Before embarking on a review, Miss Bates experiences a hollowness: fear that fingers to keyboard will produce, to quote Lucretius, “nihilo ex nihilo.” Thus Devlyn’s latest A Lady’s Secret Weapon echoes Miss Bates’s reviewing fears: characters on the edge, whose lives are out of control, emotions at the boiling point, who’ve come to the end of something and don’t know where to go next. Characters whose dedication to a cause has cost them everything. A hero whose licentiousness (love this word!) … for once! … makes sense: for king and country, he seduced, coaxed, and manipulated women into bed to glean information to keep Napoleon from English shores. Dissolute, jaded, heroic, at the mercy of the demon alcohol, Devlyn’s male characters, especially her heroes, in this case, Ethan deBeau, Lord Danforth, flirt with “nihilo,” having assumed so many guises and disguises they don’t know who they are and, of what they do know, don’t much like. There is endearing poignancy and pathos to Ethan and Sydney, our Goddess-Artemis-of-a-heroine. Their quandaries over national security and their reckless-of-the -danger-to-themselves urge to protect the innocent and harbor the vulnerable render them sympathetic to the reader who happily flashes pages on the e-reader. The romantic impetus, however, is secondary, lovely when it arrives, but not the primary raison d’être of Devlyn’s hybrid historical+thriller+romance novel. Continue reading for more of Miss Bates’s thoughts
There are two types of heroes that Miss Bates avoids in her romance reading: spies and pirates. It’s the mendacity that she objects to: the hidden identities, the deceptions; inevitably, our spy/pirate turns out to be an aristocrat of the first order, blah, blah, blah. There have been missbatesian attempts: Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series, for example, which Miss Bates loved up to and including book #7, The Mischief of the Mistletoe with the “intrepid,” loveable idiot Turnip Fitzhugh … the best doltish romantic hero ever. Also, a much-lauded romance author, Joanna Bourne, whose prose, subject of spies aside, Miss Bates finds tortured and oblique (though she, with caveats, enjoyed The Forbidden Rose). The last pirate romance she read, and remember that Miss Bates has only been reading romance since 2007 (after a hiatus of 35 years!) was Julie Garwood’s Guardian Angel. The Pink Carnation series is presently more intrigue than romance and Garwood … well, she kept writing the same book, same hero and heroine. So, spies and pirates are out (and no, Miss Bates has never read The Windflower). But into every sensibility, an exception must fall and Tracey Devlyn’s Checkmate, My Lord was it. Though ruined by Barry’s prose in Brave In Heart until something that sublime comes along (Cecilia Grant, we’re ready for another novel), Devlyn’s was, if not inspired in the writing, a moving and engrossing read. Continue reading for more of Miss Bates’s thoughts on this surprisingly adept novel
Thanks to Wendy the Superlibrarian, Miss Bates is a category romance fan, big-time! The two Sarahs, Mayberry and Morgan, are some of her all-time favourite contemporary romance writers. Nevertheless, she’d never read one from the Intrigue line and leapt at the chance … only to fall, dejected, from her elation. There was nothing inherently wrong with Debra Webb’s Bridal Armor. It delivered, as most category romances do, in most cases. “Ah, there’s the rub,” said Miss Bates, the problem lies in the concept of category.
Miss Bates learned her lesson: “Intrigue,” in the MissBatesian sensibility of reading preferences, just ain’t her cuppa. Pretty much the same reason the detritus of her popcorn bag were more interesting than the Jason Bourne movie on the screen. If you’re a fan, however, dear reader, there isn’t any reason why you wouldn’t enjoy Bridal Armor … as long as you’re not averse to reading a novel whose elements you’ve encountered countless times before. If the familiar is where you want to be, you’ll find your place here. Continue reading
The Hunter is Monica McCarty’s seventh Highland Guards novel and a solid read. McCarty is obviously enamoured of Scottish history; this comes through in the novel, as well as the extensive and interesting afterword. Miss Bates abandoned reading McCarty’s work after gorging on her Campbell trilogy and the first of the series, The Chief. Miss Bates enjoyed this one too, but had no desire to fill in the blanks between The Chief and The Hunter. Why? It has to do with McCarty’s love of Scottish history. After reading The Hunter, she noted McCarty’s strengths, but also pinpointed her weakness: McCarty loves her history more than her romance. Her historical research is interesting and fresh; her romance, on the other hand, is formulaic, effective but written to type. Miss Bates always learns something from McCarty; while she enjoys her hero and heroine and their journey to their HEA, she can’t help feeling that she’s read something similar in previous books. Her formula is a winning one, but it is a formula nevertheless.
What can McCarty consistently deliver? A competently written, well-paced romance novel, with the right balance of history, passion, endearing if one-dimensional characters, nasty villains, and a suspenseful build-up to a halcyon conclusion. A winning formula, yes? In this case, her interest in Scottish history focuses on the role that monastic couriers played in the establishment of King Robert Bruce in 14th century Scotland.
Her heroine, Sister Jenna, is a courier, though she has not actually taken the veil. She is Janet of Mar, a noblewoman disguised as a nun, working for Bruce as an intelligence agent on the English side of the border. Her hero, Ewen Lamont, is a member of Bruce’s elite Highland guard, on a mission to return Janet to her family and Bruce’s court. When Ewen finds himself attracted to the nun, not only does he have a serious case of libidinal frustration, but his Catholic conscience is in shambles! This part of the novel was quite charming and reminded Miss Bates of a beloved film, Two Mules for Sister Sarah, with a sexy, pre-Dirty-Harry Clint Eastwood and an unlikely nun in Shirley MacLaine. Amidst stealth and danger, with Janet’s disguise eventually compromised, these two fall in lust. It is charming, heart-stirring lust and the physical sparks between them are fun to read.
McCarty didn’t leave these two lusting and challenging the English, she wanted internal conflict driving a wedge between them. She gave Ewen some daddy issues, a daddy dissipated and wild. Ewen wants to be responsible, honourable, and dispassionate. He’s got quite a ways to fall as he struggles with conscience, honour, and his loyalty to the king to bring this noblewoman back to her family and king in tact. Ewen wants to do the right thing so much that he hurts Janet in the process. Janet’s block to her HEA, on the other hand, rings false. She loves Ewen, wants Ewen, but will not give up her work, or her independence to a man. Miss Bates has no doubt that intelligent women of the Middle Ages might have questioned their inferior status, might have yearned to be something more than what their societies afforded them. Nevertheless, Janet’s consideration of these issues makes her sound distinctly contemporary and renders McCarty’s novel anachronistic. The lady just simply “doth protest too much” to make her a viable historical figure. That Ewen comes to recognize Janet’s competence, intelligence, and usefulness, but still wants to protect her is more believable. What isn’t? The Disney-esque, castle turrets and all, ending. You’re better off not reading the epilogue, but don’t neglect the fascinating afterward.
In the end, Miss Bates enjoyed this novel, though she was nonplussed by the anachronistic heroine. McCarty delivers, and you’ll get exactly what you expect: nicely paced plotting, admirable hero and heroine who grow to love and respect each other. This is a very competent, enjoyable romance novel that’ll blend in with every other one you’ve read by her. McCarty is not interested in breaking any molds, or asking any questions of the genre. Sometimes Miss Bates wishes she’d try her hand at a contemporary, set in Scotland of course, but a novel where she can maybe let her emancipated heroine run freer.
Miss Bates was moderately pleased and renders a verdict of “tolerable comfort.” Mansfield Park
The Hunter was made available to Miss Bates as an e-ARC from Ballantine Books via Netgalley. It will be released on June 25th and available in the usual places and formats.