February 12, 2014
Cut to the Chase
So anyway, at some point during the winter that never ends while I'm stuck inside, roads are closed, businesses and schools are shut down, and I'm stuffing high-caloric comfort food down my throat, I decided to pull out my favorite comfort book - Lord of Scoundrels, by Loretta Chase. Written in 1995, this book always makes me feel good and as years go by it has held up very well. I do believe it is my all-time favorite romance book.
Now because winter isn't going away, I decided to read the connecting books. When Ms. Chase first wrote these books it was not with the intent to have a series as we know them today. Nonetheless, they are connected. They are The Lion's Daughter, Captives of the Night, The Last Hellion, and the novella The Mad Earls Bride. Except for The Lion's Daughter the books' timelines run simultaneously - give or take a few months here and there. The Lion's Daughter takes place ten years prior to the others in the series.
If you want to read them in order, the first would be The Lion's Daughter (1992). And, if this had been the only Loretta Chase book I had ever read, it might have been the last of hers I would have picked up. Luckily for me, I had been reading her traditional regencies, so I was aware of how very good her writing was/is. It's not as if The Lion's Daughter is a bad book, it isn't; it just has the feel of an author's first book. The kind of first book in which an author wants to cram as much action/adventure and subplot into approximately 300 pages as possible. This is a road trip book, and if you've ever wanted to visit Albania then this book is for you. All the wandering through the landscape of Albania makes this book move at a snail’s pace and limits the development of much of the chemistry between our hero, Varian, and our heroine, Esme.
Before I go any further let me talk about one of the villains of this piece, Ismal. Ismal turns into Comte d'Esmond in Captives of the Night and becomes the hero of that book. However, here is an example of why bad boys don't always make good heroes. It's hard for me to think of Ismal/Esmond as the same guy...he's really horrible in The Lion's Daughter and no epiphany of any kind could make this obsessive thug anything but a scary man.
However, in this book our hero, Varian, is a typical romance rake. He has no money and spends most of his time living off of others,and he also has the problem eyesight of numerous romance rakes, you know the stigmatism that causes one to mistake a girl for a boy. Which leads me to our little Esme.
Oh, little Esme, she is small for her age, which is eighteen. And, that right there sent shudders down my spine... I have a problem with young heroines, especially when the heroes are ten years older. Anyway, she's small and in Romanceland that means when you put a pair of pants on you will be mistaken for a nine-year-old boy, which is what she does. And then that nine-year-old boy proceeds to run all over Albania getting into one jam after another - sometimes with Varian and sometimes not. Of course, Varian is concerned because he thinks he's got a hankering for boys, then when he finds out she isn't a boy and is just small, he thinks he has a hankering for little girls. Then when he finds out she's eighteen, he breaths a sign of relief. Now it's ok to have lascivious thoughts about his fellow traveler. By the way, there is a nine-year-old boy, Percival, wandering through Albania with a secret chess piece... just too much going on.
I was disappointed in this reread. There were too many convoluted plots going on. Too many outside conflicts to meander through. This book had too many secrets to wade through, too many ends to be tied and it just wasn't any fun. Too too too.
Time/Place: Albania, England 1818
Then we have Captives of the Night (1994) - talk about no fun. This is a book full of depressing, sordid characters, the biggest one being Francis Beumont. Francis is a horrible guy: he steals, he lies, he murders, he runs brothels, he spies, he does drugs, anything any villain has ever done in any romance book, Francis has done it better. He also just so happens to be married to Leila, our heroine. After one terrific fight, he is murdered and she is
suspected of doing the deed. As luck would have it the government wants to keep things under cover. They don't want some of the things Francis has been doing to get out so they send their top spy/agent in to do what he can do to keep things quiet. That would be Compte d'Esmond, aka bad guy Ismal Delvina.
Well, Esmond has a few secrets himself, other than being one of the villains from the previous book. He's been drooling over Leila for a while, ever since he was sent to investigate her husband.
I have to say that as I read Captives of the Night, I found it hard to reconcile the wonderful writing from Lord of Scoundrels with it. Captives of the Night relied heavily on the mystery/murder story and not very much on the romance. If fact, I didn't think Leila and Esmond had any chemistry at all. The murder mystery was sort of interesting, however everyone in London had a reason to see Francis dead, so there were a lot of suspects who kept jumping up. When the real murderer is revealed, I had one of those Agatha Christie moments. You know what I mean, there is one sentence in the beginning of the book which indicates who the killer is and you are supposed to remember that to the very end. You are led down one path to another, red herrings all over the place and then he/she confesses and you go - wait a minute - wait a minute - who?
Maybe one of the problems I had with this particular book was I was not able to like either Esmond or Leila. Just having read The Lion's Daughter, Ismal/Esmond was still fresh in my mind and the thought of him being hero material was a really big stretch for me. And, except for her outrageous beauty, I never saw any reason for Esmond to be in love with Leila. Maybe he found her temper tantrums seductive, because she did throw quite a lot of them. I suspect that maybe these moments of door slamming and vase breakings were supposed to be an indication that she was feisty and maybe a little slap-stick. But those moments didn't work for me; I just found them irritating. Then we have the secondary characters - they were all good and bad...even colluding to do murder and getting away with it. There weren't too many people in this book that I had any sympathy for.
Time/Place: England/Some France 1828
It was at this point I began to wonder if my comfort books were really comforting.
Then came Lord of Scoundrels. Hallelujah! Hallelujah! This book makes up for all the pain I went through reading the two previous. And once again let me say - this one is my all-time favorite romance.
From the moment Jessica Trent walks into that shop and disrupts Sebastian Dain’s well-ordered, debauched life, I had a smile on my face. Sure I've read this book billions of times, but with each reading I find new things and remember old words and lovely dialog.
The bantering between Jessica and Dain is some of the best ever written. Their reaction to each other is so vivid, I could almost see it playing out as a screwball comedy from the 30's. This book is a gem - it just sparkles...I'm so happy.
However, there is more to this book than funny writing. Dain is a very complex character; underneath all that bombastic bravado is plenty of pain and fear. He is just wonderful to watch as he struggles to keep the upper hand with Jessica. His fear of losing her turns him into a wonderfully befuddled hero. One of the best moments: "I'm losing her, he thought and his hand came up, instinctively, to reach for her and draw her back. But he reached for the coffeepot instead. He filled his cup and stared helplessly at the dark liquid and saw his black future there..." Awwwww. When he finally connects with his son, Dominick, it is both amusing and poignant. He sees so much of himself in this screaming helpless demon child, he can't do anything but take Dominick into his arms...even if Dominick throws up on him.
Almost everything in this book works, but especially the chemistry between Jessica and Dain - I just love this book.
Time/Place: England/France 1828
What do you do when you've written what is considered one of the top romance novels? What do you follow up with when that novel keeps winning awards and topping list? Well, you keep on writing. In 1998, The Last Hellion came out. I am pleased to say that even though this story does not reach the same plateau as Lord of Scoundrels, it's still a fun read. At this point, after reading four of Ms. Chase's books in a row, I have to say, she excels at comic writing, not so
much in the angst department.
Actually, The Last Hellion seems to be a muted copy of Lord of Scoundrels, but I didn't really mind. Once again we are presented with a couple who exchange barbed one-liners and call each other names. Some of those names were actually quite funny. I loved it when he uses her last name a lot of the time when talking to her.
In this book we have, Lydia Grenville, a newspaper reporter of sorts. And on the side she's writing a romantic serial under an assumed name. Our hero is Vere, the Duke of Ainswood. You must remember him from The Lord of Scoundrels when he gets in a drunken fist fight with Dain.
For the most part, this book is fun stuff. When our couple are first introduced, he is rushing in to save someone he believes is a damsel in distress. Of course, he's wrong. That damsel ends up knocking him on his butt, and from then on she has piqued his interest.
Ms. Chase was wise to choose a reporter as a profession for Lydia, because then she doesn't turn into a TSTL heroine, but has a reason to be where she shouldn't be. And, she usually is in places where she shouldn't be with Vere close behind trying to rescue her. His rescues usually don't work. I did have to stretch my disbelief a bit, that in 1828 there would really be a woman news reporter...but hey, this is fiction after all. While there may have been female reporters in the 1820s, I have a feeling they would have been a great deal more restricted in their movements than Lydia. But that's just a minor bump.
The ever funny, stumbling Bertie Trent puts in an appearance, as do Dain and his wife. It was nice to see all of them in the book, and it was also nice that they didn't take over the story.
I loved all the adventures Lydia led Vere on. Vere had his moments also. You know there's nothing better than a debauched rake with a tender spot. There's some awfully poignant moments in this book involving Vere. Especially touching are the scenes in the very first chapter between Vere and his nephew Robin. Almost a tear in the eye moment.
Vere and Lydia make a marvelous couple and their dynamics are great to watch. I could have been just as happy if the back story for Lydia hadn't been added toward the end of the book; however, the rest of this story was a lot of fun and a delightful follow-up for Lord of Scoundrels.
Time/Place: England 1828
Also a part of the Scoundrels series is a little novella called The Mad Earl's Bride, which was first published in 1995 as part of an anthology called Three Weddings and a Kiss. Somehow I missed it on its first time around, but I was able to read it last year and loved it. My review on that book is here.
And it's still snowing, blowing and cold.