It’s no secret that I believe Stephanie Laurens’ Cynster series to be one of, if not the best, Regency series on the market, but I’ve also been vocal in my criticism that this talented author does not play to her strengths in recent years. Her latest novel, The Taming of Ryder Cavanaugh, falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, demonstrating old school strengths of Laurens’ writing, while also still (unfortunately) highlighting some of the weaknesses we’ve seen in the last five novels of the series.
Whereas the first seven or eight books in the Cynster saga possessed strong male leads (rakes, every last one of them) meeting women who they MUST possess and marry, later books in the series, including the Cynster Sisters Trilogy and Cynster Sisters Duo, rely heavily on conflict provided by “mysteries” so obvious my cat could pick out the villain in the first 30 pages. Combined with Laurens’ purple prose tendencies in the bedroom (a propensity you would expect to fade with time as the romance readership has become much more comfortable with specific language and fewer euphemisms), you would expect even devoted readers to throw up their hands and just walk away from her.
But we don’t and it’s largely due – at least on my part – to the fact that her period construction is so tight and realistic that I will never worry about incorrect language spoken by characters living in this time period, or that social constructs will be flaunted without reference to the mores that are there to guide the characters, even if they choose to reject them. I am SO tired with historical romances with dialogue (“We need to talk this over” from a medieval warrior) or actions (Regency heroines having sex with no thought or worry about getting pregnant or the loss of their reputation) but Laurens never fails to make her characters attractive to modern readers yet always living fully within her world.
This particular book forms a full circle for the Cynster series, as virtually every character mentioned in the first book of the series has found their match. The heroine of this novel is none other than Mary Cynster, the baby sister who toddled through the wet grass saying a secret goodbye to her dead brother Tolly in Devil’s Bride, the first book that launched the series back in 1998. Now she’s a bossy young woman with a heart of gold who finally has possession of the necklace given to her cousins and sisters by Catriona (Scandal’s witchy Scottish wife) in honor of her “Lady”, a pagan goddess figure. The necklace is supposed to tell Mary who is her “hero” by heating up in his presence. But decisive Mary knows exactly who she should marry and she’d be moving things right along that is, if his pesky older brother, Ryder Cavanaugh, Marquess of Raventhorne, would stop interfering.
But Ryder has no intention of doing so. His half-brother is only in his mid-twenties and much too soft a man for the force of nature that is Mary Cynster. That she’s a stunning beauty and the last of the marriageable Cynsters of her generation makes her an incredible prize for any man wishing to ally himself with her powerful family. But Ryder wants her for another reason – he senses her fire and passion would bring much to a marriage but her sense of family, an inheritance any Cynster brings to a union, is exactly what he wishes to create in his damaged group of siblings. The Marquess of Raventhorne wants any children of his to grow up surrounded by unquestionable love and loyalty – in short, he wants what the Cynsters have.
Mary is no fool. Ryder is sensual, handsome and powerful so she appreciates what Ryder is offering even if she does acknowledge he will not be a man she can control. That he is willing to entertain a partnership has her agreeing to consider him as a suitor, but almost before she can put her mind to that puzzle, an incredible attack and her reputation being comprised forces them into marriage. As strong emotions take root between them, threats to both Ryder and Mary mean they might never have the chance to establish the family they both crave.
I really thought that this would be the one to break the recent trend of Laurens’ books which have had great characters but highly manufactured and shallow “danger” propelling the plot forward. The first third of the book had me gripping my iPad in happiness – FINALLY here was a hero to fulfill the Cynster tradition of a rake who sets his eyes on a heroine and will not be swayed from winning her. But before he can hie her off to a conservatory for proper ravishment, some jackass “mystery” plot has to butt its fat head in and derail all that energy and sexual tension. Yes, their relationship is fantastic and continues to progress, but not with the same level of energy.
There is still a great deal to love in this book. Mary’s scene right before her wedding of bursting into Ryder’s bedroom (she has no plans on being the only Cynster female to go to her marriage bed a virgin!) is priceless and filled with the sexy humor Laurens does so well. Any fan of the series will love not only the look at all the past couples but the close up view of the all the children of those matches we’ve loved, with definite hints as to their characters. Seeing Devil and Honoria’s two teenage sons and their high-spirited daughter Louisa, as well as their cousins who followed right behind them in age, means that the next books need only be 10 to 15 years in the future to have these young men and women finding love.
I do worry about all those children and the future of the series. Will Laurens, who has said she intends to write their stories, master the Victorian age with the skill she has the Regency period? How can the Cynster passion hold against the much stricter and rigid Victorian mores (we might have to have virgins in their marriage bed)? With the invincibility of the first generation of Cynster men, the horror that was the Crimean War looms large and could create any amount of damage of this generation. Laurens has also been very, very careful to have each match be highly appropriate in terms of class – Lucifer and Phyllida’s match probably pushes the envelope the most since she’s minor landed gentry and he’s first cousin to a Duke. The Victorian age in England had so many aristrocrats marrying daughters with large fortunes and previously unacceptable backgrounds. Will this be impetus for Americans to break into the Cynster family? I think they’d be right at home.
Laurens has made clear that she plans on the next books not immediately jumping into the Cynsters of the future, but rather revisiting her character of Barnaby Adair by adding books to The Casebook of Barnaby Adair series. Right now the only book is the one which fully fleshed out his character (although he appears in other Cynster books as someone who helps solve the mystery), Where the Heart Leads. Here amid a backdrop of stolen orphans and Mayfair burglaries, Barnaby finds his perfect match in the unconventional Penelope Ashford, a Cynster connection several times over as her brother and her sister have both married into the family. The two of them with their inquisitive minds, stellar intelligence and aristocratic (as well as common man) connections team to unravel a mystery and save the day and they are a terrific couple.
Whether the new Adair books will bring in new characters or simply be mysteries featuring Barnaby and Penelope, I don’t know. The only thin hope I’m clinging to has to do with the fact that Laurens’ mysteries were in fact much better during these writing years for her, so my fingers are crossed that she recaptures that ability while showing us glimpses of the Cynsters at play. Stephanie Laurens has always shown her comfort level with jumping back and forth in years, so it’s highly possible these books could predate Mary and Ryder’s love story. Either way, even with her shortcomings, I’ve got enough Cynster fangirl in me to see this family through whatever Laurens throws their way. Bring it on, Stephanie!