When Miss Bates returned to reading romance five years ago, one of the first books she read was Anne Stuart’s Black Ice. She loved it; in retrospect, the writing was over-wrought, but the ingenue heroine and dark, dark hero were engaging and believable. She held the same hope for Stuart’s latest, a Victorian romance, Never Kiss A Rake, the first in a series, if one goes by the sequel-tantalizing epilogue. Sadly, this Stuart feels tired, like she’s going through the motions of creating a romance, but lost the heart for it. The recipe’s the same; the inspiration is absent. The fire’s gone and she’s repeating herself. What’s true for the writer becomes the experience of the reader. Even though the dark hero and ingenue heroine are still present, they’re not convincing. An ember glows softly in the last twenty per cent of the novel, alas, too little, too late. Miss Bates was sympathetic to our hero and heroine, Bryony and Adrian, at long last, sort of, but so much that was wrong came before that she can’t say to the discerning romance reader not to miss Never Kiss A Rake.
The rake in question is Adrian Bruton, Earl of Kilmartyn, and the lady who kisses him is Bryony Russell. Adrian, as we’re told incessantly, looks like “one of God’s own creatures … a fallen angel, all raffish charm and seraphic good looks.” Wow. MIss Bates should check out the religious imagery for “raffish charm;” one never knows when an angel might fall and end up in a Calvin Klein ad. Adrian’s fallen-ness makes him a hard-drinking, absinthe-imbibing, adulterous, Irish aristocrat. His wife, Cecily, is equally adulterous, except she’s a harpy and first-class b-. Adrian’s adultery is the consequence of a soul hurt by an immoral, sexually insatiable wife … let’s not forget that there’s brooding hurt-boy charm to Adrian. Cecily, on the other hand, is malicious and hysterical. She’s blackmailing Adrian, holding his championing of the Fenian cause and debacle that killed a lot of people against him. He’s guilt-ridden, terrified of her scheming, and stays with her, hoping against hope that she will eventually “fall off a cliff.” Most happily, another cardboard villain takes care of the vexing wife problem and paves the way to the socalled “debauching,” (except not, because of Adrian’s sliver of a conscience) of the heroine and our HEA.
Adrian is self-admitted bad, so when the innocent, pock-marked housekeeper, “widowed Mrs. Bryony Greaves,” who’s beautiful but has self-esteem issues, shows up, he immediately lusts for her, rubs his hands in a raffish way, and plans seduction! Bryony too comes from a bad place. She said to her mother’s rejection of her after she recovered from smallpox, “I suppose I’m simply going to be the madwoman in your attic, mama.” Thus, Bryony “shunned” society, becoming an expert in ancient Egyptian history, accomplished amateur actress, and adept visual artist. She’s a paragon of talents … who wouldn’t love her, if it wasn’t for those pesky facial scars and dowry-less state?
Bryony is not who she appears. She’s Adrian’s deceased business partner’s daughter, Eustace Russell. Her disguise gains her entry to Adrian’s house, where she plans to pilfer evidence that will prove her father did not embezzle funds from their shipping company, bringing about the near-financial ruin of the British Empire (really? in 1869, at the height of its power?), and leaving his three daughters destitute. However, one look at seraphically dissipated Adrian and the virginal ingenue falls in lust. Why would the cherubic looker, however, consider her, scarred girl that she is, as a potential lover?
She lusts from afar, until a drunken stupor gives her a longed-for opportunity. Little does she know that her scars, which Stuart initially describes as disfiguring, will miraculously turn to barely-noticeable abrasions to her fallen angel. Nevertheless, she is the “beast” to his “beauty.” When she puts him to bed after he passes out, she is the “kissing princess” to his “sleeping beauty.” Little does she know it’s pretense; he’s awake, alert, and plotting a nefarious amatory pursuit of her virginal self. Little does he know how obliging she’ll be. “Debauch away,” says Bryony.
From Miss Bates’s summary, the tired, ludicrous plot is obvious, but more disappointing is the absence of Stuart’s edgy characterization. Stuart aimed for a mercurial Adrian and Jane-Eyre-ish steadfast and moral Bryony. For three-quarters of the novel, Adrian is manic, not mercurial … spinning emotions and reactions like a top, the colours blurring and confusing. He’s bad; he’s good … he’s kind. He’s protective; no, he’s a dissolute, amoral seducer. Bryony is virginal and virtuous, but alternates, at least for Miss Bates, between prissy and wanton. As far as Miss Bates is concerned, “wanton” belongs only in soup.
Adrian calls Bryony “my precious,” which drove Miss Bates batty. All she could imagine was a Calvin Klein model hissing in a drippy, subterranean chamber. Moreover, let’s not forget how dissipated Adrian is, with Stuart reminding us in that bane of romance prose, the declarative sentence, “He was a man of appetites and carnality was simply a part of him.” Appetites and carnality, indeed … yet, he’s anorectic, fastidious, and doesn’t keep a mistress. He only has, like a last piece of pie, a smidgeon of conscience left, he tells us, and it abides with Bryony.
Miss Bates has indulged in quite a snark here, but she’s also going to give a nod to the last 20% or so of the novel. It is too little, too late; something snapped, however, and old Stuart emerged. Adrian stopped slouching and exhibited tenderness and intelligence, which in tandem, tara!, work well as romantic hero qualities! The scenes between the bed-ridden Bryony (badness happens to put her there) and Adrian gained a frisson of romantic conviction and attraction. If there’s one thing a veteran of romance like Stuart can manage, it’s pacing. The novel is well-paced, but that’s moot when not accompanied by strong cores to hero and heroine. Never Kiss A Rake is not a total loss, if you want to slog through it to the near-end. Sadly, Miss Bates can say no more for it than “rubs and disappointments everywhere” Mansfield Park. (What’s with the cover, Montlake? Who shoved the sleeping milkmaid into a closet?)
Miss Bates is grateful for an ARE from Montlake Romance via Netgalley in exchange for this honest review. Stuart’s Never Kiss A Rake was released August 20th and can be found in the usual places and formats.
Have you had this experience: you read an author who’s been a pillar of romance reading for you, and note that, well, a certain ennui, or fatigue has entered the writing? (Miss Bates remembers having this feeling when she read SEP’s Call Me Irresistible, even though SEP’s Chicago Stars series and the terribly unPC Kiss An Angel are some of the most beloved of Miss Bates’s contemporary romances.)