Historical romance was the subgenre that originally brought me into the world of romance (thanks to my mother’s addiction to them), so I have a distinct fondness for a good historical, so much so, that I’m super picky about who I read. For me, it needs to be the family and world building of Stephanie Laurens’ Cynster series, the passionate Victorian excess of Jennifer Ashley’s Mackenzies, or the spunky, untraditional heroines of Sarah Maclean.
One surefire way to capture my interest is to have excellent writing. Often I’ll yammer on in a review about the great characterization or the way the author brings a period alive and you can infer that this takes a certain amount of writing talent, but then there are authors who have such an excellent turn of phrase that I almost physically feel their words in my mouth as I read, savoring not just the plot but my word journey in getting there.
Anna Campbell has the deft turn of phrase and ability to tug (hard) on the emotional heartstrings that few writers possess, with a raw intelligence behind her pages which sets her apart from the many run-of-the-mill historicals currently on the market. That said, she is also one of those writers who feel the need to have truly tortured characters, to the point where you feel emotionally wrung out when you finish one of her books.
It’s easy to see the levels of pain in this book just in glancing at the description. Scarred Jonas Merrick was declared an official bastard by the courts in his childhood, a declaration that broke his Viscount father’s heart. After being tortured and facially scarred when he was young, he and his father moved abroad. He returned to England unbelievably wealthy and spit in the face of his cruel cousin who had usurped his title by building a luxurious mansion right on the boundary of the title’s historic manse. Jonas has also set a plan of revenge, collecting all the chits of the Viscount’s wife, Roberta, who has quite a gambling problem. His blackmail involves her coming to his remote Devon castle and spending a week as his mistress.
But it’s not Roberta who shows up on his doorstep, but rather her unmarried sister, Sidonie Forsythe. Clearly a virgin sacrifice, rather than be irritated by his plan going awry, Jonas is strangely fascinated by the lush, stubborn beauty so determined to take her sister’s place. Sidonie expected to be repulsed by this man who had manipulated her sister so cruelly, but she is seeing flashes of the man beneath the scars and finds herself intrigued. She must convince him to give her Roberta’s IOUs so her abusive husband William doesn’t have yet another excuse to beat his wife, but the stakes quickly spiral out of control with Jonas’ gentle seduction. Sidonie realizes her heart is on the table and that she also holds a secret which could turn what feeling Jonas has for her against them both.
The first two-thirds of this novel was an utter delight. Falling high on the sensuality rating scale, the sex between Jonas and Sidonie was tender and extremely hot, with the setting a gothic delight. Watching them break down barriers and really intimately know one another’s souls as well as their bodies was an unadulterated pleasure, so much so that you were cheering for them both to find their happy ending. But Anna Campbell seems to be one of those crafty authors who insist on torturing her characters. I’m more in favor of external forces keeping characters apart than setting them against each other, so this was hard for me to take, even while I continued to admire her writing. A big piece of my irritation was I actually felt that Sidonie’s reasoning was rock solid. She trusted herself in Jonas’ hands but he hadn’t shown any empathy toward her sister, so I understand why she wanted to take care of her first before helping him.
It was also uncomfortable to me the degree to which Sidonie had to run after Jonas and convince him that they should be together, and that wrap up and subsequent epilogue felt a little quick to me. Can’t I have a little more time to enjoy the two characters together actually happy and free of secrets? I’m guessing Campbell means to give us more of them in the next book, as Seven Nights in a Rogue’s Bed is the first in the Sons of Sin series. Since she introduces in this book the two men, both now peers, who had saved Jonas from unspeakable cruelty at Eton, the future heroes are already established. All three men suffered at the hands of gossip since it was well-founded that each of them was actually a bastard. Jonas was the only one disinherited, but it appears that the next book, A Rake’s Midnight Kiss (coming out in late August 2013) will feature Sir Richard Harmsworth bent on an interesting quest which could vindicate for once and for all his claim to his title. Suffice it to say, there is an intriguing young woman to help him along his journey.
Naturally I’m hoping I won’t be quite as wrung out reading Richard’s story as this time around, but with Anna Campbell’s outstanding writing luring me forward (and the desire to see more of Jonas and Sidonie happy), I’ll gird myself for an emotional roller-coaster ride and get ready to enjoy her wonderful writing.