Beverly Jenkins’s Rebel is first in her Women Who Dare series and Jenkins, a new-to-me author. I was keen to try a new historical romance author. In truth, though, I slogged through it, taking two weeks to reach the end. Though its opening was compelling, I never warmed to the protagonists and found the persistently declarative prose, flat.
It opens in 1867 New Orleans as New-Yorker Valinda Lacy teaches her recently freedmen, women, and their children. We get a sense of a society, barely out of war, trying to adjust to new historical realities, some well, and others, clinging to their place as the dominant class and race. They pose a threat to the characters and Jenkins does a excellent job of conveying what it feels like to live under a constant edge of what ought to be a safe, going-about-business existence. For example, Valinda’s school is soon destroyed. Her path then crosses with a powerful, wealthy family, the LeVeqs, who give her a home and protection and help her re-establish the school.
In particular, Drake LeVeq, big, powerful, Civil War veteran, wealthy, charming, and fearless. He’s protector and charmer all in one. Valinda, however, is affiancéd to her childhood friend Cole and doesn’t believe, after watching her mother and older sister be miserable in their marriages, that a happy marriage is possible. She and Cole are friends and they’ve agreed, both for their own non-HEA-with-each-other reasons, to offer each other shelter in a marriage-of-convenience. Valinda’s overbearing father allowed her to travel to New Orleans to do her part only as long as Cole remains in Paris with his business partner, seeking a sponsor for his newspaper venture.
After the initial set-up and encounter between the dashingly handsome Drake and petite beauty Valinda, the narrative lurches along in a desultory fashion. Jenkins’s handling of post-bellum New Orleans tensions and the fascinating, though tragic, history surrounding American slavery and Civil War, were the narrative’s strongest elements. New Orleans street scenes and historical background were my favourite parts. Drake and Valinda, however, never come alive; there wasn’t much reason for them to stay apart, especially after Valinda and Cole’s amicable dissolution, so their mini-conflicts to the HEA feel contrived. The character I most enjoyed was Drake’s mother, Julianna, so fleshy, witty, and interesting. One lovely scene where she recounts Drake’s childhood vulnerabilities to Valinda was lovely. Valinda and Drake fall flat. I thought Valinda and Drake were one-dimensional, one-note voices and their dialogue, stilted. I’m glad I pushed through to the end (but I much prefer Alyssa Cole’s An Unconditional Freedom, with its similar ethos and historical background. Cole’s characters are conflicted and interesting and their relationship, complex.) With Miss Austen, we say that Rebel is “tolerable comfort,” Mansfield Park.
Beverly Jenkins’s Rebel is published by Avon Books. It was released on May 28th and may be found at your preferred vendors. I received an e-ARC from Avon Books, via Netgalley/Edelweiss+.