One of Miss Bates’s favourite romance tropes is the villain’s redemption, the character who serves as the foil and nasty in previous books FINALLY! gets his story, or enters a rom nasty as death and emerges a poignant hero. Miss Bates counts some of her favourite romances among these tropishly-delicious rom-narratives, especially Kleypas’s The Devil In Winter and, oh my goodness such goodness, Georgette Heyer’s first two Alastair trilogy books, These Old Shades and Devil’s Cub. Elizabeth Hoyt’s tenth Maiden Lane novel, Duke Of Sin, has a villain-hero who combines the qualities of Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent; Justin Alastair, Duke of Avon; and, his son, the Marquis of Vidal. Valentine Napier, Duke of Montgomery is “the most wicked man in London … as deadly as a coiled adder.” He’s beautiful, decadent, a blackmailer and murderer and, though exiled, he’s back and ready to restore his rightful place in society by all unsavory means. But into his blackened heart and hollow soul crawls a little avenging angel of a housekeeper, Bridget Crumb.
The beauty of redeeming a very bad man is the author’s ability to spin a backstory that will capture and convince the romance reader. Hoyt’s story for Val Napier, long-haired, blonde, blue-eyed, intelligent, dissolute, is heart-breaking. Val’s heroine is the perfect foil, beneath him in every way, socially, in looks, but morally superior and matching him wit for wit, quip for quip. And when the time is right, calling to his heart, his vulnerability, and his long-dormant moral compass. Val Napier’s emotional unthawing is viscerally satisfying. Miss Bates suspects that there are elements to the novel that some readers may find distasteful, but Miss Bates thought it quite, quite brilliant, an echo of Hoyt’s earliest novels in the magnificent Princes trilogy.
Other than spinning a heart-rending backstory for her hero, Hoyt redeems him in two interesting ways: the first is in creating a heroine as moral foil and, secondly, in using the diction of religious conviction. When the latter is coupled with the hero’s POV, it works:
Hers were the eyes of a religious fanatic – a saint or a heretic. Or perhaps an inquisitor. A woman with complete confidence that she knew right from wrong – in herself and in others. A woman not afraid to suffer – perhaps die – for her beliefs. Did she then recognize in him her opposite: the very Devil? A man who neither knew nor cared about that delicate difference between good and evil?
From the get-go, Val is aware of Bridget Crumb as a woman unafraid of his power, or the confrontation between it and her convictions. Bridget consistently behaves in a morally upright fashion, without judgment and with care and love towards Val, as she weakens once she learns his backstory and they become lovers. The tenderness of Val’s bedchamber says more about him than his blackmailing shenanigans against the aristocracy. (After all, who cares? That’s merely one powerful person pitting himself against an equally powerful one.) Miss Bates delighted in Hoyt’s sinner-and-saint imagery.
A great romance writer working the villain-as-hero trope must infuse his character with redeeming thoughts, as above, but equally redeeming actions. What greater pathos than rescuing an animal from bullies and what possible greater means to the heroine’s heart than rescuing her dog:
Carefully she cut the cord and picked up the little dog, his body warm and rather smelly in her arms. The terrier immediately began licking her chin. Bridget inhaled on a sob, even as she felt the brush of the duke’s tongue at the corner of her eye. “Your tears taste like salvation.” His voice was deep, resonating against her back, and he almost sounded puzzled.
Bridget arrives back at the Duke’s London residence to find her little rescue-terrier terrorized by horrible bully-boys. No matter how cynically he denies his hero’s role (and that makes him all the more endearing), Val is the avenging angel in this case. And yet, there’s even more to the scene, with Val’s tears-licking puzzlement rounding it off so beautifully. Is this too much? The sentiment bordering on kitsch? Maybe. Except Val is bad and Bridget is his last chance. Her tears are his salvation; her conduct, his beacon; and, her body, his redemption. Caring for her, protecting her, are all part and parcel of how Val will return from the moral brink.
Miss Bates wants to ensure the reader that Bridget Crumb is no shrinking-violet-Pollyanna in the heroine department. She’s strong; she’s smart. She’s compassionate yes, but doesn’t hesitate to call Val on every bad move, even while she soothes and praises every good one. And, in the end, she has the realization that Val’s moral expediency hides a world of hurt and fear: “She’d never known anyone so alone. Anyone so lonely.” Knowing what he’d endured as a child, knowing how fragile his trust, in the end, Bridget’s moral compass leads to a pretty spectacular betrayal. And, as a result, Val has to contend with his childhood’s truth: ” ‘ … you have to kill the thing you love, Séraphine, or they’ll use it against you.’ ” The conclusion to Duke of Sin is a tad hasty, but it does exemplify Val’s complete and utter redemption. It’s convincing and, given the greatness of the build-up, Miss Bates found it easy to forgive. With her reading side-kick, Miss Austen, Miss Bates joins her in saying that Hoyt’s Duke Of Sin is evidence of “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Elizabeth Hoyt’s Duke Of Sin is published by Grand Central Publishing. It was released on May 31st and may be purchased at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates received an e-ARC from Grand Central Publishing, via Netgalley.