Karen Ranney is a long-established romance writer and her books much-beloved to many readers. The Devil of Clan Sinclair, however, was Miss Bates’s first Ranney novel. While Miss Bates never says never, and always gives an author a second chance (if the sins are literary and not ethical), she’ll remain wary of any and all of Ms Ranney’s titles if this is what she has to go by. Though there are echoes to Judith McNaught’s Once and Always, Downton Abbey, and Grant’s A Lady Awakened, all of which Miss Bates loved (well, maybe not the McNaught, but Downton and Grant are the non-pareil), The Devil of Clan Sinclair does not inspire similar enthusiasm or loyalty. Only after a two-thirds slog of a read was Miss Bates somewhat engaged, the characters elicited a modicum of sympathy, and the writing style became less off-putting, but problems remained, festered, and left Miss Bates dissatisfied. She realized there may have been serious purpose to Ranney’s tale: to convey a theme of “forgiveness,” “acceptance,” and “understanding,” as the hero states, necessary to forging a solid marriage; the journey to that HEA however, fraught with lies, deceptions, and a good dollop of blackmail and kidnapping, and that doesn’t even describe the villain, only the hero and heroine, was not fun. If you’d like the details of Miss Bates’s displeasure, read on
Miss Bates read … was it in The Invention of the Human? … Harold Bloom’s claim that there aren’t any happy marriages in Shakespeare. There aren’t any in romance either, but there is the assumption that the couple will be happy. The reader is left feeling that the HEA is a guarantee. It may not be conventional; it may not be traditional, but it will be blithe! Not so with The Bard. In Shakespeare, we sense that some couples, think Bianca and Lucentio, have misunderstand each other thoroughly and will be unhappy; some, like the Macbeths, are unhappy; and some, like Kate and Petruchio, will fall into the give-and-take/renege/renegotiate that every established couple reaches if they want to keep their sanity and commitment (even Bloom thinks these two might work out just fine). Gray’s A Lady Never Lies, based on The Bard’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, runs into that very problem. How could it not when it doesn’t consider the inherent irony in choosing to base a romance novel on a play called Love’s Labour’s Lost? How does a romance writer make the romance per se romantic when her narrative’s basis is The Bard’s ironic, farcical, comedic mode? Well, she certainly writes a hilarious narrative; as for the irony, she has to relinquish it about half-way through. What that does to the romance narrative (at least in this reader’s opinion) is make for an ambivalent, wonky first third. As the narrative moves away from irony and closer to the troth of love and sacrifice and care that is the mark of the genre, it gains in convincing us of the existence of love and sacrifice and care. Though, to credit Gray, it remains as droll and entertaining as its inception. Read on, if you care to, for more convoluted reasoning involving Shakespeare
Between the contrived angst of the HP and the brilliant, genuine angst of Gaffney’s To Love and To Cherish, Miss Bates comfortably settled into the wit and light touch of Neville’s The Importance of Being Wicked. Reading Neville’s romance novel was like skimming the bubbly goodness off a milkshake on a summer day! Delicious, sweet, but not substantial. The writing is good, the hero is lovely, and the pacing of the narrative smooth and appealing. The heroine’s fey and childish ways grated about three-quarters of the way through and Miss Bates thought the yummy hero was overly indulgent and a tad doltish for being as devoted as he was. The mystery of what makes seemingly incompatible people happy together is not for Miss Bates to solve; nor is that the purpose of our beloved genre. Nevertheless, making this incompatible couple endearing is to Neville’s credit. Reading about Lord Stuffy and his irrepressible Caro was fun; if you’re looking for a read that doesn’t stint on good writing, interesting characters, many funny, farcical scenes, and a healthy dose of lust on the part of the hero and, refreshingly, heroine, then you’d enjoy The Importance of Being Wicked. Read on for a more detailed look at this romance novel
In the cool of the evening, Miss Bates swatted a fist-sized wasps’ nest from the back porch. She’d like to do the same to Gaffney’s novel. No matter, the wasps and it will settle in the vicinity to plague her. Not for a full and missbatesian pedantic post, but a pinata swipe, yes, she’ll manage. Miss Bates has settled into ambivalence’s discomfort zone. Ambivalence in an ordered spinster’s world … not good. Need a lodestone, a familiar one … like Rochester at his neediest, she calls out to “Jane.” If you want more, read on, but clarity still eludes
After supper, Miss Bates tried a piece of wasabi-flavoured chocolate. The smoky-sweet flavour of the dark chocolate was familiar; the wasabi, not so much. This is also her reaction to Gaffney’s To Love and To Cherish. She can’t really review it per se because she’s not sure what she can say about it other than you might want to read it. She doesn’t even really want to review it. There’s more, but not much, nor is it articulate
Elizabeth Hoyt’s The Raven Prince hasn’t been around long enough to be “classic romance,” but give it another ten years and it will be. Miss Bates is jumping the gun, but she’ll stick by this claim. Hoyt’s been in Miss Bates’s “get-to” pile of romance novels for a long time. Silly spinster should have read them ages ago because, if The Raven Prince is typical of Hoyt’s writing, she missed out. She now says with confidence that the reading of The Raven Prince is “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” This is as wonderful a romance novel as one can get and especially so because it plays with references to Miss Bates’s most beloved romance, Jane Eyre. Continue reading
“Let me not to the marriage of true minds/Admit impediments” is key to appreciating Fraser’s début novel. The Shakespearean sonnet’s opening line, quoted in the novel, points to the external and internal obstacles impeding the hero and heroine’s HEA. First and foremost, Sergeant Will Atkins and Anna Arringtons’s romance is impeded by class: Will is a soldier, an NCO, son of an innkeeper and Anna is a wealthy widowed heiress and niece to an earl. Their social status is solidly internalized; they are creatures of their time and place. They initially recognize these impediments as impossible to overcome, despite the love they share, and act accordingly and realistically.
As with every neophyte writer, Fraser is guilty of several bumps along the road to Will and Anna’s HEA; overall, however, this is a lovely little novel. It doesn’t break any romantic narrative moulds, but tells a solid story with likeable, believable characters, develops setting and mood, and stays true to its historical context. It provides some lovely dialogue, builds tension around their attraction, and weaves their growing friendship and affection with well-rendered love scenes.
One bump that Fraser’s novel exhibits is a slow start. It took Miss Bates ten chapters to warm to the story and another three before she felt the love. Fraser’s research into the historical context of the novel is to her credit. She obviously knows and loves her Napoleonic Era and sets Will and Ann in the midst of the British campaign, with Wellington’s army, against the French in 1811-12 Spain. How else to bring these two together? Considering the cross-class nature of their love affair, she has to bring them out of normal circumstances into unusual ones. The out-of-the-norm setting of wartime allows them to meet, if not as equals. Unfortunately, Fraser takes so long to bring us to this point that Miss Bates was tempted to leave the novel half-finished.
The other bump that is evident in Fraser’s novel is the cardboard villains, not only problematic vis-à-vis characterisation, but implicating her plotting. As with most début authors, there is too much plot. When we meet Anna, she is married to a cad who has humiliated her, wrongly accused her of adultery, and made her sexuality a thing of shame. Fraser conveniently does away with him and has Anna deciding to return to England via Lisbon, under Sergeant Atkins’s protection and escort. In the meantime, Fraser introduces a new character, a George Montmorency, whose description hints at later villainy. Unfortunately, his villainy doesn’t make an appearance till the last three chapters of the novel, leaving him dangling without purpose. On their way to Lisbon, Will, Anna, and the wounded convoy they accompany are captured by French troops, whose commander then tries to rape Anna. Will comes to the rescue and they escape from their captors. Their journey back to the British forces turns this slow-moving novel into an excellent road romance.
The strength of this novel clearly begins at chapter thirteen when the enforced intimacy of the journey back to the British Army allows Will and Anna to get to know each other, like each other, laugh together, work together to survive, and fall in love. It also gives them, and the reader, heartfelt love scenes. All the while, Fraser manages to evoke time and place and never relinquish the reality of the class divide that separates them or the danger that surrounds them. The final line of chapter thirteen echoes this beautifully, “And outside of this haven of solitude, the world would not allow Anna Arrington, sister of Viscount Selsley, niece to the Earl of Dunmalcolm and heiress to one hundred thousand pounds, to have anything to do with Will Atkins, sergeant and son of an innkeeper. Tonight was all they could have.” This is quite a feat for a début author and Miss Bates is very glad that she didn’t abandon the novel. She is equally glad that Ms Fraser has another two novels in this series that Miss Bates has yet to enjoy and … though she’s sworn off novellas, a soon-to-be-published historical novella centred around an inter-racial couple.
Another strength to this novel, post-chapter-thirteen, are Will and Anna. Will is, at first, too good to be true, too “knight-in-shining-armor.” These are not terribly original qualities in a hero; of course, a hero is strong and honourable, etc., but what won Miss Bates over is Will’s humility. Humility is a rare, but much more interesting, quality in a hero than the usual alpha-male arrogance; Fraser makes Will humble and manly. Will is in awe of Anna, not of her money or title, but her beauty, strength, and resilience. He can’t believe his luck in capturing her heart, but he knows his place and respects the way of the world from which they hail. Anna too is worthy of our admiration; she is everything that Will sees in her and more, for she also loves unconditionally and fiercely and is first to recognize that she and Will, despite their class differences, belong together. Again, Ms Fraser has some trouble letting go of her characters and the end drags, less so than the start, but the insertion of the third “bad guy” definitely makes the novel’s near-end melodramatic. Will and Ann and the reader endure quite a lengthy separation, but Ms Fraser manages to bring our hero and heroine together in a very original way, even while miles apart! Their HEA, when it finally arrives, is convincing, romantic, and poignant. As with the best romance novels, the characters experience growth and their HEA is the well earned result of it.
Though bumpy in places, Miss Bates came to have affection and respect for this romance novel. Will and Anna are eminently loveable, the history and romance very nicely balanced, the hero and heroine products of their time and place but still individuals, and the happy-ever-after bespeaks of shared love, family, and adventure.
Miss Bates is quite content with her read and endows Ms Fraser and her début with being, “almost pretty.” Northanger Abbey
The Sergeant’s Lady is available digitally at the usual places. It was published by Carina Press in 2010.