Tag Archives: England

December Read-a-Thon: Snowbound Wedding Wishes Anthology Gives Us a Holiday Dose of Harlequin Historical

24 Dec

Snowbound Wedding Wishes by Louise Allen, Lucy Ashford, and Joanna Fulford (Harlequin Historical, November 1, 2012)

I’m really picky about my historical romance authors – REALLY picky – so much so that I often don’t try new authors until I’ve read every review on Amazon and Goodreads of a given book. The slightest whiff of something off – using language not yet invented in the time period, extremely unconventional behavior for the era or excessive dickishness of the hero – and I won’t even pick it up. I guess my paranoia stems from the fact that with a history/biology double major in college, I know enough about historical periods that it’s easy to jar me out of the story with the result that I feel like I’ve wasted my time.

With this caveat, you can imagine that I actually do like anthologies (and anyone who reads this blog knows I love them as a method of finding new authors). When I saw that Harlequin Historical had produced an anthology last year entitled Snowbound Wedding Wishes, containing stories by Louise Allen, Lucy Ashford and Joanna Fulford – all Harlequin authors I have seen receive good reviews – it occurred to me that this volume was an excellent opportunity for me to perhaps highlight a great book for the December Read-a-Thon while also dipping a toe and seeing if I would like these authors as much as everyone else.

Mission accomplished. I was impressed with not only the writing but particularly the historical detail provided in each of these stories, which all possessed accuracy in the historical representation of the Regency period, lovely heroes and heroines, and a distinct voice.

“An Earl Beneath the Mistletoe” by Louise Allen

Major Hugo Burnham can’t believe he survived the Penisular Wars to be caught on a freezing cold night a few days before Christmas so he can die of exposure in the English countryside. On his way home to his ancestral manor, circumstances detoured him from his original route until he is more than a little lost. Both he and his horse are thrilled to see a light in the distance and even more astonished when a lovely widow answers the door to the alehouse he finds tucked away in a small hamlet. Her twin boys are bright as copper pennies and the more time he spends with them, the more Hugo realizes that Emilia and the boys have him wanting – wanting a real family. Despite her having a cultured accent, it’s clear they are not nobility (if they were, they wouldn’t be in an alehouse) and any protectiveness he feels toward her must just be a result of empathy for her circumstances.

In addition to numerous historical romances, Louise Allen is also the author of the well-rated nonfiction book, Walking Jane Austen’s London, a guide I hope to one day take to heart while exploring that city with an eye to a favorite author!

Emilia Weston realizes that the handsome serious major is definitely above her station, at least her station now. Having eloped with a poor younger son from a good family earned her family’s disinheritance, leaving Emilia with few options. Now she exists in limbo in the village, politely tolerated by the villagers and given the occasional head nod from the local gentry but belonging to neither. She wants to make sure that the boys have everything they need to at least enter the law and have a chance at financial success and happiness. She’s made the best of her circumstances and she wouldn’t have given up the time with her loving husband for anything, even with her hardships – Giles was a wonderful husband who did his best for her. Some of the side benefits of that relationship are foremost in her mind as the honorable Hugo can’t seem to keep his hands and mouth off Emilia despite his best intentions and she’s frightened to discover she doesn’t want him to. As the snow deepens and this officer stays under her roof for Christmas, Emilia can’t imagine that any Christmas miracle can be forthcoming regarding her growing feelings for someone she’s sure is an aristocrat.

I adored this story! Emilia is plucky and yet real, with frustrations that make her a three-dimensional character and one easy for the reader to fall for, to say nothing of Hugo (the poor man didn’t stand a chance). Allen’s details about Emilia’s daily work with the ale were fabulous and yet never crossed into “info dump” territory – very skillful. Hugo’s character is totally understandable and coming home from the war, taking up his role as the Earl of Burnham, and then falling in love with an alewife had to equal not just a hell of week but a tough adjustment for him. Hearing about Hugo’s childhood gave further insight into his immediate understanding of Emilia’s unique and loving mothering style, and this helps him begin the mental trek to thinking about what he wants in a wife and family. The resolution was plausible and extremely emotionally satisfying, causing me to turn the final page with a huge grin on my face. I’ll be checking out other Louise Allen books for sure!

“Twelfth Night Proposal” by Lucy Ashford

Theo, Lord Dalbury has experienced a strange series of events. A former officer in Wellington’s army, he returned to England after Waterloo and was happy with his friends and a minor barony to his name. Then an elderly woman he had only met once left him a property in Derbyshire with some strange instructions and his life has taken a strange turn. His immediate goal is to simply take a look at the property while conveniently avoiding all the matchmaking mothers of the ton, but the vicious country roads and uncooperative weather is making what should be straightforward all too difficult. An odd encounter with a group of children, led by a blond beauty dressed as a lad, ends in a fall from his horse and unconsciousness – a rather ignominious introduction to Northcote Hall, his new property.

The Captain’s Courtesan by Lucy Ashford (Harlequin Historical, September 1, 2012)

What he finds is at once horrifying and mysterious. Northcote Hall is in shambles with only a flighty housekeeper and corrupt steward at the helm. After witnessing the steward sexually threatening the young blond woman he met at the scene of his accident, Theo fires him and attempts to figure out what exactly is going on. The blond, Miss Jenna Bruchs, is no peasant but neither is she gentry and she and her mother are fiercely attached to the Hall. In fact, she and many of the locals appear overly eager to see him take up residence, an attitude undoubtedly linked to the former steward’s vicious rein of terror. Theo guesses that Jenna is the natural daughter of an aristocrat stemming from when her mother worked as a housekeeper, and the more time he spends with her the more he wants her. But what kind of future can they have together, even during the twelve days of Christmas?

This was a wonderfully written story with a compelling hero and a feisty young woman trapped in almost impossible circumstances. The villain is horrible and yet more than just a two-dimensional vehicle to move the plot along. Terrific conflict and a very satisfying resolution from the unconventional Theo made me love the ending. My only criticism is how disappointed I am to find that Lucy Ashford does not appear to have any social media presence to speak of, with just a basic (if lovely) website for readers. I worry her talent is not being as showcased as it could without this way of reaching the many fans she must have. Reading hundreds of romance novels a year, I’ve seen the correlation that authors with no social media presence always have fewer reviews and, I imagine, fewer sales. My fingers are crossed that she overcomes her reticence and embraces more of a digital footprint!

“Christmas at Oakhurst Manor” by Joanna Fulford

This is a reunion romance (which normally I’m not a huge fan of) but Ms. Fulford made this quite realistic and lovely. Ten years ago Max Calderwood told the woman he loved that he was leaving her to go to India and make his fortune. Vivien was high-born and Max felt he could not give her what she deserved or even keep her in the style she was used to. Setting her free was the hardest thing he had ever done, especially after hearing her plea to take her with him while he sought his fortune, but he knew he was doing the right thing, even when he told her not to wait for him. Working hard in India, Max realized he made a huge mistake based on how he was devastated by the news of her marriage, but it was the bed he made and he resolved to lie in it.

A decade later, Max is incredibly rich and has finally made his way back to England to purchase a property and enjoy that for which he labored all those years. Startled to see Vivien at a house party for Christmas, he’s astonished not only with the realization that she is even more beautiful than he remembered, but the news that she has been a widow for 18 months and has two children. Her sadness and vulnerability call to him, but he’s unsure if she would be willing to take a chance on the man who hurt her all those years ago.

The Viking’s Defiant Bride by Joanna Fulford (Harlequin Historical, 2009)

Vivien actually knew Max was going to be at the Christmas party but she couldn’t disappoint her friend or her children and back out at the last minute. It’s unfair that he’s even more handsome than ever – and clearly the target of other women’s matrimonial designs – to say nothing of the fact that he’s wonderful with her children, something their father never was. Vivien married a much older man, convinced respect would make for a good marriage and she’s regretted the decision so much that even his death was a guilty relief. She’s glad to have her children, but with her husband a poor money manager, their future is extremely uncertain. Yet Vivien is strong enough to stand her ground and not make the mistake again of accepting marriage where there is no love. When Max attempts to convince her that his feelings are still strong even after all this time, Vivien is forced to face her demons to see if she is the still the brave woman she once was.

I enjoyed this novella very much and want to sample Joanna Fulford‘s other writing after reading it. With my recent interest in the surge of Viking romances, I was interested that Fulford, mostly a Regency historical author, has dabbled in the Viking genre to good reviews. I’m going to have to look at those and at some of her other Regency tales since this one had a sweetness to it (it was the only story of the three with no sex, just kissing) that was period appropriate and endearing. Perhaps because of that, it felt very accurate to me, with both the hero and heroine taking a while to work up to anything beyond polite pleasantries. That undercurrent of the unsaid subtext felt very Austen, which I liked. The characters are still extremely honest about their feelings to themselves which keeps the story moving.

New UK cover for the anthology

Snowbound Wedding Wishes is an anthology I can heartily recommend to historical romance authors who enjoy the Regency period, particularly when the holiday season is the focus. While I had held onto this book since last year, I’d like to point out that it’s recently been reissued by Harlequin UK with a different cover for their British audience, who I’m sure will also greatly enjoy it.

At less than $5 for almost 300 pages, the cost of this anthology feels like a good bargain to me (although you might also want to check your local library since it has been out for a year). I’m pleased to have found three authors who have published enough that I have a nice body of their work to explore and to gain further confidence in Harlequin’s Historical line to know that their editing and author choice is rock solid.

Happy reading (and Merry Christmas)!

December Read-a-Thon: Heidi Rice Shows Us What Lucky Looks Like in ‘Tis the Season to Get Lucky

19 Dec

‘Tis the Season to Get Lucky by Heidi Rice (Entangled: Indulgence, November 1, 2013)

What does “getting lucky” look like in a holiday novella? How about a sexy playboy with a heart of gold, a soaking wet British achluophobe (fear of the dark), and a department store closed for Christmas where you can have anything you want? Exactly.

This fantasy is exactly what every salivating reader gets with Heidi Rice’s fabulous novella, ‘Tis the Season to Get Lucky, and it’s worth way more than the $.99 price tag since 1) it’s packed with vivid detail and a startling amount of emotion and 2) it’s Heidi Rice, people, and she’s awesome.

Kate Braithwaite’s long distance boyfriend has just dumped her via email so she trudges to the office she’s called home for the past six months (through a horrifying rainstorm) to remind herself why she left England behind. Doing PR for one of the premier stores in Manhattan has been a dream come true, but even Kate realizes how pathetic she is being the only person at work besides the security guard on Christmas. Thankful no one can see her, she exchanges her soaking wet clothes for a way-too-small elf costume and decides to try and be productive. At least she works more than the no-show playboy son of the owner who draws a massive salary and never comes to work.

Ryan Sinclair is in fact “at work” that day, and is busy pondering over what appear to be slutty elf dolls actually meant for children, when one (very sexy) elf startles him so much that he tackles her. This British beauty has a face to match her luscious body, but her frosty demeanor and workaholic attitude make her undesirable, or so he tells himself. Until the rainstorm which has become a blizzard kills the store lights and suddenly Katherine (he likes that better than Kate) is shaking, showing a vulnerable woman under the bitchiness. Over the course of a snowstorm which traps them in the store, these two people discover that the other person is not at all what they imagined…and that a Christmas blizzard may have deposited much more than snow on their doorstep.

Okay, this is Heidi Rice, a superhero in the world of category romance (way to go, Entangled!) and she delivers her usual brand of hot, sexiness wrapped in a hero and heroine who seem like a total mismatch but are really very similar under the skin. Kate has (understandable) abandonment issues and Ryan has worked to insure his daughter never, ever feels abandoned. I honestly could not believe that this novella was listed at 57 pages – if you told me it was closer to 100 pages, I would have believed you with the emotional evolution experienced by the characters between its covers. Does it move quickly? Of course, it’s a novella, but that doesn’t mean this story is anything but quality writing. Don’t move until you check out such classics of this author’s like Surf, Sea and a Sexy Stranger and/or Cupcakes and Killer Heels! They are the reason I love Heidi Rice and you’ll understand the minute you read them. 🙂

Movie Bliss: A Hopeless Romantic Seeks Movies to Love by Heidi Rice (Harlequin E, January 6, 2014)

Yet despite my being a fan, I only just managed to realize that her author bio clearly states that Rice also works as a movie journalist in her spare time. I was extremely excited to see on her blog that she has a movie guide specifically for romance lovers coming out in early January, Movie Bliss: A Hopeless Romantic Seeks Movies to Love. Seriously? Even better, it’s about 150 pages of recommendations AND it’s also only $.99. Whaaa??? Color me having pre-ordered it (and maybe my blog readers will get some movie reviews peppered in here since we all enjoy great films that make our HEA a visual reality, don’t we?).

Remember that ‘Tis the Season to Get Lucky is part of the same Entangled series as yesterday’s ‘Tis the Season to Kiss Santa by Kate Hardy, so you now have two reasons to take a look at these great books. With all the busyness and running around of the holidays, these books are exactly what you need to take a mental time out for yourself and do something just for you.

Happy reading!

A Lady’s Secret Weapon by Tracey Devlyn Combines Old-Fashioned Spy Thrillers with Hot Historical Romance

16 Oct

A Lady’s Secret Weapon (Nexus #3 – Ethan and Sydney) by Tracey Devlyn (Sourcebooks, October 1, 2013)

Back when I was cutting my teeth on historical romance in the 80s, there were many novels that heavily featured spies bent on foiling Napoleonic agents during the height of the Peninsular Wars. These books had complex spy plots and incorporated plenty of history in addition to the romance developing between the hero and heroine.

I loved them, but as Regency became modernized (and thank heavens it did) for some reason the spy piece seemed to suddenly take a back burner. Oh, it was still there, clearly, but not in the same smart way it existed before. The romance piece got better as well, and since I really did read them for the romance, that was a reasonable exchange, although I found myself still wistful for the well-written spies and villains.

Enter talented author Tracey Devlyn and I have no more reason to pine for the days of those page-turning plots. With her excellent Nexus series, readers manage three books in one: a pitch-perfect historical romance, a mystery as a new angle of the story arc is uncovered, and a thriller to heighten anticipation and keep those pages turning. Yum!

The Nexus is an elite group of British spies heavily involved with uncovering the next move of the Napoleonic network, either in France or right on England’s shores, and readers have already met several operatives in the first two books of the series. A Lady’s Secret Weapon in fact stars Ethan deBeau, the rogue Viscount renowned for charming one woman after another into his bed, only to ferret out their secrets for his cause. Less well-known are the many deaths for which he is responsible and the knowledge of the often innocent lives he’s compromised – as well as the dirty feeling he carries from his meaningless sexual encounters – have made him not just jaded, but someone who regularly takes refuge in alcohol and whores when frustrations arise.

Ethan made these sacrifices for his country so he can attain one goal, taking over the Nexus network and finally filling his dead father’s shoes in service to England. But when it seems that’s not going to happen, he’s not just thrown but resentful. A helpful distraction takes the form of one Sydney Hunt, a stunning young woman who Ethan feels he knows from somewhere although she’s not telling. Her focus on an orphanage that has come onto the Nexus’ radar is more than a coincidence and it quickly becomes apparent that there is much more to Miss Hunt than meets the eye.

A Lady’s Revenge (Nexus #1 – Cora and Guy) by Tracey Devlyn (Sourcebooks, April 2012)

That’s the truth. Sydney hides her own painful past and while her work as the proprietress of an employment agency helping servants find safe positions in noble households is a priority, her secret work as “the Specter” has her using a network of underground spies to help the Nexus anonymously. Her time with Ethan has her rethinking her opinions about noblemen but she’s uncertain as to whether he won’t run just like other men in her past when he finds out the nature of her ghosts. For this man, Sydney realizes she might just be willing to take her stolen moments when she can, as his layers clearly hide more than just a talented rogue and spy.

It was a little hard for me to like Ethan initially as Devlyn shows him making the decision to pursue alcohol and visit a whorehouse after he’s met our heroine. Tsk, tsk. Granted, there’s nothing yet between them, but I always find myself having to overcome that mental hurdle (and sometimes, not managing it) when an author decides to show that side of the hero. Yet she manages to help him come back from it, with the incident simply illustrating just how damaged Ethan is that he needs this form of escape. He’s literally never let himself be in love and Sydney is really his first in many ways, despite all his experience of women.

Sydney was enormously easy to love, surrounded by people who care about her and with a deeply admirable mission, but she never strays into goody two-shoes territory. That she has channelled much of herself into both her day job and her secret spy work clearly is due to her being convinced that she will never have a romantic future due to her childhood. Ethan’s patient uncovering of each of her secrets breaches her walls one by one and his lack of judgement at each hurdle helps grow the trust between them. It’s actually quite lovely to witness, with their climatic love scene one of the most tender I’ve read in a while.

Checkmate, My Lord (Nexus #2 – Sebastian and Catherine) by Tracey Devlyn (Sourcebooks, February 2013)

For readers who have enjoyed the first two books in the series, there is plenty of time to revel in those characters (when exactly are they all getting married, anyway?) since they make regular appearances. But for people who want to try this book out first before making the investment, fear not – Devlyn’s writing is so deft that you will lack no understanding or appreciation if you start with A Lady’s Secret Weapon. Playing catch up is effortless regarding both story arc and characters in the hands of this talented author.

The important thing to keep in mind when reading a Devlyn book is that the spy element drives the romance. I initially found myself very impatient as a good portion of the book progressed before my hero and heroine began inching toward one another even though there was a strong attraction. Partly this was their personalities and backgrounds coming into play but it was also because the various elements of the plot had to be well-established. The delay has the nice side effect of making the descent into a relationship more natural in terms of the timeframe (no insta-love here) and – once I realized the intent – I was able to relax and enjoy it.

Keep in mind also that Devlyn’s intelligence, immediately apparent after just a few pages, bleeds into other areas of her professional life. She’s got an excellent website and strong social media presence, and is also a founder of the Romance University website which I follow religiously. How cool is that? I love it when an author’s talent is matched by her professional savvy, so yay for me at finding another woman who is cleverly making an impact on the world of romance publishing.

Tracey Devlyn’s entire Nexus series, but A Lady’s Secret Weapon in particular, combines outstanding writing with cross-genre appeal. Mystery, thriller, and historical romance lovers fear not – you’ve just got another author to add to your end table. Enjoy!

The Mystery of Laurie McBain, Author of the Classic Historical Romance, Wild Bells to the Wild Sky

24 Apr

One of the best things about living in the age of the ebook is seeing classic romance authors find a new audience with rediscovered backlists, usually with modernized covers. When I was on the Sourcebooks website shopping around the other day, I was thrilled to see some books of Laurie McBain featured (Devil’s Desire and Moonstruck Madness, both classics), although not the one I would love to get in ebook form, Wild Bells to the Wild Sky.

I loved Wild Bells to the Wild Sky ever since I snuck it off my mother’s romance novel shelf and the book holds up extremely well even with a modern light shining upon it (I wish I could say as much for some other authors). The book takes place during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and focuses on some very sexy privateers scoring points against disgruntled Spanish sea captains and getting rich in the bargain.

The book has the flavor of a 1980s historical in that it houses a sweeping plot covering decades with plenty of famous historical figures popping up throughout the pages.

Wild Bells opens with the sea voyage of her majesty’s privateer Geoffrey Christian, who is sailing his stunning Spanish wife and adorable little girl, Lily Francisca, to Hispaniola in the Caribbean in order to reunite his wife with her estranged family. Flashbacks illustrate that Geoffrey Christian stole his biggest prize when he boarded the Spanish ship carrying his wife and her family to Spain to conclude an arranged marriage for the beautiful spitfire. She was more than happy to run away with him and, despite her father disowning her, she has been happy in her marriage and loves her little red-headed daughter and sexy husband.

The original cover of Devil’s Desire from 1975.

Queen Elizabeth, realizing the opportunity as her lady-in-waiting fulfills a familial duty in visiting a dying mother in Spanish territory, decides to send along Sir Basil Whitelaw, an intellectual and court advisor who also happens to be Geoffrey Christian’s best friend. While Basil doesn’t enjoy leaving his wife and son behind, he reluctantly takes on this duty, with this cerebral man finding himself quite talented at the spy business. While on the island, he and little Lily both spot English traitors and Basil realizes they must return to England in order to alert the Queen to treachery.

But Geoffrey Christian has made enemies among his wife’s relatives, particularly the ones he’s stolen from while on the high seas, and their ship is set upon while still in the Caribbean. In an effort to save his family, Geoffrey sends one of his sailors to carry Basil (who needs to be kept safe to give his message to the Queen) and Geoffrey’s wife and daughter to a nearby island, with the express instruction to row them out to one of the Spanish ships when the battle is over. The sailor, hearing his captain’s boat sinking, goes to check for survivors and is never seen again. Basil and the women are stranded on the island.

Flash forward to a young Lily, her brother Tristram and little sister Dulcie all living alone on the island. Lily is beginning to get curves and become a woman (she’s around 12 or 13) and she and her siblings are savvy about living well in the wild. Tristram is Geoffrey’s son since his mother was pregnant with him when she was shipwrecked, but little Dulcie is Basil’s illegitimate daughter. To the children, it was understandable that these two wonderful people would have loved each other and created a family after Geoffrey Christian was killed, but things are about to change.

The change comes in the form of Valentine Whitelaw, Basil’s younger brother and also a privateer trained by none other than Geoffrey Christian who considered him a friend and promising sailor. Valentine is a captain now, also in favor with the queen and the lover of the fair (and slutty) Cordelia Howard. A sailor has been liberated from enforced slavery with the Spanish and carries the tale of bringing passengers safely off Christian’s boat. Before he dies, he manages to get this information to Valentine, who goes off in search of his brother and ends up finding the children. Through deception, he captures them and brings them on board, and all the children eventually begin to love and trust him.

When the Splendor Falls, the final novel of Laurie McBain, published in 1985, after which she retired at the young age of only 36.

The love goes rather far with Lily, who first resents Valentine and later develops a huge crush on him. The children are all fish out of water back in England where it’s cold and they can’t swim every day. None of them know how to live like the gentry they are, Tristram is not considered Geoffrey Christian’s son and heir since there’s no proof, and little Dulcie is almost taken away from her siblings by Basil and Valentine’s sister who sees the little girl as the last bit of Basil left on earth. Basil’s wife and son handle the situation with a tremendous amount of class (she’s remarried in the meantime, so it’s kind of a relief that Basil is dead, as much as she loved him). Lily is presented with the evidence that Valentine is in love with Cordelia, who is a humongous bitch to everyone but men, and realizes that he will always see her as a little girl, never returning her love for him.

Flash forward again and Lily is eighteen. The children are in a sucky living situation with an exploitative relative who is technically the heir and their guardian and who disgustingly has the hots for Lily. A series of events has the children and their trusted retainers believing they killed their guardian, so they flee into the night with the help of a sexy part-gypsy. He helps them become entertainers so they can hide under the radar and make their way to help. Valentine happens to be home from a voyage, goes looking for the missing children and ends up finding Lily, who he doesn’t recognize since it’s been years since he last saw her. One look at this stunning redhead and he falls head over heels in lust with her. She’s crushed he doesn’t recognize her and is planning on cluing him in, but not before some pretty passionate kissing and groping is exchanged. The remainder of the novel is about going back to the island to discover evidence Basil left behind and uncovering the traitor to the Queen who has lived all this time thinking he got off scot-free. Oh, and Valentine realizes that Lily is exactly the woman for him, falling in love with not only her beauty but her intelligence, loyalty, and pluck. Her streak of wildness left over from the island is the perfect compliment to this privateer, although it takes a little while for him to convince her fully to that effect.

I cannot tell you how much this book kicks butt! McBain’s writing is pitch perfect – her main characters are gorgeous but flawed human beings you root for, her secondary characters are so three dimensional you end up thinking you know them in real life, and her historical sense of time and place clearly has a ton of research to back it up. Her plot is intricate and tight, with all subplots sewn up and just the right amount of conflict. She’s an amazing writer who, back in the bodice ripper days, wrote sassy heroines who were not too stupid to live (just a little naive) and heroes who were not complete alpha dicks like so many of the 1970s and 80s male leads. Her love scenes are plenty hot, even by today’s standards, and highly emotional.

So who on earth is Laurie McBain and where did she go?

Laurie McBain’s official author photo from the 1970s. She looks like she’s about to burn her bra but instead wrote some of the hottest selling romance novels of her day.

Most of the blog posts I’ve read use Laurie McBain’s official wikipedia page to indicate her oeuvre of seven historical romances, all of whom were New York Times Best-Sellers. In the “Paperbacks” article in the New York Times Book Review article from February 1977, Moonstruck Madness was outperforming Stephen King’s Carrie and Children of Dune by Frank Herbert.

The first mention of her in the context of her success occurs in a 1975 NYT article on the latest paperbacks. Under the top ten ranking (Devil’s Desire is under Jaws by Peter Benchley and Fear of Flying by Erica Jong to give you a sense of what other books were being published at the time), a gossipy on-dits column mentions Laurie as a newly arrived wunderkind from the San Bernardino Valley who spotted a notice in Writer’s Digest magazine that Avon publishers were accepting manuscripts from unagented writers. She had read Kathleen Woodiwiss’ The Flame and the Flower and couldn’t find anything else quite like it, so she decided to write her own book along those lines (“Ah, Romance! It Sets” 29).

The real genius was the Avon publishing house, still a powerhouse in the world of romance, who was trying something new for the time. “Avon, it seems, has been having extraordinary success with original romantic novels written by quiet homebodies, promoting them with the vigor usually reserved for big-name authors. Kathleen E. Woodiwiss and Rosemary Rogers, have each published two novels for an average of more than 1 million copies” (“Paperbacks: New and Noteworthy” 295). Avon’s visionary editor was Nancy Coffey, who was credited with setting the trend of publishing “epic historical romances” the size of doorstops from unknown authors (“Ah, Romance! It Sets” 29).

Dark Before the Rising Sun (Dominick Series #3) by Laurie McBain (Avon, 1982)

They were obviously clever to snag McBain who, according to the article, did months of research into the time period and sent her manuscript to Avon a year after seeing the Writer’s Digest blurb (“Ah, Romance! It Sets” 29). Six months after that she received the notice that the book was accepted for publication with only minor revisions and then received one copy of the 510,000 books Avon placed in bookstores all over the country. By 1977 what some male chauvinist pigs were calling “the hysterical romance” was an entire subgenre taking the best-seller list by storm. Its graphic sexual content often caused it to receive the moniker, “erotic historical romance” which sounds strangely familiar today (Walters 206). By 1980, the New York Times reported McBain had bought a beach front home in Carmel, California and was busy outlining her next novel (which was probably Dark Before the Rising Sun) (Walters BR7).

Wild Bells to the Wild Sky would follow (1983) and finally When the Splendor Falls (1985) with McBain showing her facility in a variety of historical time periods (British regency and the American Civil War were popular in the 1980s). But then her writing came to a screeching halt. Her Wikipedia page says that after only seven years of writing, her father’s death caused McBain to end her career and no more novels were published.

If this is the case (and I can’t find any evidence one way or the other, although there are still a few databases unmined), it’s incredibly sad, as she was a fresh, talented voice who stood out in her field. The good news is that many of her books have withstood the test of time (and are available used inexpensively) so you can still make sure you have McBain’s work on your bookshelf.

Take a walk back in time and enjoy the writing of Laurie McBain. It’s my hope she is living a happy life at that beach house in Carmel, and fully understands what a gift she gave romance readers with her excellent novels. Thanks, Laurie!

Works Cited

“Ah, Romance! It Sets Hearts Aflutter, Cash Registers Too.” Chicago Tribune 13 Nov. 1977: 29.    ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Web. 24 Apr. 2013.

“Article No. 9 – No Title.” New York Times 27 Feb. 1977, New York Times Book Review: 239. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Web. 24 Apr. 2013.

“Paperbacks: New and Noteworthy.” New York Times 27 Apr. 1975: 295. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Web. 24 Apr. 2013.

Walters, Ray. “Paperback Talk.” New York Times 3 Aug. 1980: BR7. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Web. 24 Apr. 2013.

– – -. “Paperback Talk.” New York Times 19 June 1977: 206. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Web. 24 Apr. 2013.

Building the Perfect Hero: A Study Using Devil in Winter by Lisa Kleypas

21 Nov

The perfect hero – Sebastian St. Vincent from Devil in Winter (Wallflowers #3) by Lisa Kleypas (Avon, February 2006)

I recently listened to one of my downloaded RWA Conference sessions, “Building the Perfect Hero” run by authors Jenna Kernan, Susan Meier, and Debra Mullins at the 2011 conference. I was wowed by their whirlwind tour of all the details necessary to build the ideal hero (I could barely keep up when typing notes and I am a fast typist!) and I couldn’t help but think, of all the romance books I’ve read who is a perfect hero?

Since I’ve read over a thousand romance books at this point, I sifted out only the five star books in my Goodreads account, keeping the four stars in mind. One five star book was hands down my favorite – Devil in Winter, book 3 of the Wallflowers series by Lisa Kleypas. A Victorian era historical romance, I’m not compelled to reread the series over and over (like I do with Kleypas’ Hathaway series – I have to read all five of that series two or three times a year) but it’s rare a two month period goes by without my treating myself to a hot bath and Devil in Winter. In my opinion, it’s the best romance novel. Period.

Kleypas’ Wallflower series centers on four young women – two American heiresses, one penniless British beauty and a stammering redhead with a good dowry – who have discovered they are not hot properties on England’s marriage mart. They form a close friendship, determined to help one another find a good marriage and hopefully happiness. In the book prior to Devil in Winter, the oldest American heiress has managed to marry the Earl of Westcliff, but not before being kidnapped by his former best friend, renowned rake Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent.

In the opening of Devil in Winter, Sebastian is in his comfortable London townhome nursing the bruises from the beating Westcliff gave him after kidnapping his fiancee. Sebastian needs to marry an heiress, and quickly, since his wastrel father has spent almost the entire family fortune and Sebastian is rather used to a certain level of comfort. When Evangeline Jenner, the quiet redhead wallflower, turns up on his doorstep, unaccompanied, he has no idea if she’s there to berate him for his miscalculation in snatching her friend Lillian away from her betrothed or if she’s there to proposition him.

The answer is the latter. Evangeline (Evie to her friends) has kept secret from the other wallflowers just how bad her situation is. Daughter of a well-born woman who died young and cockney gambler, she has lived her life with her mother’s family with only visits to her father, the famous Ivo Jenner, owner of a renowned gambling club. Jenner has provided Evie with a substantial dowry and would inherit his fortune upon her father’s death, but that’s not helping her prospects. While lovely, no one looks twice at her due to her shyness and stammer, both conditions which can be laid at the feet of her highly abusive relatives. After they announce she will have to marry her corpulent and cruel cousin so they can benefit from her fortune, Evie takes a gamble herself. If Lord St. Vincent was desperate enough to kidnap a woman who didn’t want him, wouldn’t he be willing to elope with one who did?

One of the possible mental images for Sebastian

Sebastian agrees, a little surprised that he, a notorious womanizer, has never noticed just how beautiful this awkward young woman is. He bundles her to Gretna Green and then returns her to Jenner’s so she can nurse her father, who is rapidly dying of consumption. The transformation he undergoes in the course of the novel as he falls in love with Evie is what makes him the ideal example for crafting the “perfect hero”.

Using the some of the structure of their workshop, I’m going to highlight why Sebastian is such a perfect hero, but let me first point out that when Kernan, Meier and Mullins use the term “perfect” they are talking about a man who can carry a romance novel on his broad, muscled shoulders (along with the heroine, naturally). He may be perfect for the heroine, but like a rough diamond, a certain amount of transformation is going to take place on his journey and that, after all, our desire to see just that is why we bought the book in the first place. Be warned, if you are unfamiliar with this classic romance, there are plenty of spoilers in this post!

Strong Description of Hero

The first part of crafting the perfect hero is giving the reader a strong description of him. While readers of the Wallflowers series have met Sebastian in the other novels, it’s important that we see him through Evie’s eyes. Sebastian is known for his physical beauty, his wit, and his womanizing, so we already have a sense of a clever but selfish man clearly willing to put his own needs before others.

She was amazed that she had managed to communicate so well with St. Vincent, who was more than a little intimidating, with his golden beauty and wintry ice-blue eyes, and a mouth made for kisses and lies. He looked like a fallen angel, replete with all the dangerous male beauty that Lucifer could devise. He was also selfish and unscrupulous, which had been proved by his attempt to kidnap his best friend’s fiancee. But it had occurred to Evie that such a man would be a fitting adversary for the Maybricks…

There was nothing kind, sensitive, or remotely boyish about him. He was a predator who undoubtedly liked to toy with his prey before killing it. Staring at the empty chair where he had sat, Evie thought of how St. Vincent had looked in the firelight. He was tall and lean, his body a perfect frame for elegantly simple clothes that provided a minimum of distraction from his tawny handsomeness. His hair, the antique gold of a medieval icon, was thick and slightly curly, with streaks of pale amber caught in the rich locks…His smile itself was enough to steal the breath from one’s body…the sensuous, cynical mouth, the flash of white teeth…Oh, St. Vincent was a dazzling man. And well he knew it.

What I liked so much about the points being made in the workshop was the idea that the description of the hero needs to be richer than just a police blotter sketch of what he looks like. Using the description to incorporate backstory, speculation, attraction, perceptions, unique detail and possible conflict are ways of maximizing a physical description into something much more powerful to the reader. Jenna Kernan’s accompanying handout from the session has some terrific examples of this rich description.

Cultural Heritage

A view of 1840s British society – life would have been largely characterized by being seen at the right events

In contemporary romance, we live in an age where so many heroes and heroines come from diverse cultural and religious traditions, aspects of their culture that clue us in to their character based on how they embrace or reject these pieces of themselves. For historical romance, usually our main characters are white and well-born, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t have to consider their cultural heritage.

For Devil in Winter, understanding Sebastian means understanding the early Victorian culture of the time period and how it would shape his view of himself as a dissipated nobleman and also affect his view of women. As the son of Duke (and a very old dukedom at that) he would have gone to the best schools and universities, yet be raised for a life of indolence since his father was controlling and uninterested in having his intelligent son help him.

Yet for all we understand that, however distasteful to the modern mind, this profound regular waste of money in a society marked by horrible poverty at its base was accepted by the majority of citizens as simply the natural order. Noblemen were seen as wastrels and the hardworking poor led shortened lives. But Kleypas doesn’t make poor financial ability one of Sebastian’s flaws, unlike many of his ilk. Instead we are given to understand that Sebastian, while enjoying comfort, is not totally of this world of the profligate, but at the same time he’s hardly blazing a progressive trail, either. After hearing of his father’s unbelievable waste, Evie expresses her horror.

“No wonder you’re poor,” Evie said, appalled by such waste. “I hope you’re not a spendthrift as well.”

He shook his head. ‘I have yet to be accused of unreasonable financial excess. I rarely gamble, and I don’t keep a mistress. Even so, I have my share of creditors nipping at my heels.”

“Have you ever considered going into a profession?”

He gave her a blank look. “What for?”

“To earn money.”

“Lord, no, child. Work would be an inconvenient distraction from my personal life.”

Women were also divided into categories usually women you could marry (suitable, dowered, relatively class equivalent) and women you had affairs with (often from the same class, frequently married or widowed).  With no loving female relatives, Sebastian’s view of women is highly skewed as his womanizing puts him largely in the company of the type of women he can sleep with, and virgins like our heroine are very, very different.

Understanding not only the current status of Sebastian’s history and character, but more importantly the type of heritage which has formed him (and to his credit, I can’t imagine the heir to any dukedom taking up a profession) gives the reader a foundation when we watch him change as a result of his falling for Evie.

Naming Your Hero

The actual St. Vincent coat of arms from the Earl of St. Vincent (no relation)

It was interesting to hear in the workshop how authors choose the names of their hero. Names are definitely meant to evoke a visceral response in the reader and taking into account historical uses and the sound of the name (soft consonants could mean a smooth operator, shorter names with hard consonants denote men of action) is crucial.

Sebastian is derived from a Greek word, sebastos, meaning “venerable” which is turn is derived from the Greek verb sebas meaning “awe or reverence”. More tellingly regarding this Sebastian is it is also related to the Greek verb sebomai which translates as “feel awe, scruple or be ashamed”. A big piece of Sebastian’s transformation in Devil in Winter stems from his realization of how innocent Evie is in stark contrast to the debauchery he’s participated in and for which he now feels ashamed. His past gets in the way of his future when he worries he’s literally not good enough for her and the idea that he could taint her, ruining the part of her he admires the most, if he sticks around.

I think the St. Vincent part of his name (since we don’t ever read of a different surname, I’m assuming St. Vincent is both his surname and his title) certainly conjures up two reactions. First, it poses a foil for the current state of Sebastian when the reader first gets to know him. While his appearance brings a fallen angel to mind for Evie, she knows that his looks (and name) actually are the opposite of his behavior to date. Second, St. Vincent as a name hints at Sebastian’s true nature. From the start, he begins taking care of Evie and recognizing the wonderful qualities in her. Like a true saint, Sebastian is almost martyred when he literally dives in front of a bullet for Evie. It’s a very appropriate label for him.

It sounds as if many writers use resources like The New American Dictionary of Baby Names, which, despite its title, actually covers names from all cultures, explaining their meaning, the centuries and decades the names were popular, and any important literary references to the name. If you are looking for online resources, the Baby Name Voyager lets you put in a first name and see its rise and decline in popularity, at least from the 1880s to the present.

Family Matters

Heroes (and heroines) always bring a lot of emotional baggage as a result of their family experience, whether it be good or bad. It shapes the person they are.

Everyone brings baggage to a relationship. Sometimes it’s a little overnight bag of quirks and at other times it’s several steamer trunks worth of crappy home life and a violent adulthood, but our family and background shapes us. Even when your hero’s family is not present, they are still in your novel, since their influence for good or ill impacts how your hero will behave and react to events and people.

On their hellish drive to Gretna Green, Evie and Sebastian talk a little about themselves and their backgrounds, both as a way to pass the time (like soldiers in foxholes bound together by discomfort) and to know each other better since they are marrying. When she asks him if he has any family, he tells her his mother died when he was an infant, leaving him with his four doting older sisters. But all that love drastically changed when he was a child and he lost three of his siblings to scarlet fever – as the male heir he was sent to safety. His eldest sister married but she died in labor as well, leaving him with no one but an emotionally distant, spendthrift father.

Evie was very still during the matter-of-fact recitation, forcing herself to remain relaxed against him. But inside she felt a stirring of pity for the little boy he had been. A mother and four doting sisters, all vanishing from his life. It would have been difficult for any adult to comprehend such loss, much less a child.

It’s Evie’s understanding of this pain in his background – she’s a keen observer and an astute reader of character throughout the books in which she appears – that allows her to push through the walls he desperately tries to erect toward the end of the book when he is overwhelmed with feeling for her. After almost losing her again, he decides to send her away, on the surface for her “safety” even though the threat is removed, but in reality because he can’t handle his emotions or even put a name on them.

…He broke off and stared at her incredulously. “Damn it, Evie, what is there for you to smile about?”

“Nothing,” she said, hastily tucking the sudden smile into the corners of her mouth. “It’s just…it sounds as if you are trying to say that you love me.”

The word seem to shock Sebastian. “No,” he said forcefully, his color rising. “I don’t. I can’t. That’s not what I’m talking about. I just need to find a way to -” He broke off and inhaled sharply as she came to him. “Evie, no.” A shiver ran through him as she reached up to the sides of his face, her fingers gentle on his skin. “It’s not what you think,” he said unsteadily. She heard the trace of fear in his voice. The fear that a small boy must have felt when every woman he loved disappeared from his life, swept away by a merciless fever. She didn’t know how to reassure him, or how to console his long-ago grief. Raising on her toes, she sought his mouth with her own. His hands came to her elbows, as if to push her away, but he couldn’t seem to make himself do it. His breath was rapid and hot as he turned his face away. Undeterred, she kissed his cheek, his jaw, his throat. A low curse escaped him. “Damn you,” he said desperately, “I’ve got to send you away.”

Of course, he doesn’t and in fact Evie reassures him that the unsettling new feelings surging through him are not only natural but that he will adjust to them in time. As with so many crisis moments in romance novels, fear motivates a character to make a drastic decision, in the hope that they’ll avoid pain. Half the time the character isn’t even fully thinking through the situation. In Sebastian’s case he thinks that by sending Evie away, he’ll both keep her safe and have time to get a handle on his feelings. I think he would have lasted a whole hour without her before ordering his carriage!

Moral of the story: always consider what the family of the hero has given him and, in most cases, how it relates to his internal conflict (which is a whole separate section below).

Flaws

I gather from the knowing murmurs of the crowd at the RWA workshop and from the statements of the authors themselves, editors will often ask for a character’s “fatal flaw”. It seems like writers don’t seem to prefer that term (and it does sound like a terminal disease diagnosis, so I can’t blame them) but understanding the flaws of a character, and more importantly comprehending how to use those flaws in the course of a story, is the mark of a good writer.

What is a flaw, then? A flaw is a trait unique to your character that can be perceived as negative. Habits, attitude, or even physical imperfections all constitute areas for possible flaws. These details help people relate to the character which makes the story compelling, and a compelling story keeps readers coming back. (And as an aside, the speaker mentioned that stories must possess four qualities: they must be interesting, compelling, credible and consistent. I agree. Usually when I get cranky at a book, one or more of these pieces are missing.)

According to our experts, flaws play a few key roles in a story. Let’s take Sebastian as an example, specifically the flaw that he seems to be by his very nature, selfish. This is even acknowledged by the other characters in the book, like when Evie’s friend Lillian comforts Evie that Sebastian will not die of his wounds. “‘He’s not going to die you know. It’s only nice, saintly people who suffer untimely deaths.’ She gave a quiet laugh. ‘Whereas selfish bastards like St. Vincent live to torment other people for decades.'” But Sebastian’s selfishness plays a key role, one that I don’t think could have been fulfilled by different kind of flaw.

  • The flaw needs to fit in the story. Considering the fact that this is a story of a selfish man transformed by love, it’s a great fit.
  • Make your character empathetic but not perfect. Selfishness is often a developmental stage and the argument can be made that his age, his financial circumstances, his lack of responsibility and the absence of anyone who loved him all gave Sebastian a rather extended adolescence. The sudden acquisition of a business and a lovely wife who depends on him to live up to her expectations are all bound to challenge his selfish flaw.
  • What purpose will the flaw serve? Sebastian’s selfishness forms a clever barometer of his level of transformation (see the transformation section below for more information on this key factor in a perfect hero). He relapses here and there, but for the most part is faced with one situation after another in which he must choose to put his own comfort and needs behind that of others, thus eroding his selfishness and beginning his transformation.

The key piece to remember about flaws is that a hero shouldn’t possess a flaw that doesn’t in some way contribute to the story. Like everything, valuable word space is not to be squandered and detailing a flaw is no exception.

Internal Conflict

The hero’s sudden realization that his core belief is actually incorrect is a lot like the coyote having an anvil fall on his head. It’s painful and often requires recovery time.

Meier, Kernan and Mullins make the point in their workshop that all internal conflict arises from what they term “an incorrect core belief” the character has regarding themselves. This was utterly fascinating to me, since I hadn’t really spent any serious brain time contemplating core beliefs as they relate to characters, but obviously it is a great way to go more in depth with characterization.

A core belief is a broad and general conclusion people form based on life experience. Basically everything people do is for the express purpose of avoiding pain and creating pleasure. In thinking about Sebastian’s previous history of womanizing, it’s obvious that, in taking into account his personal history of losing his mother and four sisters, his core belief regarding women is that 1) women are designed to give him attention and 2) women don’t stay. These key points would make it a logical behavioral choice to sleep with plenty of women who are admiring you for your beauty and the great sexual reputation you have and then leave them before they can leave you. Core beliefs rule behavior.

However, most people have an incorrect core belief and these are core beliefs where the conclusion is not based on fact but instead often relate to shame or lack of trust (in self, in others, in life in general, you name it). Certainly Sebastian’s internal conflict centers on his understanding of his nature, which he feels is that of a totally debauched nobleman unsuited for life with Evie. You could say his incorrect core belief is that he doesn’t feel he can be trusted with anything innocent because prolonged contact will sully that which he most admires. His belief is delivered in the novel under various guises and with his characteristic wit, as evidenced by his reaction when Evie stubbornly refuses to move to Sebastian’s nearby townhome and instead insists on staying in the gambling club to nurse her dying father around the clock.

“I was afraid you might say that,” he replied dryly. “It’s a mistake, you know. You have no idea of what you’ll be exposed to…the obscenities and lewd comments, the lecherous gazes, the groping and pinching…and that’s just at my house. Imagine what it would be like here.”

While in the midst of attempting to prove himself to Evie, Sebastian even ponders how his very past would corrupt her, preventing him from having any real relationship.

He was in a peculiar state, struggling to understand himself. He had always been so adept at handling women. Why then, had it become impossible to remain detached where Evie was concerned? He was separated from what he wanted most, not by real distance but by a past tainted with debauchery. To let himself have a relationship with her…no, it was impossible. His own iniquity would saturate her like dark ink spreading over pristine white parchment, until every inch of clean space was obliterated. She would become cynical, bitter…and as she came to know him, she would despise him.

The fact that this supposition is incorrect is even reinforced by other characters who see the truth. While awaiting her husband and Cam, Lillian tells Evie that Westcliff believes Sebastian to be in love with Evie, a fact which startles her and gives her hope. When she asks why the Earl thinks this, Lillian answers.

“…Westcliff sees an odd sort of logic in why you would finally be the one to win St. Vincent’s heart. He says a girl like you would appeal to…hmm, how did he put it?…I can’t remember the exact words, but it was something like…you would appeal to St. Vincent’s deepest, most secret fantasy.”

Evie felt her cheeks flushing while a skirmish of pain and hope took place in the tired confines of her chest. She tried to respond sardonically. “I should think his fantasy is to consort with as many women as possible.”

A grin crossed Lillian’s lips. “Dear, that is not St. Vincent’s fantasy, it’s his reality. And you’re probably the first sweet, decent girl he’s ever had anything to do with.”

Every editor wants to see characters grow, and having them correct an incorrect core belief is the easiest way to satisfy this need in a story. It doesn’t happen overnight, but instead it’s a gradual change with a satisfying ending. It begins with awareness “What if I’m wrong?”  The hero starts to watch for times when he’s wrong, begins experimenting with the veracity of his belief, and then finally undergoes the realization that he’s wrong. By using the idea of correcting the incorrect core belief, we can see how internal conflict leads right into breaking character or “the big transformation.”

Breaking Character or the Big Transformation

A phoenix rising from the ashes is a decent metaphor for a character’s transformation.

Our workshop authors tell us that “Donald Maass calls this the BIG TRANSFORMATION, not just character growth but the moment when the character is changed forever and will never be able to go back to who and what they were before. He calls this: ‘deep-down, soul-shaking, irreversible transformation for good and always.'” The easiest way to demonstrate this change is to show the hero putting someone else’s needs above his own. Despite the constant reminder, usually from Sebastian himself, that he is self-centered, evidence begins to pile up throughout the novel to the contrary.

The early flashes of kindness are the first clue that there is more to Sebastian than merely being a selfish womanizer and Evie sees this when she is taking stock of her fiancee’s character on the hellish ride to Gretna Green.

As the journey continued in a companionable vein, Evie was aware of a contradictory mixture of feelings toward her husband. Although he possessed a large measure of charm, she found little in him that was worthy of respect. It was obvious that he had a keen mind, but it was employed for no good purpose. Furthermore, the knowledge that he had kidnapped Lillian and betrayed his own best friend in the bargain, made it clear he was not to be trusted. However…he was capable of an occasional cavalier kindness that she appreciated.

After they arrive back in London as a married couple, they proceed straight to Jenner’s so Evie can see her father. Sebastian almost instantly begins to evince a strong interest in the gambling club he and Evie are about to inherit. For a man of his dubious personal background, a gambling club is all-too-familiar territory and he has a strong knowledge base. But having declared to Evie his abhorrence at anything resembling work, she’s surprised at his demeanor.

“I’m going to go over every inch of this place. I’m going to know all it’s secrets.”

Taken aback by the statement, Evie gave him a perplexed glance. She realized that subtle changes had taken place in him from the moment they had entered the club…she was at a loss to account for the strange reaction. His customary languid manner had been replaced by a new alertness, as if he were absorbing the restless energy of the club’s atmosphere.

The only thing that Sebastian is more interested in than the club is Evie, who is still refusing to sleep with him out of self-preservation. His obsession with Evie rapidly becomes apparent to others. Cam Rohan (future hero of the first novel in the Hathaway series, Mine Till Midnight) works in the club, having been friends with Evie since she was a child. Sebastian is jealous of their comfortable relationship and warns Cam to stay away from his wife, a wife he has said he has little interest in, despite evidence to the contrary. Cam observes:

There it was – a flash of warning in St. Vincent’s ice-blue eyes that revealed a depth of feeling he would not admit to. Cam had never seen anything like the mute longing that St. Vincent felt for his own wife. No one could fail to observe that whenever Evie entered the room, St. Vincent practically vibrated like a tuning fork.

His obsession with Evie reaches a crescendo when, after some passionate kissing, Sebastian asks her why she won’t sleep with him when it’s obvious she desires him. She lets him know that she has too much self-respect to become one of a stable of women who he sleeps with.

“All right,” Sebastian said huskily. “I agree to your terms. I’ll be…monogamous.” He seemed to have a bit of difficulty with the last word, as if he were trying to speak a foreign language.

“I don’t believe you.”

“Good God, Evie! Do you know how many women have tried to obtain such a promise from me? And now, the first time I’m willing to take a stab at fidelity, you throw it back in my face. I admit that I’ve had a prolific history with women -”

“Promiscuous,” Evie corrected.

He gave an impatient snort. “Promiscuous, debauched – whatever you want to call it. I’ve had a hell of a good time, and I’ll be damned if I say I’m sorry for it. I’ve never bedded an unwilling woman. Nor, to my knowledge, did I leave anyone unsatisfied.”

“I don’t blame you for your past…or, at least…I’m not trying to punish you for it.” Ignoring his skeptical snort, she continued, “But it doesn’t make you an especially good candidate for fidelity, does it?”

His tone was surly as he replied. “What do you want of me? An apology for being a man? A vow of celibacy until you’ve decided that I’m worthy of your favors?”

Struck by the question, Evie stared at him.

Women had always come far too easily to Sebastian. If she made him wait for her, would he lose interest? Or was it just possible that they might come to know each other, understand each other, in an entirely new way? She longed to find out if he could come to value her in ways beyond the physical. She wanted the chance to be something more than a mere bed partner to him.

“Sebastian…” she asked carefully, “have you ever made a sacrifice for a woman?”

He looked like sullen angel as he turned to face her, leaning his broad shoulders against the wall, one knee slightly bent. “What kind of sacrifice?”

That drew a wry glance from her. “Any kind at all.”

“No.”

“What is the longest period of time you’ve ever gone without…without…” She floundered for an acceptable phrase. “…making love?”

“I never call it that,” he said. “Love has nothing to do with it.”

“How long?” she persisted.

“A month, perhaps.”

She though for a moment. “Then…if you would forswear intercourse with all women for six months…I would sleep with you afterward.”

Six months?” Sebastian’s eyes widened, and he threw her a scornful glance. “Sweetheart, what give you the idea that you’re worth a half-year of celibacy?”

“I may not be,” Evie said. “You’re the only one who can answer that.”

It was obvious that Sebastian would have loved to have informed her that she wasn’t worth waiting for. However, as his gaze traveled over her from head to toe, Evie saw the unmistakeable glow of lust in his eyes. He wanted her badly.

“It’s impossible,” he snapped.

“Why?”

“Because I’m Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent. I can’t be celibate. Everyone knows that.”

He was so arrogant, and so indignant, that Evie suddenly had to gnaw on the insides of her lips to keep from laughing. She struggled to master her amusement, and finally managed to say calmly, “Surely it wouldn’t harm you to try.”

“Oh, yes it would!” His jaw hardened as he labored to explain. “You’re too inexperienced to understand, but…some men are possessed of a far greater sex drive than others. I happen to be one of them. I can’t go for long periods of time without -” He broke off impatiently when he saw her expression. “Damn it, Evie, it’s unhealthy for a man to not release his seed regularly.”

“Three months,” she said, “and that’s my final offer.”

“No!”

“Then go find another woman,” she said flatly.

“I want you. Only you. The devil knows why.”

But in the end he agrees. So astonishing is this promise that when Evie tries to convince her friend Annabelle (the heroine of the first Wallflowers novel) how Sebastian is changing by trying to be celibate, Annabelle almost has a heart attack and exclaims, “Good God. I don’t believe St. Vincent and the word ‘celibacy’ have ever been mentioned in the same sentence before.”

Evie’s idea works amazingly well, with both of them spending time together refurbishing and running the club. He continues to kiss her (and in some very provocative places) but they don’t have sex. After Sebastian takes a bullet for Evie while protecting her from a deranged assailant, he realizes that he in all likelihood won’t survive the infection that’s bound to set in. Lord Westcliff, his former best friend, had come to see that Evie was all right and to offer to take her home to live with him, but is able to see just from Sebastian’s demeanor that he has strong feelings for Evie. Returning to help combat the fever, Westcliff has the unique experience of Sebastian begging for protection for Evie, and apologizing to Westcliff for kidnapping Lillian. This uncharacteristic behavior prompts the following reflection from the Earl’s perspective.

To receive an apology from a man who had never expressed a single regret about anything, and then to hear him practically beg for his wife’s protection, led to an inescapable conclusion. St. Vincent had, against all odds, learned to care more for someone else than he did for himself.

In caring for Sebastian as he thankfully recovers from his infection, Evie begins to provoke both admiration and fear in Sebastian. He is moved by her tenderness and desires her presence all the time but finds himself overwhelmed by the intensity of his feelings for her.

He hadn’t comprehended her strength before now. Even when he had seen the loving care she had given her father, he hadn’t guessed what it would be like to rely on her, to need her. But nothing repelled her, nothing was too much to ask. She was his support, his shield…and at the same time she undermined him with a tender affection that he had begun to crave even as he shrank from it.

Even after Sebastian is up and about, a second attack on Evie causes him to feel that it’s too risky for him to love her. Luckily it’s transparent to her what is happening and she’s accumulated enough confidence at this point to speak her mind and gently demand what she needs from her scared husband.

“You’re not trying to protect me. You’re trying to protect yourself.” She hugged herself to him tightly. “But you can force yourself to take the risk of loving someone, can’t you?”

“No,” he whispered.

“Yes. You must.” Evie closed her eyes and pressed her face against his. “Because I love you, Sebastian…and I need you to love me back. And not in h-half measures.”

She heard his breath hiss through his teeth. His hands came to her shoulders, then snatched back. “You’ll have to let me set my own limits, or -”

Evie reached his mouth and kissed him slowly, deliberately until he succumbed with a groan, his arms clamping around her. He answered her kiss desperately, until every part of her had been set alight with tender fire. He took his mouth from hers, gasping savagely. “Half measure. My God. I love you so much that I’m drowning in it. I can’t defend against it. I don’t know who I am anymore. All I know is that if I give in to it entirely -” He tried to control the anarchy of his breath. “You mean too much to me,” he said raggedly.

In the end, the real resolution of Sebastian’s big transformation comes when he finally understands that Evie knows him and loves him for himself, understanding every sordid thing he’s done in the past, and she is still the same wonderful, innocent person he first fell in love with, unchanged by this intimate knowledge..

“Don’t be an idiot,” Sebastian interrupted roughly. “Your stammer would never bother me. And I love your freckles. I love -” His voice cracked. He clutched her tightly. “Hell,” he muttered. And then, after a moment, with bitter vehemence, “I wish I were anyone other than me.”

“Why?” she asked, her voice muffled.

“Why? My past is a cesspool, Evie.”

“That’s hardly news.”

“I can’t ever atone for the things I’ve done. Christ, I wish I had it to do over again! I would try to be a better man for you. I would -”

“You don’t have to be anything other than what you are.” Lifting her head, Evie stared at him through the radiant shimmer of her tears. “Isn’t that what you told me earlier? If you can love me without conditions, Sebastian, can’t I love you the same way? I know who you are. I think we know each other better than we know ourselves. Don’t you dare send me away, you c-coward. Who else would love my freckles? Who else would care that my feet were cold? Who else would ravish me in the billiards room?”

Slowly his resistance ebbed. She felt the change in his body, the relaxing of tension, his shoulders curving around her as if he could draw her into himself. Murmuring her name, he brought her hand to his face and nuzzled ardently into her palm, his lips brushing the warm circlet of her gold wedding band. “My love is upon you,” he whispered..and she knew then that she had won.

You can see from these excerpts how Kleypas manages to do it all. She shows the minimization of Sebastian’s flaw of selfishness, resolves his internal conflict by correcting his incorrect core belief that he would somehow corrupt Evie and alter her personality, while simultaneously completing the transformation he began in the first chapter. It’s a masterful piece of writing and characterization. Jenna Kernan also has a great handout on some of the key features of this big transformation (along with other terrific examples of transformation) that would be of great use to anyone working on their own perfect hero.

Since the tagline of Tori Macallister is “because in love we discover our best self” I’m naturally a huge fan of the big transformation. I firmly believe that strong, true, unselfish love for another person is the crucible that can strip away our worst qualities and transform us into a better person. Lisa Kleypas, by creating the immortal character of Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent, gives us literally a textbook example of creating a perfect hero. As a final note, I thought I’d leave you with a list of the other perfect (or damn close to it by these criteria) heroes I can read over and over again.

Perfect Heroes I Never, Ever Tire Of:

  1. Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent, from Devil in Winter (Wallflowers #3) by Lisa Kleypas
  2. Cam Rohan, from Mine Till Midnight (Hathaways #1) by Lisa Kleypas
  3. Leo Hathaway, from Married by Morning (Hathaways #4) by Lisa Kleypas
  4. Bones, from Night Huntress series by Jeaniene Frost
  5. Simon Cynster, from The Perfect Lover (Cynster #10) by Stephanie Laurens
  6. Alasdair “Lucifer” Cynster, from All About Love (Cynster #6) by Stephanie Laurens
  7. Sylvester “Devil” Cynster, from Devil’s Bride (Cynster #1) by Stephanie Laurens
  8. Cameron Mackenzie, from The Many Sins of Lord Cameron (Highland Pleasures #3) by Jennifer Ashley
  9. Ian Mackenzie, from The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie (Highland Pleasures #1) by Jennifer Ashley
  10. Lucas Hunter, from Slave to Sensation (Psy-Changeling #1) by Nalini Singh
  11. Nicholas St. John, from Ten Ways to Be Adored When Landing a Lord (Love by the Numbers #2) by Sarah Maclean
  12. Douglas Kowalski, from Midnight Angel (Midnight #3) by Lisa Marie Rice
  13. Dimitri Belikov, from Vampire Academy series by Richelle Mead

Enjoy your perfect hero, whoever he is, whether reading about him or creating him from the ground up. Just like the heroine who believes in him, he’s worth all the hard work to see him become a better, wiser person in love.

Kathryne Kennedy’s Enchanting the Lady Not Worth the Updated Cover

1 Aug

I remember having a conversation with my mother years ago about how we hate it when publishers reissue covers. Most readers are very visual when remembering books they’ve read, picturing a distinct cover. There is nothing more crushing than picking up what you think is the latest Nora Roberts novel, only to get it home and realize after 20 pages that you read it years ago.

Updating covers are a great idea, however, when the original covers are either extremely dated (think Fabio-esque bodice ripper cover) or just plain suck (we all remember my rant about the great Midnight series from Lisa Marie Rice and how I think those covers devalue a classic romantic suspense trilogy), but publishers need to be careful the public doesn’t think you’re either a) snowing them into buying books they’ve already read or b) trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

The Fire Lord’s Lover (#1 The Elven Lords series, Dominic and Cassandra’s story) by Kathryne Kennedy (Sourcebooks, 2010)

When I saw that Sourcebooks, a company who states as part of their mission a firm commitment to promoting each author in their stable, had a “new” Kathryne Kennedy book, I was pretty psyched. After all, her fantasy/alternate history romance, The Fire Lord’s Lover, was hands down the best fantasy romance novel I read last year. I adored Dominic, the half-breed bastard son of the evil Elven Lord, who had learned to control his emotions out of necessity. His father had tortured and killed anyone who Dominic ever cared for, so when he marries Lady Cassandra, a human with no apparent Elven traits, the passion between them is a shock for them both. Particularly for Cassandra as her marriage of convenience is actually the excuse for a suicide mission for the Rebellion since she is a trained assassin bent on killing the Elven Lord. Great couple, awesome world building, lots of unexpected twists, happiness as a reader ensues.

Except that the series didn’t really keep up its momentum for me. The two subsequent books focus on other couples supporting the rebellion and possessing specialized traits that enable them to fight the evil Elven Lords. But while I was being told that Lady Cecily and her champion Giles were falling for each other in the second book, The Lady of the Storm, I never really saw it (although I liked them both). The world building still held me, so I decided to keep plugging away and bought the third book, The Lord of Illusion, direct from Sourcebooks.

The Lady of the Storm (#2 Elven Lords series – Cecily and Giles story) by Kathryne Kennedy (Sourcebooks, August 1, 2011)

At which point I became uber-pissed and the top of my head flew off. This third book in the series takes place 50 years after The Fire Lord’s Lover, which is fine, particularly since everybody seems long-lived, but there’s a big, pink elephant in the room and it’s going rogue. You see, there are seven Elven Lords to defeat and with three books, I’ve only read about three of them. Not a huge problem, except we meet all the other couples who have stolen the magical scepters, undermining the Elven despots, and hear peripherally about their adventures, but I’m not getting the whole story here. And then Kennedy wraps the series up and solves the problems.

Um, what?! Did Sourcebooks renege on the other books so Kennedy put out the last one? I can’t imagine after reading how the whole world solves its problems we’re going to have other books in the series, and I guess since neither of the subsequent two were anywhere near as good as the first one that’s okay, but I’m not thrilled with having everything tied up with a bow for me. People, don’t introduce a zillion characters when I’m never going to get their stories. So not okay.

So I was disgruntled (to say the least) about the Elven Lords series not living up to the potential of the first book in the series (which honestly is so good that I reread it every couple of months). This made for ripe fodder when I saw Sourcebooks was reissuing Kennedy’s Relics of Merlin series and that the first book, originally published in 2008, Enchanting the Lady, was coming out in August.

The Lord of Illusion (#3 Elven Lords series – Camille and Drystan’s story) by Kathryne Kennedy (Sourcebooks, February 7, 2012)

But I’ve stopped hoping that any of Kennedy’s books will live up to my favorite. Enchanting the Lady has a very cool premise. Fulfilling a gaslight craze (maybe the reason Sourcebooks reissued it?), the book is set in an England in which magic is an accepted fact of the aristocracy, to the point that you can’t inherit an estate without it. The only nobles looked down upon are the class of baronet since they are shapeshifters who can see through magic and are self-appointed protectors of the crown.

Felicity Seymour is used to being invisible. Her looks aren’t anything worthy of notice, she’s an orphan set to inherit a big estate, but the only problem is she can’t. She didn’t inherit any magic from her parents so she has no dowry to attract a husband. After the public humiliation of her magical failure in front of the court to so much as light a candle, she knows she’ll have to rely on the largesse of her aunt and uncle and obnoxious cousin.

Terence Blackwell, baronet and werelion is astonished that no one seems to notice the stunningly beautiful Lady Felicity when she comes for her magic test in front of the Prince of Wales. The only problem is that she smells like the dangerous relic magic that took his brother’s life and that Terence is committed to hunting down. The relics place the crown in danger and he’s sworn to give his life to finding them. When the opportunity presents itself to court Felicity and discover if she’s a traitor, he’s all too willing to do it. What starts off as a lie rapidly becomes the truth as he falls for her, but will her fragile emotions and new self-confidence withstand the knowledge of his betrayal?

Enchanting the Lady (the original 2008 cover)

This book should have been amazing – alternate history/gaslight with a vibrant England populated with magic users and shapeshifters combined with the mores and clothes we love about historical romance. The plot device of dangerous relics left over from the time of Merlin ties in a very English story idea, but the book sadly suffers from the same complaint as the second and third book in the Elven Lords series. Two great characters but there is a lot of declaring feelings without a greater demonstration of why those two people are falling for each other. I loved Terence and Felicity both (particularly Terence when he was giving into his lion instincts of crowding and marking Felicity) but why are they into each other again? It seems like mostly chemistry – maybe if she showed a little more chutzpah with her obviously evil and magic sucking relatives, I might have seen what Terence clearly saw in her.

So here’s the thing. How I can I recommend a full price reissue of this book with the snazzy new cover from Sourcebooks, when you can buy the exact same book with a decent cover on it for a pittance used on Amazon? It’s a fun read, but not one good enough to exhort you to buy full price. This is a library check out or used book purchase for sure. Now The Fire Lord’s Lover, on the other hand, is totally worth a full price purchase and it’s got used paperbacks aplenty available! This book is a reasonable paranormal romance but failed at enchanting this lady.

So You Want a Good Steampunk Romance?: Try the Best – The Iron Seas Series By Meljean Brook

13 Jun

The Iron Duke (Iron Seas #1) by Meljean Brook (Berkley Sensation, October 5, 2010)

A few years ago, I don’t think I was alone in being rather clueless about the subgenre of steampunk. There were a few young adult books I knew of that fell into this category, but I had pigeonholed them in my mind as being for the type of person who liked cosplay and that’s not really my scene. I made a point of collecting a few anthologies that had this subgenre as their focus, but didn’t pay more attention than that.

Big mistake. Upon further investigation, I discovered I love steampunk.

My first revelation was when I read Cassandra Clare‘s Clockwork Angel (the prequel to the Mortal Instruments series). Excuse me? Automatons? Clockworks? Corsets? Conflicted female gender roles? Sign. Me. Up.

Wanting to be reflective in the hope that it will clue me into other readers who might enjoy this subgenre, I think the following observations are in order regarding the reader group I have observed who really jones for these books:

  1. Steampunk readers seem to be made up of adventurous readers, usually ones who enjoy historical fiction, alternate history, science fiction, fantasy, historical romance, or all of the above. They aren’t the readers who bog down in one genre and stay there.
  2. Steampunk readers (at least in my library) are largely female and seem to revel in the many strong female characters.
  3. At the same time, those readers like the fact that there are some Victorian mores and REALLY enjoy the descriptions of the clothes and gadgets. (“Steampunk is…the love child of Hot Topic and a BBC costume drama.” – Gail Carriger, author of the steampunk The Parasol Protectorate series.)

When I looked at all these elements, it occurred to me that each of these points describe a lot of romance readers as well, so it makes sense that there would be some rather…well….adult romance books with a steampunk focus. Where the heck were they in 2009? *taps foot impatiently*

Enter Meljean Brook and The Iron Duke in 2010. As the rippling abs of the cover model indicate, this book has a racy side (a very racy side). That said, it is a fascinating and well-written steampunk novel with highly developed characters and a carefully constructed alternate history.

I will confess to being a little confused for the first 50 pages or so (my “give it 80 pages” rule usually pulls me through most books). Brook gives a terrific explanation of the alternate history she’s developed on her website but I’ve developed a nutshell version that might help other readers struggling as I did for that first bit of the book.

Wild & Steamy (an anthology containing Iron Seas #0.4 “The Blushing Bounder” – Constable Newberry’s story) by Meljean Brook, et. al. (2011)

Stretch back to your World Civilization class in high school and you’ll remember the early relationship between Kublai Khan and western Europe, specifically how the Polo family traipsed East and established some valuable trade routes (okay, much of my memory comes from the 1982 miniseries Marco Polo and the subsequently released novel based on the screenplay. Whatever.) In Brook’s books, rather than maintain a political strategy of isolationism (as China did for some time), the “Horde” uses their advanced Chinese technology to develop machines which roll into Europe a couple hundred years post-Polo, and conquer it, enslaving its citizens.

The wealthy flee to the Americas (and are referred to derisively as “Bounders” by the people who lived under the Horde), a haven of safety since the Horde has never developed a navy, but the remaining Europeans lived in terror. Part of the Horde’s strategy was to enslave and alter the people under them with technology. Citizens were infected with nanotechnology (“bugs”) that can control their behavior if needed, and some laborers actually have tools grafted to their arms a la Star Trek’s Borg (think coal miners with drills for arms). Much of the European continent and Africa which was used by the Horde solely for its natural resources had a separate type of infection, creating thousands of zombies that run amuck through those areas keeping people away.

Even the most intimate details fall under Horde control – the working classes are forbidden to marry and the entire country is subject to periodic “Frenzies” where the Horde activates the nanotechnology to cause citizens to literally fall on one another in a massive heat, regardless of age, sexual orientation, or existing genetic relationship. The babies produced from this event are usually given to the Creche, a state-run orphanage, with those children (if they are lucky) given over to guilds where they receive specialized training and financial sponsorship to receive the physical enhancement they need to survive.

England manages to throw off the Horde’s control with the help of pirate Rhys Trahaearn, who destroys the tower that sends forth the signals which control the nanotechnology in each citizen, thus freeing the population. A grateful nation makes him the Duke of Anglesley, but he is shrouded in mystery and simultaneously loved and feared, becoming known simply as the Iron Duke to the people.

And this is where The Iron Duke begins. Enter our heroine, Detective Inspector Mina Wentworth, daughter of a countess who works (as many women do) but who constantly faces prejudice wherever she goes. Mina is the result of a particularly calculated “frenzy” as her mother was invited, along with the rest of British aristocracy, to a Horde-hosted ball when the frenzy instinct was activated. While her mother claims to remember nothing, Mina’s black hair and Eurasian features remind everyone she encounters of their time under Horde control, subjecting her to a great deal of verbal and physical abuse.

Burning Up (containing the novella “Here There Be Monsters” – #0.5 in the Iron Seas series) by Meljean Brook, et. al. (Berkley, August 2010)

But Mina is tough (and she has a fabulous sidekick, Constable Newberry, who acts as a bodyguard as well as fellow investigator) and when she is dispatched to investigate a dead body found at the Iron Duke’s London home, she attempts to simply work the case. However, the instant attraction between them complicates an already puzzling investigation. The body has been frozen and dropped from an airship as some kind of message and together, Mina and the Duke need to figure out what really is going on, little realizing the physical and emotional countries this journey will take them through.

I loved this book not just as a steampunk novel but as a true romance novel. The relationship, while having a lot of steamy attraction, develops naturally and deals honestly with the barriers in its way. The emotional damage people suffer in the wake of the Horde’s rule are ever present and add an additional dimension to forming an intimate relationship.

And, hello, these are intimate! The sex scenes are “burst into flame in your hands” hot. The descriptive language is a little more ribald that many traditional historical romance readers would probably expect, but it seems right for both a pirate and for a country that has lived through its recent history. This book was so outstanding that I immediately ordered a used print copy in addition to my ebook copy so I can reread it at will.

There are a couple fabulous prequel novellas. In chronological order, the first is “The Blushing Bounder” (#0.4 in the Iron Seas series) found in the Wild & Steamy anthology. This is Constable Edward Newberry’s story (the red-headed giant who is Inspector Mina Wentworth’s faithful assistant and protector), specifically the tale of his marriage to another bounder from Manhattan City who is dying of consumption.

Edward knows that if Temperance agrees to the nanotechnology infection that Mina’s physician father is happy to provide, she will live, but bounder preconceptions (on the part of both of them) as well as some existing tension in their marriage prevent her from doing so. Edward won’t become infected unless Temperance does, so they both seemed doomed to suffer until Temperance witnesses a murder from her bedroom window and forces beyond their ontrol are set in motion.

You don’t need to read this novella prior to The Iron Duke (and, in fact, I’d encourage you to read it afterward) but there is another prequel which is a fabulous introduction to Meljean Brook’s world and it is also a wonderful stand-alone romance which gives you a sense of her excellent writing. “Here There Be Monsters” (#0.5 in the Iron Seas series) is published in the anthology Burning Up (which also has a Psy-Changeling novella if you’re a Nalini Singh fan like I am).

This novella is just as well-written as The Iron Duke and has several tie-ins, both in characters and in overarching plot, and you do not to need to read any previous book or novella to understand it. In a way it feels like a lighter book, simply because the two love interests, Captain Eben Machen (known as “Mad Machen”) and Ivy Blacksmith, are less tortured than Mina and Rhys (but still have their own set of obstacles).

Ivy Blacksmith is a genius with any machinery and is happy with her lot until a strange group of men sneak into her rooming house, utilizing a mysterious device which freezes all the inhabitants, stealing a few of them out of their beds, and reminding Ivy all too well of life under Horde rule. Terrified that she might be next, she runs to the inn where the pirate Mad Machen and his friends are boarding prior to shipping out.

Eben Machen has already fallen for the red-haired pixie blacksmith who so patiently helped his friend Barker weather the transition to his prosthesis, so when she comes to them, terrified and tentatively offering herself in exchange for passage on his ship, he accepts not only to slake his lust but to keep her safe from others. But his airship captain friend, Yasmeen, has a different idea of what is good for Ivy and Eben, and helps Ivy escape Machen’s room. He searches for her for two long years until the Iron Duke and the Blacksmith come up with a cunning plan to protect the Welsh coast and they need a talented machinist to execute it.

Ivy can’t believe her eyes when Yasmeen and Mad Machen show up in the isolated Norwegian town in which she’s made a home. Mad Machen insists she share his bed according to their original agreement but she pays him each night to not touch her. The problem is, not only is she’s running out of coins but laying next to his hard body and feeling his gentle hands holding her while she sleeps awakens a host of feelings that she might want to act upon. How can she reconcile the tales of this wild pirate to the man she is beginning to see with new eyes?

Heart of Steel (Iron Seas #2 – Yasmeen and Archimedes story) by Meljean Brook (Berkley, November 1, 2011)

These two novellas definitely helped me be patient while awaiting the next full-length novel in Iron Seas series, but I was still chomping at the bit when Heart of Steel came out on November 1, 2011.

Yasmeen, airship Captain of the Lady Corsair, is not only one of the best airship captains out there but beautiful as well. She strikes terror into anyone who crosses her and is a true mercenary, willing to hire herself out for gold and not ask a lot of questions, but she has a code of honor to which she strongly adheres.

Which is why she is checking in on adventure writer, Archimedes Fox’s sister. Yasmeen feels a little guilty that she had to toss the handsome Archimedes overboard into zombie territory (in The Iron Duke) but she doesn’t feel that bad about keeping the priceless DaVinci sketch he brought on board – after all, no one pulls a gun on Yasmeen and tells her what to do with her ship.

But Archimedes is a like a cat with nine lives and turns back up looking for Yasmeen and his sketch, with Horde assassins close on his heels. Yasmeen doesn’t appreciate the trouble but she is interested in the wild passion that flares between them. The problem is Archimedes – he doesn’t just want sex, he wants her heart and her mind, and those are two items Yasmeen refuses to give to any man.

Yasmeen has always been an intriguing and compelling character with a wealth of secrets. The sexual tension between her and Archimedes is evident in the first book, so I was bouncing with excitement when I read this book was to be about them. Meljean Brook does not disappoint, fleshing out Yasmeen in all her glory and painting Archimedes as the sexy, playful beast he is. Where Rhys and Mina are all intense responsibility to others, Yasmeen and Archimedes have a wicked, devil-may-care side they share and it’s a joy to see their banter. The way Archimedes cajoles Yasmeen into admitting her feelings for him pulls on your heartstrings and its great to see Brook’s signature relationship – one of equals coming together and loving each other exactly as they are – in play.

Mina Wentworth and the Invisible City (Iron Seas #1.5) by Meljean Brook (Penguin, August 7, 2012)

After rereading these novels and novellas for the last couple years, it’s wonderful to finally anticipate a few new additions to the series! Mina Wentworth and the Invisible City is an enovella coming out on August 7, 2012 (although purportedly also in the reprinted paperback edition of The Iron Duke, so you could get it that way, too).

Taking place eight months after their marriage, this novella is categorized as an “epilogue novella” by Meljean Brook, and centers on a dead bounder. Mina is the primary investigator and becomes deeply concerned when the danger surrounding the death points back to her new husband. I cannot believe I have to wait for August for this! It makes me want to get a third copy of The Iron Duke in the mass market paperback so I can read it now. Patience. *deep breath* Patience.

Riveted (Iron Seas #3) by Meljean Brook (Berkley, September 4, 2012)

Now we have the pleasure of anticipating the third book in the series, which will be published on September 4th. Riveted deals with two characters with whom we have not been previously introduced and seems to also plan on broadening our horizons on the world of the Iron Seas.

Iceland has been abandoned due to a massive volcanic eruption and everyone thinks it was a natural phenomenon, but the truth has a more mechanical origin. Annika and her sister Kalla were part of a community of women who guarded the secret, but after Annika accidentally endangered the secret, her sister Kalla took the blame and was exiled. Annika serves aboard an airship, searching for Kalla in the hope they can one day return home.

David Kentewess chases volcanos for a living and is focused on ferreting out the truth of what happened in Iceland – a process that is bound to involve getting the lovely Annika to reveal her secrets. The process places them both in danger, however, abandoned on a glacier with a madmen in pursuit. Now they must get away while dealing with the attraction between them, no easy feat in the world of the Iron Seas.

I read the excerpt posted on Meljean’s website and it was fantastic! I’m so happy to be getting more of a New World perspective (previously only glimpsed briefly in Constable Newberry’s “The Blushing Bounder” novella) and this one promised to be much better fleshed out.

It’s rare to find an author who is as talented at complex world-building as she is in building an honest to God romance between two people, but Meljean Brook is the real deal. Her blog is full of information and she seems to have a terrific sense of humor in her entries, so I would strongly recommend adding her to your RSS reader if you enjoy following authors. Remember that while other authors (like Cindy Spencer Pape who I enthusiastically reviewed the other week) are more gaslight because of their incorporation of magic in their world, Brook is classic steampunk, and can be counted on to give any reader an excellent introduction to the genre. Be warned, though. You might find yourself addicted to it!

Interested in exploring steampunk further? Check out the GoodReads list of “Best Steampunk Books” list for a place to start. The Steamed! blog is also a great source of information for both readers and writers and has innumerable links to reading lists and writing tips. Enjoy your foray into this wonderful genre!

**Additional Notes and Updates:

Take a look at the review of Brook’s third book in the series, Riveted, as well as the fantastic follow up to Heart of Steel, the novella, Tethered, featuring the further adventures of Yasmeen and Archimedes. For a hint of Yasmeen’s airship, the novella in Fire & Frost cannot be beat either. Enjoy!!**

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