If I can say a few things about Kleypas, they would be: she still writes books that made me fall in love with romance in the first place (Derek Craven!) and she’s only gotten better over time (except for the woo-woo books). It’s sad that I side-eye so much romance these days: afraid I’ll find yet another novel with trite, or formulaic ideas; or another trying so hard to do something new that it fails to come alive. But Kleypas still takes joy in the genre and it comes through in the Ravenel series. Though I’d read and reviewed Chasing Cassandra (back when the pubs most likely to decline a small-time reviewing outfit like Miss Bates went into pandemic-sales panic and granted ARCs right left and centre), I’m glad I went back and started the series from the first volume.
The pub-blurb makes Cold-Hearted Rake sound like any other standard-fare histrom, but the sheer delight and reader-joy I took in it was more than most historical romances I’ve tried to read have offered:
Devon Ravenel, London’s most wickedly charming rake, has just inherited an earldom. But his powerful new rank in society comes with unwanted responsibilities . . . and more than a few surprises. His estate is saddled with debt, and the late earl’s three innocent sisters are still occupying the house . . . along with Kathleen, Lady Trenear, a beautiful young widow whose sharp wit and determination are a match for Devon’s own. Kathleen knows better than to trust a ruthless scoundrel like Devon. But the fiery attraction between them is impossible to deny-and from the first moment Devon holds her in his arms, he vows to do whatever it takes to possess her.
Cold-Hearted Rake is great fun because it is conventional. Kleypas loves the genre, loves writing it, and embraces its narrative conventions whole-heartedly, from her “cold-hearted” rake who turns out a softie, to her tiny heroine with nerves of steel. Her writing is elegant; dialogue, witty. Her protagonists are deserving and loveable and secondary characters even better. An example taking this into account and making for a great opening lies in the banter between her hero, Devon Ravenel, and his brother, West, when Devon learns he inherited a crumbling, debt-ridden estate, along with his dead cousin’s three unmarried sisters, Helen and the twins, Pandora and Cassandra, and widow, Kathleen:
“I don’t like this. I thought we had agreed never to be serious about anything.”
“I’m trying. But death and poverty have a way of making everything seem rather less amusing.” Leaning his forehead against the windowpane, Devon said morosely, “I’ve always enjoyed a comfortable life without having to perform a single day of honest labor. Now I have responsibilities.” He said the word as if it were a profanity.
“I’ll help you think of ways to avoid them.” Rummaging in his coat, West pulled a silver flask from an inside pocket. He uncapped it and took a long swallow.
Devon’s brows lifted. “Isn’t it a bit early for that? You’ll be stewed by noon.”
“Yes, but it won’t happen unless I start now.”
Rakes, layabouts, and ne-er-do-wells, the brothers Ravenel, but not harmful, not pernicious … and ready to be transformed, which is one of the genre’s greatest themes, finding your place in the world and a loving helpmeet, while enjoying comfort, support, companionship, and great sex. In time, Devon’s finds he loves responsibilities and his unfettered self wants to be fettered to Kathleen (maybe not right away, not in his mind, but his heart and actions are engaged from the moment he sets eyes on her). West’s romance is delayed, but I’m greatly looking forward to it.
The same delightful, banterish antagonism is repeated in Devon and Kathleen, who meet on the wrong foot and continue in that fashion, all the while resisting attraction and genuine liking and admiration for the other. They clash over how the estate, the girls, the tenants, the debts, etc. should be handled. Kathleen is propriety and ensuring everyone is cared for; Devon is more pragmatic, compromises some of the land, clashes with Kathleen over how to care for the tenants who have farmed it for generations … they fight and eventually listen and work things out. They’re also super-hot for each other and Kleypas delays their amorous doings long enough to make it interesting. (Then, in typical Kleypas fashion, and my one criticism of the romance, an excess of love scenes.) What I loved best about the estate “business” was West’s transformation from incipient alcoholic and cynic to committed farmer and land manager, with a genuine love for the people and the land. There’s a great quiet moment when Devon takes Kathleen, the girls, and West to London and West leaves the site of his former dissipation days ahead of their departure for the estate because he’s bored in London and thinks of all the things he wants to do.
I loved Kleypas’s first Ravenel and am looking forward to following them to the eighth, out this summer! With Miss Austen, who would be scandalized by the ardent shenanigans, but not the sentiments, we say Cold-Hearted Rake offers “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma. Cold-Hearted Rake is published by Avon and I read and reviewed my own copy.