Book Review

The Gentleman’s Gambit by Evie Dunmore

I know a book is depressing when a) the sex scenes don’t perk things up and b) I need to comfort read Murderbot to feel okay about life again.

Catriona Campbell is a suffragist and an academic. She has a belter of a start in this book as she emerges from a loch nude and there’s a man birding on the shores. Legitimately birding, and therefore utterly flummoxed by her appearance. Catriona is defiant and unafraid. This marks the only time in the book when this is the case. Turns out that Catriona is deeply introverted, rather melancholy and tends towards being negative. She is weighed down by life and her mental health. Nevertheless, up until the halfway point, I still felt really protective of her.

The birder in question, Elias Khoury, is visiting Catriona’s father. The real reason he’s there is to gain access to a collection of artifacts that have been taken from his homeland. The plan is to repatriate them. The first third of the book is interesting because there’s a lot of interesting historical detail as we learn about Elias’ history. Elias himself is a confident man with charisma to spare.

Elias plans to use that charisma to cosy up to Catriona to get her to help him with his plan of repatriating the artifacts. Considering how protective of Catriona I felt, I was furious that Elias planned to do this to her. At about the 30% point of the book, one of Catriona’s friends points out that Elias has been involved in a ‘theft’ in France and Catriona confronts him on it. Turns out it was another repatriation case and Catriona agrees to help Elias with his plan even though it will damage her father’s reputation and by extension her own.

You would think this would be the primary source of tension in this book, but it hardly features. Mostly the tension is in the characters and their romantic pasts – past loves, past crushes, past affairs. Both have been tremendously unsuccessful in love and it has left them scarred. They spend a lot of time, too much really, unpacking the past. At 432 pages, this book is just too long. There’s too much reflecting on past loves or crushes – and in such tiring detail. There’s too much stagnation in the middle of the book.

Mostly though, it’s just too depressing. Towards the end of my time with this book, I dreaded picking up my Kindle to keep reading. It became a chore. So I threw in the towel. I could not bring myself to persevere through a book that left me feeling so low. In all seriousness, this book was affecting me more than I wanted it to. So much time is spent dwelling on all that is wrong and bad and hard, and Catriona doesn’t appear to have any fight in her at all. She is buffeted by the winds of what I assume is poor mental health and never really takes a stand. She is despondent and although she is cooking up a plan to get the items repatriated, she does this on the side, separate from Elias. You would think that this brings an element of excitement to the plot, but Catriona’s dull approach keeps spirits at a low ebb. I know it is impossible to diagnose a book character, I do wonder if Catriona is depressed or if she’s just naturally low-energy, low-mood?

If I had signed up for a book about the walking-through-thigh-deep-mud feeling that can come with mental health struggles, I’d probably quite enjoy this book. But I was fooled by the jaunty tone of the cover and blurb. This is not a fun book. This is a serious book about serious things, but it all becomes seriously tiresome to the point that I stopped caring about the characters and what happened to them.

I’m curious though, about your experience. Did you read this book? How did you find it? I made it to 70% before I couldn’t do it anymore. Did you make it to the end?

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The Gentleman’s Gambit by Evie Dunmore

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  1. Sarah says:

    Well I can cross that book off my list.

  2. squee me says:

    I loved book 1 in this series, enjoyed but has serious issues with book 2, and really struggled with book 3. I was still hopeful book 4 would be good. I’m so bummed because I was so excited about this series when I read book 1. 🙁

  3. FashionablyEvil says:

    I have read Dunmore’s first three books and they all get increasingly depressing. I find she gets too bogged down in History and Reality and forgets that she’s writing a romance? I was really looking forward to the heroine of book 3 (Hattie) and she ended up being an insufferable twit. And maybe that’s realistic for the time! But a big part of romance for me is escapism and if it feels like a brutal slog, well, that’s what the news is for.

  4. JoanneBB says:

    I recently finished book 3 and it similarly was a mismatch between cover and blurb tone and the actual book. I did finish it but it was frustrating. I can see the similarities in what you’ve written about here.

  5. Karin says:

    I haven’t read it yet, but tbf, part of the reason I don’t like the illustrated covers on historicals is because it’s hard to convey a serious tone. They have a cartoonish look to them.

  6. Pam says:

    I am sorry to hear that. I hope the author takes the critique to heart.

  7. Bronte says:

    I decided I was done with Dunmore after book three for similar reasons as many people report here. I read romance because I don’t want to feel depressed and unsatisfied at the end of a book and Dunmore has absolutely failed on that front. I loved book 1 but it’s all downhill from there.

  8. Sarah says:

    I love Evie Dunmore and her books are an auto buy for me. I hace preordered this one and I look forward to reading it when it comes out in a couple of weeks. Books are personal and we all love or hate them for different reasons.

  9. Lisa F says:

    I really like Dunmore’s work, but this is the weakest in the series. I finished the book, would rank it a B- to a high C.

  10. Stephanie says:

    I liked this one much more than the third one and gave it high stars, though book two is probably still my favorite pairing. It is more “serious” than some romances, although I feel like all four in this series have bent towards a more weighty tone than some historical romances, so I was expecting that in this book and thus it didn’t bother me.

    I appreciate Dunmore’s passion for the historical aspects that many authors skim over–not knocking other historical romances, but sometimes many of them can feel very same-y with the thinnest veneer of a backdrop in an effort to get to the steamy bits, so while I don’t need it ALL the time, it’s nice to get some more sense of place and time alongside the romance.

  11. omphale says:

    Evie Dunmore’s books remind me of Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series – they have a remove from the conventions of the genre that seems almost… condescending? Like, yes, I write romance, but not FLUFF.

    I do agree that they are not well served by the illustrated covers. I suspect that if they looked similar to the German versions (think Diana Biller’s Widow of Rose House, for an example) then there wouldn’t be quite so much cognitive dissonance for readers.

  12. squee me says:

    At this point I think the covers are the least of the problems with this series. I actually prefer my HR more serious and less light and romcom, and after reading the first book I ignored the covers because I knew what I was getting. And I really like HR that digs into thorny issues of class and gender, with a healthy dose of steam added, and with flawed characters too! On paper her books check a lot of boxes for me. But the execution after book 1 went downhill. There’s very little joy in them and I find that in all my disparate and personal and admittedly wavering preferences in my romance reading, the one common thread is I need the story to evoke joy. I can see why some readers might like her books but the secret sauce isn’t there for me.

    Regarding covers generally, I rely on them 0% for conveying how light/heavy, steamy/closed door a book is. Though I’ll still be tempted by a sexy cover, I generally don’t use them to direct my reading choices – for all the reasons the Bitchery has discussed here and elsewhere!

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