It must be tedious to hear Miss Bates say how much she loves an HP, a kick-off-your-shoes-sip-your-tea and get-lost-in-it read. So, she won’t. What she will say is that sometimes the tried-and-true formula that we forgive may, given the writer’s style and purpose, surprise us. And those are the best kind of HPs: where you forget what you’re forgiving for your reading-drug of choice and are lost in it. That’s exactly what Maisey Yates’ Pretender To the Throne is: a thoroughly emotionally engaging romance novel, no pretense, no writing-to-type-and-formula … it takes you by the heart and squeezes from the opening page to the last. Miss Bates read it in one sitting, with a snowstorm raging outside her spinster’s lair, stopping only for a walk to the window to stretch the legs. She surmises that, if you’re an HP aficionado as she is, you’ll love it too. It has its outlandish HP flaws and Miss Bates has every intention of pointing them out, but it’s an unstoppable reading force for raw, honest emotion.
The premises on which Pretender To the Throne is built are ludicrous. Yes, preposterous. Let’s first deal with what’ll make a reader balk. There’s a Greek-speaking island-kingdom, Kyonos, ruled by a hereditary monarchy. Utterly mythical, but hey, it’s an HP and there’s that forgiving thing. Enter our hero, Xander Drakos, after a fifteen-year absence as a “dissolute rake and frequent gambler” (didn’t know there were any other kind), or as he says, ” ‘I’m a cliché.’ ” He left in disgrace, having caused something something mumble mumble traumatic (MissB. is avoiding a spoiler) for which he blames himself. His father, now near death after a stroke, and younger brother, Stavros, have held the reins, but it is time for him to take up his monarchical responsibilities. Who better to legitimize his ascension (for as we learn, he’s a “PR nightmare”) than his former stunner-good-girl-and-regal-to-boot fiancée, Layna Xenakos, a woman-in-hiding at a convent, her face disfigured in an acid attack after Xander left, the economy collapsed, and the people rioted. Politically, none of this makes sense: why does the heir apparent’s absconding to nearby casinos and brothels cause an economic and national crisis when the king, his younger son, and advisers were present and stable? Does it matter in the category closest to fairy tale? Yates ratchets the angst so high on this one, the narrative should snap under the strain; instead, it rises, buoyant as a sailboat on the Aegean, to serve as a great consideration of guilt, regret, anger, faith, and love.
There are two great strengths to this novel and one of them is the underlying inspirational element, though this is, by no means, an inspirational novel. The notions of faith and goodness are treated in an interesting and sensitive way. It gives a lovely, positive image of the wise abbess Mother Maria-Francesca, who advises Layna well and never pressures her to stay in the nunnery. Rather, she encourages her to live her life bravely, even though her scarring will cause her pain. She encourages and supports her to live her life in the sun, not to use the monastic community as a hiding-place. Again, the details of the monastery are wrong: is it Catholic, or Greek Orthodox? There’s no sense of that at all, but the sentiments and ethos are sympathetic.
The question of faith and defining the self by choices and actions are set and sustained in the exchanges between two tormented protagonists. Xander seeks Layna at the convent in the opening chapter. He is shocked by her appearance, but their conversation centres on the choice she made to remain cloistered. Layna, on her part, recovered from chronic depression and excruciating surgeries, is angry with Xander for abandoning her, but she has made her peace with the helping role she’s learned to play from the nuns’ example. Xander urges her to return to the capital, to take up her life-long purpose of being his queen. She is astounded at his gall, terrified of being exposed to the public eye, and yet so heart-breakingly in need of love and acknowledgement. Her tone, until the last chapter, remains enraged and Miss Bates, for one, loved her for it; her anger rarely wavers. When she refuses Xander’s initial proposal, he retorts with, ” ‘You belong to God now then, is that it?’ ” and she responds, ” ‘Less worrisome than belonging to you.’ ” Absolutely: a dissipated, careless playboy may hide a world of pain and guilt, but when the paparazzi’s cameras flash, she knows she’ll be judged on her appearance. In that sense, Miss Bates also loved that this novel, while exaggerated in Layna’s circumstances, was oh-so-right about how women are judged harshly on appearance. Yates wrote it best when she says of Layna, “She’d been a woman defined by her looks, by her position in the public eye, and in one moment, it has all changed. She was still a woman defined by her looks. But people didn’t like what they saw.” Beautiful or ugly, thin or fat, flip sides of the same coin, bars to the same prison.
The faith element of Pretender To the Throne is reiterated in Layna’s consideration of her life in the convent, “It was safe here … But it was stagnant. And she saw now, for the first time, that it shielded her, instead of healing her.” The choices Layna and Xander have made don’t coincide in content, but in the reason they were made: because it was safer and easier than to live with what they perceive to be irreparable “scars,” external and internal, respectively. Xander is wracked by guilt and his path has been, not quietist like Layna’s, but extravagantly self-destructive, “Whether it was gambling, drugs or sex, it was done with a transparency, an unapologetic middle finger at life. He’d found a strange relief in it. In being around all that sin” and “he had no practice in restraint. In turning away from the various and sundry pleasures of the flesh.” These are deeply religious terms, couched in our lowly HP (but it’s the humble and meek who inherit, isn’t it?). Layna is more sinned against than sinning, but Xander exists in the true “ugliness of sin,” enacting betrayals, causing pain, abandoning the weak, lonely, and wretched. What is admirable about this hero is his unstinting honesty about himself, his unflinching condemnation of his actions. Layna too has the same raw honesty to her when she says of her time in the convent, ” … it’s easy to be good if you don’t want much of anything.” She eventually recognizes in herself the same hypocrisy that Xander makes his line in the sand.
The second great strength to this novel, and what captured Miss Bates even more, was Yates’ raw and honest dialogue. Xander and Layna are cruel to each other, but their cruelty is so honest, so true that the reader flinches but is awestruck. One of their simple, initial exchanges is evidence of this: ” ‘ … If you’re looking for a ticket to salvation, Xander, I’m not it.’ ‘I’m not interested in salvation,’ he said. ‘But I do want to do the right thing.’ ” Xander tries to justify himself to Layna. Being in the public eye in light of his drug use, drinking, promiscuity, and gambling will be as painful for him as for her in the exposure of her scars; he says, ” ‘You aren’t the only one who will be judged.’ ” and her retort is brilliantly, mercilessly apt and cutting, ” ‘Maybe not. But I’m the only one of us who didn’t earn [italics are Miss Bates’] the judgement.’ ” Miss Bates’ favourite exchange is succinct and brings the pain Xander and Layna have had inflicted on them and they, in turn, inflict on each other to a few simple, true phrases: ” ‘Can you tell me I’m beautiful?’ … ‘No,’ he said, his voice hushed now, an extinguished flame. ‘Can you tell me I’m good?’ ‘No.’ ” The beautiful and the good, Xander and Layna: how can words that expose like the sun on an acid-burned face, like confession to a sin-riddled soul, cleanse to bring forgiveness, peace, love, and happiness? That, my dear reader, is something you’ll have to discover for yourself in Maisey Yates’ Pretender To the Throne.
Preposterous premises aside, shrugging off the formulaic indictments of the HP, this is a terrific little novel; in it, Miss Bates discovered that “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma. These two bruised hearts and wounded souls battle it out body and soul to earn a beautiful tenderness. Oh, and did Miss Bates mention that this is also one of the sexiest novels she’s read in a long time? There’s nothing gratuitous about the love scenes. They are part and parcel of the characters’ growth and they’re lovely: moving and passionate and arousing.
Maisey Yates’ Pretender To the Throne is published by Harlequin Books and has been available for purchase in the usual places and formats since February 18th.
Miss Bates is grateful to Harlequin Books for an e-ARC, via Netgalley, in exchange for this honest review.
It’s been a while since Miss Bates has read and loved a book in one sitting. What was the last book you read that had you stiffening in a chair (or whatever your favourite reading spot) because you couldn’t suspend reading it?