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REVIEW: His at Night by Sherry Thomas

His at Night by Sherry ThomasDear Ms. Thomas,

A new Sherry Thomas book is an occasion for rejoicing; I’ve given A grades to each of your three previous books. So I had high hopes for His at Night, hopes that were stoked further by the blurb on your website. A hero playing dumb (shades of  The Scarlet Pimpernel)? A desperate heroine and a marriage of convenience? Sign me up!  The book got off to a  slightly rocky start for me, though. More on that in a minute.

Lord Vere meets Elissande Edgerton when the houseparty he’s attending is overrun by a horde of rats. The estate of Elissande’s uncle is nearby the rat-plagued one, and so the hostess asks if Elissande can accommodate her guests while the rodent problem is being resolved.

Elissande isn’t quite sure what to do. Her uncle is away from home, and she’s alone with her frail, opium-addicted aunt. She knows her uncle, who is very private and secretive, would never allow such an invasion of his home, and she is afraid of his wrath. But as she  begins to realize that houseguests – titled, wealthy, important houseguests – just might be the key to escaping her uncle’s clutches (and taking her aunt with her), she warms to the idea. She sets her sights on Lord Vere right away; he’s both the most handsome of the newly arrived guests and a marquess.

Unfortunately, Elissande discovers at dinner that night that Vere is also thick as a brick. Like, really, really dumb. So she has to re-calibrate her plans somewhat.  She switches her attentions to his younger brother Freddie, an aspiring artist who feels protective of Vere, whose mental deficiencies can be traced to a riding accident that occurred when he was a teenager.

In fact, Vere’s not as dumb as he looks (or acts), and he has an ulterior motive for being in the household.  And that is at the root of one of my early issues with the book – Vere’s “secret” was revealed in the opening scene, an exposition-heavy discussion between Vere and his colleagues in a secret crime-fighting unit.

I didn’t quite understand Vere and his aristocratic colleagues – they weren’t spies in the traditional sense, dealing with international espionage. Instead, they appear to be a sort of private (or  quasi-government)  crime-fighting unit, using their society connections to uncover various domestic crimes ranging from theft to fraud and beyond. What was never explained was why and how the unit was formed. I didn’t understand (or, honestly, buy) the origins of this rather unlikely group.

Beyond that, what struck me strongly was that I would’ve vastly preferred to be introduced to Vere, the happy idiot, and only find out the  real story  later. I felt that unmasking him in the first scene wasted an opportunity for a very entertaining and dramatic reveal. Perhaps I’m reaching, but I felt a bit like the reader wasn’t being trusted to follow the characters if their true natures weren’t spelled out from the first.

Anyway, Vere is investigating Edmund Douglas, the wealthy owner of a South African diamond mine who is suspected of extorting money from diamond dealers. Elissande is Edmund Douglas’ niece. Douglas’ absence from home and the orchestrated rodent infestation give Vere the opportunity to search the house for evidence, and his facade means that it won’t be suspect if he, say, shows up in a room that he doesn’t belong in.

I had some qualms about Vere (called Penny, short for Spencer, by his family) from the beginning. On the one hand, a hero who is presumed to be a dimbulb is such a rarity in romance that I can’t think of another example of one (I think the closest I can come is the hero of a secondary romance in an old Mary Balogh regency – I’ve forgotten which one). Upon reading the first couple of chapters, I felt conflicted about  Vere  – on the one hand, he was an interesting and entertaining character, and  I could see the opportunity for a juicy story based on his masquerade; on the other hand,  the fact that he was deceiving everyone in his life – even his own beloved brother – was more than a bit unsavory to me. The deception of Freddie is – sort of – explained and repented for, but very late in the book. Too late for me not to spend a lot of time thinking about the fact that Penny had for half his life been perpetrating a horrible fraud on his brother, who was blameless and a very sympathetic character.

Elissande also indulges in morally suspect behavior, but her motivations were clearer and more coherent to me from the beginning, and thus she was more sympathetic, even when trying to trap Freddie and then Vere into marriage. She’s imbued with virtue by the suffering she undergoes at the hands of her vicious uncle, by the way that she tries to protect and save her aunt from him, and by  her obvious remorse for what she feels she has to do to  Vere in order to escape.

Vere and Elissande end up in an arranged marriage after being caught in a compromising position. Vere is angry, but must try to maintain his happy-idiot persona around his wife. Elissande is desperate; regretful that she had to use Vere (and that she’s married to  an irritating moron), but quite sure that she did what she had to do. Fairly quickly, Vere finds his mask slipping around Elissande, and she begins to wonder why he is pretending to be something that she strongly suspects he’s not.

This provides some interesting parallels, in that the three main characters – Vere, Elissande and Edmund – each have facades that start to crack in the course of the story. Vere’s facade is of an idiot, of course. Elissande’s facade is of a serene and loving niece (she smiles a lot) and Edmund’s of a concerned husband and uncle. Elissande and her uncle’s interactions are chilling for their menacing undercurrents, all the more because the nature of his monstrousness is left fairly vague. I really  did like that aspect of the story.

The last third of the book ramps up the action and throws in some shocking revelations; I’m not sure that I found these revelations entirely necessary or that they advanced the story much. I did like the fact that Elissande and Vere once again paralleled each other in having to accept some hard truths about their pasts. Both are genuinely tortured characters; I am a sucker for a tortured hero or heroine, and if they are both tortured, all the better (especially since it means that one is not solely responsible for “saving” the other, a trope I dislike).

There’s a lot to like in His at Night – appealing characters (my issues with Vere’s deceptions notwithstanding, I did like him), a storyline that moved briskly, and, as always, your delightful prose. What I did not like – or perhaps, it’s more accurate to say, what I found a little less sophisticated and polished than in your previous books – was a certain sensibility: call it a lack of subtlety. There were a number of instances where I felt the characters’ emotions and motivations were spelled out unnecessarily and it struck a bit  of a clunky note.  One instance occurs in a flashback, when Vere happens to overhear a villain expound on a murder he had committed. The villain then goes on to threaten his listener, a priest, that he must grant him absolution for his crime or the villain will reveal the priest’s homosexuality. There’s a lot wrong with this: the too-convenient expositiony-ness, the fact that the villain really doesn’t seem to get how religious absolution works, the overlooked detail that the villain, on his deathbed, might not have time or opportunity to spread gossip about the sexual orientation of the priest. In another instance, the hero discovers a notebook in which another villain has written a confession of murder in the margins. It reminded me of those James Bond films where the villain, instead of killing Bond when he has the chance, launches into a detailed explanation of his crimes for the enlightenment of the audience. But  I think I may have noticed these flaws more than I would’ve from a different author, and ultimately they did not greatly impact my enjoyment of the book.

Ultimately, I did enjoy His at Night very much. My grade for it is B+.

Best regards,

Jennie

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This is a mass market from Random House.

has been an avid if often frustrated romance reader for the past 15 years. In that time she's read a lot of good romances, a few great ones, and, unfortunately, a whole lot of dreck. Many of her favorite authors (Ivory, Kinsale, Gaffney, Williamson, Ibbotson) have moved onto other genres or produce new books only rarely, so she's had to expand her horizons a bit. Newer authors she enjoys include Julie Ann Long, Megan Hart and J.R. Ward, and she eagerly anticipates each new Sookie Stackhouse novel. Strong prose and characterization go a long way with her, though if they are combined with an unusual plot or setting, all the better. When she's not reading romance she can usually be found reading historical non-fiction.

30 Comments

  1. Kaetrin
    Jun 24, 2010 @ 05:16:31

    Oh, this one is my favourite so far from Ms. Thomas. I gave it an A.

    Out of all 4 books, I think that Delicious was my least favourite but that is like saying that I like chocolate muffins a bit less than chocolate cake – all have been very enjoyable. I liked very much the change from the flashback sequences of previous books (I have liked those, but I did enjoy the change) and I love this lady’s lyrical prose.

    I liked that the reader knew about Vere from the beginning – I was privileged to know something that very few people did – not even his brother. It was fun seeing the reactions of others from the point of view of knowledge. I don’t think I would have been at all happy had I really thought he was an idiot – plus I’m not sure how it could have been explained that Vere was a (successful) long standing government agent if the reader perceived him to be a dunce.

    I thought the book explored the theme of truth in various forms (truth vs. lies and real vs. false, known vs. unknown) and I’m sure it wasn’t an accident that the origin of the hero’s name is from the Latin word for truth/truly. Also, there was an aspect of freedom/imprisonment – Vere was a prisoner of his facade and Elissande had been a prisoner of her uncle and both, by the end had found their freedom, in each other and in truth. (I guess the truth really does set you free – LOL!)

    I didn’t get bothered by the various villains’ various behaviours – my focus is very much on the romance anyway so it would have had to be pretty bad to bother me and I think that criminals are often stupid and arrogant so I didn’t find it too over the top.

    There was something that the ultimate villain knew (it would be a major spoiler to say more) that I wondered how he knew and I would have liked to have known how he knew (- I emailed the author and she told me, so I know now!) – and which could have been adequately explained in a paragraph or even a sentence or two I felt – and that’s the only thing that stopped this book from being an A+ for me.

    Thx for the review Jennie – it was nice to revisit my thoughts on this one. :)

  2. mdegraffen
    Jun 24, 2010 @ 07:02:33

    I loved this book. Yes, I found Spencer’s deception jarring, but I was intrigued by how both he and Ellisande recognized a consummate actor in each other early on. And the writing. I read a lot of romance and it is a joy to read an author who is a master of the language. I’d give this one an A-. The book I read after this one also had a hero named Spencer (One Dance With A Duke by Tessa Dare), which was a bit jarring to me, entirely thru my own fault. It’s not a name I hear a lot in romance, and who knew that the nickname for Spencer is Penny? My nephew is named Spencer, just wait until I address him as Penny!

  3. Kim
    Jun 24, 2010 @ 08:28:59

    I’d give this book an A, too. I’m glad we were let in on Vere’s secret early. I wouldn’t want to read half a book where the reader believes the hero is a nitwit. Either way, the clues along the way would have to give the secret away fairly quickly.

    Also, you said you couldn’t think of many examples in romances where the lead character is a happy idiot. One of my favorites is the all-time classic novel, The Scarlet Pimpernel. Perhaps that’s why the early reveal didn’t bother me. The heroes in both novels were dimwits and because of the heroine’s early betrayal, neither hero would confide his secret to her.

    I do agree it was cruel of Vere to have kept Freddie in the dark, but Vere was more than punished for it with his self-imposed prison.

    I thought Vere clearly worked for the Crown and not a quasi-government agency. It reminded me of the spy network in Joanna Bourne’s books. The action focused on a small network of spies, instead of the organization as a whole; so we never saw the agents going to their handlers.

    I especially liked this book because Elissande had reason to be very cynical, but she kept a certain innocence throughout the story. She had to commit one desperate act, but it didn’t make her selfish; it only made her a survivor. Like the reviewer, I thought her actions were understandable.

  4. Randi
    Jun 24, 2010 @ 09:14:26

    @ Kaetrin: I’m with you. Delicious was roughly a C grade for me. I am not a foodie so the paragraphs and paragraphs of food analagies was boring, and annoying, for me. Addtly, I didn’t give a rat’s patootie for the main couple. I was way more interested in the secondary couple, and had wished the book had been about THEM.

    But back to HAN: I gave it a solid A. I get where Jennie’s coming from and why those things would bug her, they just didn’t bug me. I was so completely satisfied after reading it that I had a smile on my face for the rest of the night.

  5. Las
    Jun 24, 2010 @ 09:43:00

    I’d probably give HAN a B. I agree about the lack of subtlety. I felt that the characters lacked the depth and complex motivations that I’ve come to expect from Sherry Thomas. The bad guy was just too evil, the heroine too much of a self-sacrificing victim (though that’s more about her backstory…I loved that when she saw the opportunity to get out she took it, ethics and Vere’s/Freddy’s feelings be damned). There was something about the book that just kept bugging me throughout, like it was only a tad off and just the tiniest tweak would make it perfect.

    I know I absolutely would not have liked if we had been kept in the dark about Vere’s true personality…I’m sure I would guessed the truth, but the possibility that he really was that big of an idiot would have instantly made the book a DNF. I just can’t deal with stupid characters.

    I think I might actually like Delicious a bit more than HAN, and that was my least favorite Thomas book. I enjoyed it a lot as a character study, but as a romance it fell flat, and the too-neat resolution of the heroine’s problems really bugged me.

  6. MB
    Jun 24, 2010 @ 10:14:40

    On the one hand, a hero who is presumed to be a dimbulb is such a rarity in romance that I can't think of another example of one

    Another example immediately sprang to mind. That of Dolphinton in Georgette Heyer’s Cotillion.

    I don’t know if Jennifer Ashley’s The Madness of Lord Ian MacKenzie would qualify since his is a legitimate medical condition, but I thought of that one as well.

  7. Sunita
    Jun 24, 2010 @ 10:28:06

    Great review, Jennie. Although I graded it higher I think your points are very well taken, especially the point about how Vere deceived his brother. I think I registered it as a type of reaction to great trauma, but that still doesn’t change the fact that it was an awful thing to do to him.

    On the secret crime fighters, I took it as something of a hat tip to early Lord Peter Wimsey, i.e., the idea that an aristocrat was able to pursue crimes among the elite in a way that the regular police couldn’t. Of course Wimsey is set later and in his books the rich have to deal with regular police and media, but in this period those groups might have had less access and authority.

    On truly dim-bulb heroes, I think Nancy Butler had one; I can’t remember which title, but it was a very sweet book.

  8. Bernita
    Jun 24, 2010 @ 10:52:18

    @MB:
    Er, Dolph is not the hero of Cotillion, Freddie is.

  9. JenM
    Jun 24, 2010 @ 11:29:50

    By coincidence, I just reread The Scarlet Pimpernel, so I’m interested to see how this stacks up against it. Like the other commenters, I would rather the true character of the hero be revealed at the outset of the book so I consider that a plus rather than a minus.

    I’m a huge fan of Sherry Thomas’s books -she’s as close to an autobuy as I get – so I’m pretty sure I’ll love this one too.

  10. Ros
    Jun 24, 2010 @ 14:35:15

    @MB: But Dolphinton actually is dim. Not as dim as his aunt might assume, but definitely not all there. And he’s not the hero.

    The Unknown Ajax, however, does feature a hero who pretends to be a country yokel at the start, mostly for the purposes of teasing his family.

  11. TKF
    Jun 24, 2010 @ 14:42:59

    Ros beat me to it!

  12. FD
    Jun 24, 2010 @ 15:35:55

    Off the top of my head, Simple Jess by Pamela Morsi is the only romance I can think of that has a genuinely dim-bulb hero. However, it’s a damn good one!
    I’ve read a few dyslexic / literary challenged ones too, but I’m blanking on titles apart from Erin McCarthy’s Hard and Fast.

    I enjoyed this one, as with all of Sherry Thomas’s books so far. That said, I agree with Jennie that the Vere reveal could have been paced out better. I like the rare books where we get a ruthless edge to the heroine, whether it’s selfish or selfless and being in on the secret from the beginning kinda took the edge off that for me.

  13. Jennie
    Jun 24, 2010 @ 17:19:36

    Either way, the clues along the way would have to give the secret away fairly quickly.

    And I would’ve been fine with that. I can understand that it would be problematic to have the reader not in on Vere’s secret fairly early in the story. I just wish it had happened a little more organically, and I think it would’ve been fun to have seen him through Elissande’s eyes before knowing the truth. The whole first scene felt like an info dump to me. It might not even be something I would’ve noticed from another author, but I’ve come to expect Thomas to be a lot more nuanced.

    I do agree it was cruel of Vere to have kept Freddie in the dark, but Vere was more than punished for it with his self-imposed prison.

    I suppose. I still felt really bad for Freddie, though. I honestly think that if it were real life some thing like that would be pretty unforgivable.

    I thought Vere clearly worked for the Crown and not a quasi-government agency. It reminded me of the spy network in Joanna Bourne's books. The action focused on a small network of spies, instead of the organization as a whole; so we never saw the agents going to their handlers.

    Maybe I’m just not used to it in domestic cases? Not that it’s less likely; I don’t think international aristocratic spies are very likely, honestly, but they are a more accepted romance cliche. Maybe a little more background would’ve helped, but the whole idea felt very high-concept to me.

    The bad guy was just too evil, the heroine too much of a self-sacrificing victim (though that's more about her backstory…I loved that when she saw the opportunity to get out she took it, ethics and Vere's/Freddy's feelings be damned). There was something about the book that just kept bugging me throughout, like it was only a tad off and just the tiniest tweak would make it perfect.

    I felt like Elissande was more balanced because she was ruthless, but she had good reason. So her ruthlessness kept her from being too goody-goody, and her noble motives kept her ruthlessness from being too unpalatable.

    I do agree with you about the idea that a tweak here and there would’ve made a difference to me. It really is a very good book. I think it’s the sense that it could easily have been an A for me that makes me more critical than I might otherwise be in a B+ review.

  14. Gina Bernal
    Jun 24, 2010 @ 19:32:40

    I haven’t read Jo Beverley’s Malloren books in a long time, so I may be misremembering, but didn’t Rothgar often pretend to be, not a dimbulb exactly, but a could-care-less fop?

    HIS AT NIGHT is in my TBR and I can’t wait to read it.

  15. illukar
    Jun 24, 2010 @ 19:50:25

    The Albert Campion novels (Golden Age mystery, including a romance along the way) have the main character making a career out of a pretence of idiocy.

    Fun books – thoroughly recommend.

  16. Las
    Jun 24, 2010 @ 20:21:47

    @Gina, no Rothgar has never pretended to be dim. He is always, ALWAYS, the most intelligent, most perfect, most omniscient and omnipotent being that ever graced Romance. He instantly fixes every single problem that the heroes and heroines come aacross. Which is why he shows up in what feels like Every. Single. Jo Beverley book, even ones that aren’t about the Mallorens, which is why I just can’t read her anymore.

  17. Dawn
    Jun 25, 2010 @ 08:15:18

    I’ll be interested to see how Lauren Willig turns Turnip Fitzhugh into a hero in her next book since he has been a very dimbulb for 5 books now.

  18. Estara
    Jun 25, 2010 @ 12:13:07

    On the one hand, a hero who is presumed to be a dimbulb is such a rarity in romance that I can't think of another example of one (I think the closest I can come is the hero of a secondary romance in an old Mary Balogh regency – I've forgotten which one)

    There’s Colleen McCullough’s early novel Tim, which addresses what happens when a young man with the appetites of a young man but the mind of a 5-year-old falls in love with an older spinster.

    They even made a movie out of it, with Mel Gibson in the role.

    I think the book worked, but it’s – to my mind – more controversial than even her Thornbirds.

  19. Mireya
    Jun 25, 2010 @ 13:17:24

    I seem to be in the minority. I read Ms. Thomas’ previous two titles, and I really can’t say I enjoyed them, I actually think that I didn’t even finish either one of them. However, I tend to be persistent with relatively new authors (be them new to me or newly published) so I am giving this one a go. If it doesn’t work out this time around, well, I’ll just have to accept that her work is not for me.

  20. Bianca
    Jun 26, 2010 @ 06:14:43

    Great review; this looks wonderful.

    Just a quick question, from anyone who has read it: is the ending satisfying? What I mean by that, is: a lot of romances build up and up to a resolution that lasts, like, less than half of a page on the last page. Like really elaborate foreplay with a frustrating semi-payoff.

    Is that the case with this book? Are you left wanting more? Or is the ending a satisfying resolution to the love story?

    I was told by a friend that the ending left her upset and didn’t provide her with closure. If that’s the case, I don’t really want to get all out invested in these characters only to be let down by the ending.

    Thanks!

  21. Kim
    Jun 26, 2010 @ 09:33:38

    I thought there was closure. Maybe your friend was disappointed because the last few pages weren’t just about Elissande & Vere. However, they had professed their love by then, so I thought there was closure.

  22. Jennie
    Jun 26, 2010 @ 13:10:12

    Re: “dim” heroes, while not strictly romances, there’s more to Ward of Hurog in Patricia Briggs Dragon Bones & Dragon Blood than he wants others to see.

  23. Kaetrin
    Jun 26, 2010 @ 18:03:43

    @ Bianca

    I wasn’t disappointed by the end of the book – lack of closure didn’t occur to me so I guess that meant there was enough for me!

  24. Bianca
    Jun 29, 2010 @ 14:56:22

    Thanks Kim and Kaetrin. I will go ahead and trust you on this one, and give it a go! :D

  25. Kaetrin
    Jun 29, 2010 @ 17:34:15

    @ Bianca – oh gosh, now I’m under pressure! Fingers crossed it works for you! (come back and let me know – either here or at my blog if you like).

  26. Christine
    Jun 29, 2010 @ 22:08:02

    On the one hand, a hero who is presumed to be a dimbulb is such a rarity in romance that I can't think of another example of one

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned Rupert from Loretta Chase’s Mr. Impossible. Daphne thinks he’s dumb as a rock at first but he’s just pretending to be for the kicks.

  27. Verona St. James
    Jul 15, 2010 @ 10:24:17

    On the one hand, a hero who is presumed to be a dimbulb is such a rarity in romance that I can't think of another example of one

    Georgette Heyer kind of mastered this particular flavor of hero.

    As people mentioned above, Freddie from Heyer’s Cotillion seems quite, quite dumb, even to the reader for a lot of the book. And then, even as the heroine is figuring it out, the reader realizes there’s a lot more to Freddy. But he’s not pretending at all. He just isn’t intelligent in the ways society expects him to be.

    Hugo from Heyer’s The Unknown Ajax is also good. The hero in The Toll Gate (Jack?) also pretends to be a toll gate operator and country bumpkin, but he doesn’t deceive the heroine for very long as I recall. The hero in The Quiet Gentleman also pretends to be a frivolous fop to piss off his stepmother and half-brother, but that’s not a huge plot point.

    As mentioned above, Rupert from Mr. Impossible is another great example of this.

    Also, in the vein of Scarlet Pimpernel. Diego from Zorro pretends to be an idiot. Alex from Jude Deveraux’s the Raider doesn’t pretend to be dumb so much as hopelessly shallow, and morbidly obese as a bonus.

    Personally, for my part, I kind of love the idiot hero trope. I even wrote one meself. :)

    I have His at Night in my TBR pile from the library. I admire Sherry Thomas’ writing prowess, but none of her books have quite worked for me yet. I usually can’t warm up to the characters, and her conflicts bother me. I keep trying, though, hoping one of her books will finally be a keeper for me…

  28. Verona St. James
    Jul 18, 2010 @ 12:34:58

    And I just finished this book. I actually liked it quite a lot. This might be a book for people who don’t really gel with her other books.

    It sort of reminded me of some of Loretta Chase’s stuff. And I love me some Loretta Chase. :)

  29. Lisa
    Aug 23, 2010 @ 17:11:47

    This was a DNF for me. I got to page 316 and just couldn’t force myself to read the last 100 pages. Vere’s attitude towards Ellisande and her ‘betrayal’ annoyed me too much; he’s barely met the woman and he resents her for not being his perfect fantasy woman! Plus, the sex scenes were a bit too forceful for me to enjoy. He reminded me of an “old skool” hero and I didn’t want anything to do with him. Just my two cents…

  30. Sunita’s Best of 2010 | Dear Author
    Dec 21, 2010 @ 10:01:47

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