Miss Bates read the complex, thematically-rich work of Katharine Ashe for the first time in Ashe’s Regency-set The Rogue. If a comparison is useful, she was reminded of elements in Elizabeth Hoyt’s historical romances: a double-narrative, one of which remains mysterious and elliptical, an earthy-rawness to the love scenes, a cross-class theme, an independent-minded heroine, and a protective, but not overbearing hero. Miss Bates loves Hoyt and responded to Ashe’s Rogue likewise. Though The Rogue is first in the “Devil’s Duke” series, it is connected to Ashe’s four-book “Falcon Club” one. Ashe discussses connections in character and plot in The Rogue‘s afterword. Miss Bates admits to some difficulty following the complicated narrative threads and connections “during reading,” but no trouble loving the MCs, Lady Constance Read and the eponymous Frederick Evan Chevalier de Saint-André Sterling. Constance and “Saint” (he is pretty sublime) met six years before the novel’s action proper, at a house-party. Saint thought the lurking-in-shadows beauty was a maid. They met secretly for two weeks, falling in love, before they were discovered and Constance’s aristocratic-wealthy-heiress future was evident to Saint. Their classless Eden sundered and they were thrown into classist exile. Saint was left heart-broken and betrayed, yet ignorant of Constance’s heart-break over losing him.
Six years elapsed; neither Saint nor Constance forgot the other. After fighting wars and suffering his family’s loss, a battle-hardened Saint and now the best swordsman in England, returns home. For reasons unknown, the Duke of Read, Constance’s father, machinates to make Saint Constance’s fencing instructor. Saint resists, angry that ” … a drop of noble blood had not been enough six years ago,” but is compelled by the powerful duke. In the time they’ve been apart, Constance has grown aloof, sophisticated, more beautiful than ever, and the most sought-after heiress in the land. She’s sloughed off two fiancés already. What we soon discover, however, is that Constance’s sophisticated veneer hides a woman on a dangerous mission: to discover and bring to justice the mystery-man who holds depraved rituals resulting in the murder of young maidens. Like Hoyt’s historical romances, Ashe’s novel was permeated with a mystical fairy-tale-like atmosphere, of danger, hidden selves, and ogre-villains.
Miss Bates enjoyed Constance and Saint’s angry banter while he teaches her to feint and thrust with the sword, to disarm and outwit an opponent with épée and dagger. Their hurt over the past and sense of loss and betrayal, and yet their love and care for the other, are in every moment spent in each others’ company. In the meanwhile, circumstances demand Constance’s marriage. Her plan is to marry the very man who may be committing these horrific acts against young women. We, and Saint, soon realize that Constance’s stake in this pursuit is a very personal one. When events take a peculiar turn, Saint is called upon to provide Constance with her marriage-of-convenience. And it is in this second half that Ashe’s novel shines, as married Saint and Constance make their way to each other in bed, bath, and heart, and pursue the practitioner of dark arts against innocence.
Ashe’s greatest strength is the poignancy of Constance and Saint’s romance. She achieves an emotional heightening to her narrative by using wonderful figures and allusions. She chooses to view Saint from Constance’s awareness of his beauty thus: “He moved like a hunter, lean and powerful and aware. Not entirely human” and “Two shoulders to which she had once clung like sunshine to a stained-glass window.” Miss Bates’s favourite is the following allusion:
The pale sunshine filtering through the window at his back painted a halo around his silhouette, like an image of Saint Michael, with his hard, bellicose beauty restrained only by art.
Like Hoyt, Ashe creates a lovely, fairy-tale-like otherworldliness to her characters and their romance. In turn, witness Saint’s references to Constance as warrior-beauty:
Set down your bow, Diana, and come here.” Diana. He had called her Diana that day in the wood, the virgin goddess of the hunt who would not allow herself to be captured by any god or mortal man.
Ashe’s use of Christian and mythological imagery added depth and beauty to her narrative. It made her hero and heroine all the more beloved to a Miss Bates’s preference for archetypal allusion in her romance. If you too are a fan, dear reader, you will love Ashe’s work.
Along with Gifford’s Secrets At Court and Hoyt’s Sweetest Scoundrel, Ashe’s Rogue is one of the best historical romances Miss Bates read this year. With her co-judging buddy, Miss Austen, Miss Bates says that Ashe’s The Rogue is evidence of “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Katharine Ashe’s The Rogue is published by Avon Books (HarperCollins). It was released on February 23rd and is available at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates is grateful to Avon Books for an e-ARC, via Edelweiss.