a fine line: she knows Luke must somewhere still retain some interest in her, and she can try to create a situation where he must reveal himself, but she’s not willing to make herself appear or actually BE desperate, and she’s about ready to walk away and get over him since, well, maybe he really is over her.
Jane once said that novellas function really well when they represent the culmination of a relationship and not just the start. Dare’s use of that situation for her novella is wise, and her ability to bring the reader into the story when it’s nearing its completion is excellent.
My only complaint is with the ancillary characters: Denny, Brooke (that’s a dude), and Portia serve simplistic roles in the story, as foils or catalysts, depending on the scene, and at one point there’s such a 180-degree turnaround that the scene passed over ‘neat ending’ and headed straight toward ‘cliche.’ Portia and Brooke in particular started out with multidimensional possibility but by the end were clutter in the way of the story. If they are meant for sequels, I was not as drawn to them as I was toward the possibilities of Cecily and Luke, and didn’t wonder about them after I knew what happened with the protagonists.
I read this on the plane either to or from Orlando this past week (there were four of this type of flight so please don’t ask me which one. Or what month it is currently. I don’t know) and was really, REALLY bitter that I’d finished it and couldn’t read more – until I remembered I had her next book already on Ye Olde Sony, and then I was pacified. Dare is definitely an author to anticipate.
Small note to Samhain: The “coming soon” link that breaks as soon as the book is on sale is really, really awful for a whole host of reasons. I hope you can get that fixed. Second? Love the cover! There is a party in his pants! And the turret is invited!!