Jennifer Hayward’s Claiming the Royal Innocent starts in run-of-the-mill HP romance fashion. Miss Bates was clipping along, enjoying the ride, when something happened a third of the way in: run-of-the-mill turned extraordinary, pleasant -enough became keeper-shelf-worthy. Miss Bates loved Hayward’s The Italian’s Deal For I Do, but she’s persnickety because Claiming gains on it. Following the fine but not-rocking-world Carrying the King’s Pride, Claiming tells the story of that royal hero’s illegitimate, recently-revealed sister Aleksandra Dimitriou and Aristos Nicolades, the casino-owning billionaire whom the king puts in charge of her safety when Akathinia is threatened by war with neighbouring Carnelia.
The novel falls into two thematic parts: the first half is very much about Aleksandra coming to grips with her new-found identity and second, which moves geographically away from the palace and onto Aristos’s private casino island, with Aristos’s struggle to come to terms with his past, a past which leaves him emotionally closed off and jaded. In Miss Bates’s review notes, she found the following scribble: “the first half deals with Alex’s mess and the second with Aristos’s.” In the romance novel’s course, Hayward plays all the delicious notes the HP reader expects: glamor, money, exotic locale, and sexy times. And, in this case, her own quippy, witty brand of It Happened One Night banter. These are but the trappings of any superlative HP, however: the rest is made of the hero and heroine’s believable struggle to relinquish psychic patterns preventing them from achieving connection, commitment, and love.
The novel’s introduction and subsequent development is about Alex’s desire to reconcile with her mother’s revelation of her true parentage. Her father is the dying king of Akathinia; her siblings, King Nikandros and Princess Stella. Alex crashes a royal ball to confront the royal family and Aristos catches her in the act. But it’s Alex’s grappling with her actions’ ethics and the serious, viable doubts she has about embracing the royal life that prove most interesting, the “stupid, foolish need to know a piece of herself.” Alex decides, at Aristos’s urging, to stay and get to know her new family, her siblings in particular who are loving and succoring. She also starts to learn to take on a princess’s duties, but has to leave, with Aristos, who provokes and attracts her, to live on his island, once again without family and friends. Miss Bates thought Alex’s nuanced response to the changes in her life circumstances was moving and believable, witness her arrival on Aristos’s private luxury-casino-resort island:
From its sensational tropical gardens to the world-class clay tennis courts to the Romanesque-inspired casino, the island sparkled with an opulence that was reflected in every detail. But all that sophistication only made her pine for home. For beaches that were just as beautiful, views just as spellbinding. Her mother, who must be terrified as to what was to come … She would have given anything in that moment for everything to be back to normal, where life had made sense. But nothing was normal anymore — perhaps never would be again. Her world as she knew it had vaporized, and she felt completely, utterly adrift.
While Alex sounds helpless, she isn’t. She’s given money, status, and privilege, but is too wise not to know that what makes life worth living is purpose, love, and community. Another aspect to Alex that Miss Bates most enjoyed was the time and thought Alex took to figure out what she wanted to do with her new life. Alex wants purpose more than the royal trappings, but she also figures out that the royal trappings can be used to help others and then she figures out how she wants to do that.
As Alex gains in confidence and purpose in her new life, even on Aristos’s isolated island of Larikos, Hayward reveals more and more of Aristos. Alex may have doubts and uncertainties about her new life, but she never cedes the “one thing needful” she’s learned from her mother and community: love is possible, community is to be nurtured and cherished, and your feelings are as important as your ratiocinations. We have many hints that Aristos is not there with Alex: he feels the heart-tugs when he notes her vulnerability. But he quashes any feelings, any urges to grow closer, to share confidences, to comfort and care for. Except his actions, as with all heroes who exhibit these alpha tendencies, a) there be reasons & b) his caring actions belie his words. Hayward builds a heart-breaking backstory for Aristos, one that truly tugs at all the heart-strings, Alex’s and ours.
Miss Bates will argue here that in order for the alpha-hero of a great romance to be worthy and ready for love and family life, the heroine must see the best in him and he must recognize the worst in himself. Aristos is typical of the survival-of-the-fittest, win-at-any-cost businessman hero: he had it rough, struggled, compromised, but he “made it.” Along the way, he lost his soul and heart. For the hero’s reversal to occur, the heroine, like Ariadne handing the string to Theseus (unlike romance, that ended badly) must salvage the hero’s misplaced goodness. Here’s what Alex says to Aristos after he tells her about his past and how he overcame it for financial success:
“What you told me the night before last,” she said, looking up at him as he rested a palm against the frame of the door, “about your past … about that strength of character you needed to survive, that’s what I took away from our conversation. Not the mistakes, not the dark parts, but the courage, the strength, you must have had inside you to not only walk away from a life you knew was wrong, but to cross an ocean, to leave everything you knew behind to be something different.” She shook her head. “That I think is amazing.”
His gaze darkened. “So good at building fairy tales, Princess. You’re a natural.”
The hero, in the face of the heroine’s love, deflects with cynicism. Aristos tells himself Alex is naived, deluded, vulnerable with feelings. And he can’t be vulnerable: it would open him up to too much hurt. But, he’s a romance hero, a good guy essentially, so he turns the nasty on himself:
He stared out at the clear, bright sky, littered with a sea of stars. What weighed on his mind, ate away at him when he allowed himself time to think, was what he would find when that day came – when he’d exorcised his demons, what he’d find underneath. He suspected it would be an empty shell — that’d he traded his soul for success.
With this realisation/acknowledgement, the hero can now take part in his redemption. The heroine holds out the promise of his soul, through love, family, and giving of himself and wealth to the community. Miss Bates thinks the romance narrative is one of the great mitigators of capitalism. And the lowly, scoff-worthy HP is often as great one of its practitioners as any other romance sub-genre. In romance, Theseus slays the Minotaur of his own worst self and the heroine hands him both knife and string to make his way back to her. In romance, Theseus stays and they have babies. (As long as Theseus, in the world of LIT-TRA-CHURE, relegates the genre to the desert isle, then we cannot know its fruits. Ariadne sleeps.)
As Wendy of Super-librarian fame once wrote on this blog, “quibbles be damned,” because there are always quibbles. Miss Bates loved Claiming the Royal Innocent. Miss Bates admits there is that ordinary HP start and Aristos’s propensity for calling Alex “angel,” which reminded Miss Bates of reading *shudder* Day’s Crossfire books. BUT, “quibbles go away,” this is a helluvan HP. Even Miss Austen would like it, though scandalized at Alex and Aristos’s love scenes. She and Miss Bates would say that in Hayward’s Claiming the Royal Innocent “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Jennifer Hayward’s Claiming the Royal Innocent is published by Harlequin Books. It was released on May 1st and is available at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates is grateful to the author for a paper copy.