Some of the first books for “grownups” I read were romance novels. My mother had a select group she enjoyed, collected during the 70s and 80s, kept on a special bookcase that hung over the back of her bedroom door. (I can still remember my very first, which I later hunted down in a used bookstore, Bride of the MacHugh, instilling a love of all things Scottish). Working hard at the beck and call of lawyers and executives as a secretary, her escape took the form of the costume dramas of Masterpiece Theatre and historical romance novels.
I loved these books once initiated – the dresses, the rakes and rogues, the political machinations keeping the lovers apart only to see them overcome all obstacles. Later I realized the ridiculous devices demanded by the industry – the women were more like girls because they were so young and naturally they were all virgins. The language describing the sex was, in retrospect, hilarious with “throbbing manhoods” and other euphemisms that more confused than enlightened – but like any good genre fiction, the basic formula was a good one.
Because all genre fiction is formulaic. Mysteries often have an interesting and complex protagonist, set in a time period or with a specialty, who has helpful sidekicks who assist him/her in ferreting out the “who dun it” effectively. Historical romance, pardon me, good historical romance owes a lot of its appeal to its crossover tendencies. It’s hopefully well-researched historical fiction, so its references and social history are accurate. Usually there is a mystery or political intrigue to satisfy those tendencies, and there is, without question, two protagonists who we care enough about to want to root them to live happily ever after.
So why are people so stuck up about romance novels? I know men who read literally any Tom Clancy-esque political thriller (slap a hammer and sickle on it, a handsome but capable ex-Marine, and a love interest who admires herself naked in a mirror in the first 100 pages and they are on it) but have nothing but derision toward women who read romance. Is it the ridiculous covers? The torrid prose on the back of the book jacket? Folks, those are all the publisher’s doing (and rapidly becoming less common, thank heavens) and no more indicator of what’s inside that book than the paper wrapper on your Big Mac means the sandwich inside is from a tree.
In my opinion, the best modern author who epitomizes the skillful historical romance series is Australian writer Stephanie Laurens, author of over 45 books, many of which have taken a turn on the New York Times Bestseller list. Her best-loved series is the Cynster novels, a grouping of 19 books based on one family, the proud and tightly knit noble Cynsters led by the head of the family, the Duke of St. Ives, known as Devil to his family and friends.
Laurens makes no bones about the fact that her attraction to the Regency era comes from the fact that it was a time of social flux, with enough leeway for the behavior of men and women that interesting situations could occur which would not be possible in the later Victorian era. Men of privilege were bold and demanding masters of their universe and women had not yet been beaten into submission by later Victorian mores that they couldn’t occasionally stand up for themselves, questioning the inevitability of marriage. Laurens describes her style as, “It’s very much in the vein of Errol Flynn meets Jane Austen—lots of dashing derring-do grounded by a healthy dose of feminine common sense.” Men and women in this society, especially well-born individuals, were expected to do their duty and get married to someone appropriate, whether or not the people in question actually wanted the union.
It’s this inevitability that her characters fight, both male and female. Laurens is a godsend in that she believes in older characters (the ladies are usually in their mid to late twenties) and isn’t unwilling to have the occasional female protagonist who isn’t a virgin. The women are strong and stubborn in their way, seeing no reason to be coaxed into a loveless marriage of convenience. Her men, as she states in informational interviews in some of the supplemental material for her books, fall “in lust” at first with the woman in question, their possessive instincts to help and protect stirred. The female protagonist, while attracted to the man, has no wish to surrender her independence, making her that much more of a challenge and prize to be won. In the course of trying to win her body, the male gets to know her and she him, with the result being they fall in love.
Devil Cynster, Duke of St. Ives, has one brother and four cousins (each with equally as disconcerting nicknames) similar in age and temperament. All six of them served together in France fighting Napoleon where they earned the moniker of “invincible” since they each returned from the bloody battle of Waterloo without a scratch. Close friends and with similar rakish tendencies towards the ladies, they are known by the ton as the “Bar Cynster.”
The Cynster family motto is “To Have and To Hold” (love that!) and it is interpreted by the author as the Cynsters possessing a passionate love of the land and of family. With so many romance novel heroes being cold and calculating, the humanity and warmth demonstrated by the Cynster family’s love and affection for one another – these men are friends as well as relatives – is one of the reasons this series stands out from the typical historical romance offering. Readers fall in love not just with the two protagonists, but with the whole family, caring deeply about what happens to the characters not just in the book focused on them, but in subsequent books as well.
Laurens uses a deft hand interweaving the books and keeping continuity (check out her chronology placing all her books from this and other series, in order by year of event). One of the tried and true formulas of her books is that she establishes the two major protagonists and the reason they are drawn together (a conflict or mystery to be solved with the characters helping one another as they fall in love). About two-thirds through the book, the Cynster calvalry is called in, with previous characters and family members introduced to help solve the problem and offer backup. The object of Cynster affection then sees the love between family members and further knows that this is a family they can trust and be part of, further sealing the deal.
While there certainly is intrigue and occasionally crime to propel the plot, the obstacles to the future of the characters are largely emotional. The woman does not want to give up her independence; the man hesitates to admit to the weakness of “love.” A quality I adore about Laurens’ writing is that she uses her fiery sex scenes to reveal the emotional progress of her characters. She understands how the physical act of love can unlock emotions and reveal the truth of feelings long-buried.
It’s not just the main characters which are well-drawn. The minor characters in these novels are incredibly complex and three-dimensional, doing an excellent job furthering the plot and giving depth to the scene. Lady Osbaldstone, the blunt and all-seeing grand dame of the ton, is a recurring character in most of the books who is a personal favorite. The younger siblings of many of the love interests (or young Cynsters) are written so well that they are able to be easily fleshed out in later novels as they reach an age of falling in love, a happenstance which actually seems like great planning and writing to me.
In addition to well-drawn characters, it’s a profound pleasure to read Laurens’ books because of the level of historical accuracy she attains. Laurens admits that this was of necessity initially in her career as her original contract for Regency romances were published by a British firm that insisted on the utmost accuracy (I gather those British readers, surrounded by Regency settings, are real sticklers for historical details).
Besides the obvious historical references (this is a great way for someone to be introduced to the controversy surrounding the Corn Laws in early 19th century history), the language (including colloquialisms and idiom) are correct. The horse references and ton etiquette are a fabulous bonus for someone interested in this period. Laurens admits the only area she takes license with in her desire to bump up the introduction of buttons, particularly for male shirts. It’s hard to get your male protagonist out of his clothes fast enough without those darn buttons!
Having seen video interviews with Stephanie Laurens, it was a jolt to discover that’s not her actual name. Theonne Anne De Kretser took her pseudonym from the names of her two daughters, Stephanie and Lauren when she decided to begin writing romance novels. Like other great romance novelists (like Diana Gabaldon of Outlander fame), De Kretser comes from a strong scientific background, possessing a Ph.D. in Biochemistry. Running a laboratory during the day, she found her relaxation and escape in the form of romance novels. When she realized she had read all the regency romances currently in print, she decided she would write one for herself. When she finished, she realized it was good enough that she could approach a publisher, and the rest was history.
The first ten books (all the covers in this post with links the amazon page for each one) deal with actual Cynsters, all of whom you meet or hear about in the first 50 pages of the first book. By the time we get to books 8, 9, and 10 we are learning about characters who were lanky teens in the first book but are coming into their Cynster legacy with abandon in On a Wild Night and On a Wicked Dawn. The twins Amanda and Amelia are balls of fire (I can imagine the emergence of early gray hairs on the heads of their sexy Bar Cynster cousins) and hands down, #10 The Perfect Lover about Simon Cynster and Luke’s sister (and Amelia Cynster’s sister-in-law) Portia is my absolute favorite. I swear I reread this book about every six weeks on my iPad!
Books 11 through 15 are the “in-laws”, the younger brothers of Cynster brides now searching for their own perfect mates. These include The Ideal Bride (#11 – Honoria’s brother Michael), The Truth About Love (#12 – Patience’s artist brother Gerard is a hunky painter bent on love and solving a mystery), What Price Love? (#13 – Flick’s honorary brother Dillon is now working for the horse industry in Newmarket but there’s another scandal about to break loose), The Taste of Innocence (#14 – Alathea’s brother Charles’ story), and finally Temptation and Surrender (#15 – Phyllida’s brother Jonas’ story). Of these, The Truth About Love with Patience’s brother Gerrard is outstanding, as is Temptation and Surrender (I adore Jonas and we get a lot of Lucifer and Phyllida in it since they are all in the same town). Don’t worry if you need a visual aid to help figure everyone out. Laurens is nice enough to give us a genealogy chart to keep track of all the matches and their children, although it doesn’t include everyone.
Recently published books 16 through 19 focus on three sisters, Heather (Viscount Breckenridge to the Rescue), Eliza (In Pursuit of Miss Eliza Cynster), and Angelica Cynster (The Capture of the Earl of Glencrae). All of these girls were mere babies in the first book of the series, so it’s exciting watching them find their destined mate while dealing with an enemy bent on revenge for a perceived wrong committed years ago by their parents. Since the bulk of all the books happen in Scotland, we get a nice dose of Scandal and Catriona with their bairns.
Here’s where Stephanie Laurens does something a little quirky (hey, whatever – as long as she writes Cynster books, I can put up with quirky). Remember my favorite book, The Perfect Lover and #10 in the series? From a chronological standpoint, it actually occurs AFTER all of the above books. Yes, you read that right, ALL of them. Since I do like sometimes reading the books in the order of year the match occured (it saves a lot of “wait, aren’t those two married already?”), I rely on the chronological order of the books (and these are all her books, not just her Cynster ones – Cynsters crop up and cameo in some of her other series). Obviously you can read them in the order published and be fine, but I thought I’d mention this in case someone got confused in the middle of reading the series.
The only book that comes after The Perfect Lover is not technically a Cynster book, it’s Where the Heart Leads, an amazing novel and one of my favorites as it focuses on Barnaby Adair, a noble-born son who has actually helped solve mysteries in several of the Cynster books. This determined bachelor ends up falling for Portia’s sister, Penelope. I would encourage anyone to read The Perfect Lover followed by Where the Heart Leads for maximum effect. These two sisters are so intelligent and headstrong it’s a wonder they didn’t kill their brother before he had a chance to marry into the Cynster family.
If there is any criticism to offer regarding Stephanie Laurens, it certainly doesn’t pertain to her writing. Rather, it would be regarding her writer’s platform. With a formidable backlist of titles whose quality easily exceeds 95% of the current Regencies published, her website (which looks like it’s from the 1990s) and lack of social presence (she has a decent Facebook author page, but no Twitter account – she should consider linking the two for effortless tweeting) harm rather than support her sales. She’s too wonderful to hide her light under a bushel!
It’s certainly worth mentioning that the excellent Bastion Club series takes place during much of the Cynster saga, containing a certain amount of cross-over. Both the Bastion and Cynster series have characters that crossover to Laurens other series, the Black Cobra Quartet, which involves a group of soldiers who have to foil a plan conceived in India but with a final impact in England.
So don’t dismiss historical romance, any more than you would any other genre. If you decide to try it, pick up a Cynster novel by Stephanie Laurens and see what you think. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
**Take a look also at my review first book in the Cynster Sisters Duo, And Then She Fell, for more information on the literary evolution of the Cynster family.”