For her final 2016 review, Miss Bates writes about a romance novel that held her in thrall though the night and into the morning, Kerrigan Byrne’s The Hunter, second in Byrne’s Victorian Rebels series. New to Miss Bates, Byrne’s Hunter reminded her of the Monica McCarty Highlander romances that were some of the first she ever read and loved. Byrne’s romance is violent; her protagonists, larger-than-life; and her writing, unabashedly melodramatic and yet elegant. At times, Miss Bates thought this feels “Old-Skoolish” but the heroine’s intelligence and sang-froid and hero’s humility and respect for her make it anti-old-skool. What Miss Bates can affirm is that she loved it. To establish sympathy for a hero who is an assassin hired to kill the heroine in the novel’s first scene, Byrne portrays Christopher Argent’s Newgate-Prison childhood. She paints a scene so horrific for his 11-year-old self that our sympathy is maintained even when, without that introduction, we’d have found his actions unacceptable. Christopher is not as nuanced and interesting as Hoyt’s Duke Of Sin, but Byrne’s romance builds our sympathy for him as Hoyt did for Val Napier: by using the pathos of a difficult, abused childhood … and then sustaining it by showing our out-of-type hero with animals, or children.
Byrne’s heroine is no less lovable. The London stage’s reigning queen, Millicent “Millie” LeCour, meets her match in the “the empire’s most expensive assassin” and “the coldest, deadliest man in all London” when he enters the rooms she shares with Jakub, her son, and tries to kill her. The boy’s sudden appearance and Christopher’s uncharacteristic attraction to and sympathy for Millie stop him in his tracks. Christopher’s actions surprise him. Christopher is the quintessential “I don’t have any feelings” hero. As Millie observes, “looking into those eyes was like staring across an endless arctic tundra.” And yet, any savvy romance reader knows this is a signal that it isn’t true. Christopher’s “feelings” are dormant, sleeping under years of abuse and then the harshness and moral compromising of survival. The knowing romance reader can also predict that Christopher will succumb to his emotional comeuppance as he becomes more and more embroiled in Millie and Jakub’s lives.
Byrne’s plot turns pulse-pounding historical romantic suspense as Millie hires Christopher in an “if you can’t beat’im, join him” action to protect her and Jakub. There are evil forces at work, in society’s upper echelons, stalking Millie, Jakub, and other women and children. With compelling protagonists, Byrne also weaves a darn good thriller plot as Christopher, Millie, Jakub, and the underworld figures who make up Christopher’s friends, pursue justice for Victorian society’s most vulnerable.
Though Christopher kills for money, he also lives under a code of assassin’s principles: he doesn’t torment, or hurt, doesn’t rape, and never kills children. Miss Bates doesn’t know if every romance reader can accept Christopher’s redemption much less feel sympathy for him, but Miss Bates, though initially wary, certainly accepted and felt. Maybe it’s because Christopher has a strong sense of worthlessness, given how he lives, and an equally strong and fearless willingness to own what he is and does. Millie, in turn, is admirable for her emotional and physical integrity: she sees Christopher quite clearly, but she recognizes the social and economic injustices that made him who he is. She never makes a big deal of her physical attraction to him and she’s happy to risk her heart in telling him she loves him. In the end, Miss Bates loved how Christopher exhibited qualities of sentimentality and melodrama and Millie never lost her rueful humour and penchant for bringing a little bathos into Christopher’s scenes.
As Miss Bates said in her opening, Byrne’s prose is fearlessly sentimental, melodramatic, and yet elegant. Miss Bates thought Byrne can write a mean metaphor to describe Millie and Christopher’s emotional awakenings:
A small vine of sadness appeared beneath her ribs and blossomed into compassion. What he must have endured to fashion him into the heartless killer he’d become, she thought. Millie knew she understood him better now …
… a flutter of something soft and foreign pressed against his breastbone. Like a hummingbird was trapped there, looking for a way out.
The romance writer is always at the mercy of trite tropes, but strong characterization and writing go a long way to offset their tiredness and leaning-towards-cliché. Millie’s creeping, growing vine of feeling perfectly describes how a woman who knows how to love begins to care for a man one would think unlovable. And Christopher’s trapped hummingbird is a perfect and lovely metaphor for a man who feels deeply but no longer knows how to identity or express emotion.
Kerrigan Byrne’s The Hunter isn’t groundbreaking, but it does feel as if it’s not afraid to claim what romance was ten or fifteen years ago. Contemporary romance has held sway these past few years. Miss Bates welcomes a new histrom author she can look forward to. With Miss Austen, she’d say that Kerrigan Byrne’s The Hunter is possessed of “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Kerrigan Byrne’s The Hunter is published by St. Martin’s Paperbacks. It was released on Feb. 2nd and is available at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates received an e-ARC from St. Martin’s, via Netgalley.