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GUEST REVIEW: How to School Your Scoundrel by Juliana Gray

Elaina started reading romances in high school, but only started telling people she read romances within the last few years. Historicals will always remain her favorite, although she finds herself reading other genres depending on her mood. Favorite authors include Elizabeth Hoyt, Lisa Kleypas, Tessa Dare and Meredith Duran. She’s always on the hunt for innovative historical romances—especially non-Regency historicals—so drop her a line if you have a recommendation.

How to School Your Scoundrel by Juliana Gray

Dear Ms. Gray:

I wanted to dislike this book. I really did. The premise, the asshole hero, all of it. But I was also intrigued that you decided to write about the Earl of Somerton, the villain of your previous novels. He’s the dissolute husband of Elizabeth, Countess of Somerton (heroine in A Gentleman Never Tells), and is controlling, heartless and, seemingly, without scruples. I wanted to see if you could pull something like that off, although I assumed it wouldn’t work. I was wrong, though: mea culpa, indeed. I also have to say that I’ve never read a romance novel with the hero still married, the wife of the hero committing adultery during the novel, and a divorce midway through. That, in and of itself, is certainly a different take on things.

How to School Your Scoundrel is the third book in the Princess in Hiding series, and the sixth book surrounding many of the same characters in 1890s England. Princess Luisa of the fictional German principality Holstein-Schweinwald-Huhnhof has fled her country along with her two sisters after revolutionaries stage a coup and take the throne. With the help of her English uncle the Duke of Olympia, Luisa and her sisters hide in various homes in England, disguised as men.

Setting aside the premise of three princesses hiding as men in 19th century England (we’ll get to that later), Luisa becomes Somerton’s secretary, calling herself Lewis Markham, whilst biding her time until she can return home. Luisa is practical and confident: the heir to the throne of Holstein-Schweinwald-Huhnhof, she refuses to cow, for the most part, to Somerton’s outrageous demands, and in return, she intrigues him. Recently widowed and having lost her father, Luisa fights quietly to find her way back to her birthright while attracted to Somerton despite herself.

Somerton, though, eclipses Luisa as a character tenfold, although not always in the best of ways. At the start of the novel, he is still married to Elizabeth, living with her and his young son whilst Luisa is in his employ as his supposedly male secretary. He is obsessed with finding evidence that Elizabeth is cheating on him with her true love, Lord Roland Penhallow, and takes every opportunity to discover her perfidy. He is ruthless in this pursuit, unwilling to admit his gross hypocrisy since he has slept with countless women during his marriage.

His marriage, of course, has crumbled—although it never really existed, he eventually admits—and you do a marvelous job showing how desperately he wanted the marriage to work while, ironically, showing how Somerton never tried to mend his philandering ways. He also works as an English spy, dispatching traitors and whatnot, although that side of his life was never perfectly clear to me.

Although Somerton is difficult to like, I appreciated that you didn’t defang him as a means to garner sympathy. Often in romances, the rakish villain of a previous book is rendered lifeless in his own book, with a backstory revealing he’s unhappy because his father never hugged him and he’s slept with two or three women along the way. Somerton, quite honestly, doesn’t really change, per se; even by the middle of the novel, he is still pursuing his errant wife and child, in order to enact his revenge on his wife’s lover who has gone with the pair to Italy. It’s only after he fails in his revenge that he gives up the course, instead of deciding that revenge isn’t worthwhile after all.

After Somerton fails and comes to grips with the fact that he’s lost Elizabeth, he and Elizabeth divorce. I’ll admit I know nothing about divorce in England in the 1890s, so I shall continue to assume it was possible. Luisa—no longer Mr. Markham—proposes that she and Somerton marry in an effort to return her to her throne. She believes bringing home a powerful English lord for a husband and perhaps returning pregnant with the next heir will give her the leverage to roust the revolutionaries.

The relationship between Luisa and Somerton simmers from the beginning, even when Somerton believed she was a man. Somerton finds her fascinating and frustrating, and becomes protective of this young woman placed in his care. When they marry and consummate their marriage, the scene is both scorching and poignant, showing how each desires human companionship but not knowing how to go about it. Somerton calls Luisa Markham as a sign of affection, a lovely touch to their relationship. Their idyll in Italy after their marriage is, I would argue, the highlight of the novel, shown especially here:

His new wife remained still before his eyes. Waiting. Humming. A delicate gift wrapped in linen. 

He lifted his hand. Hesitated. Wrapped it tentatively around her middle.

She let out a gentle sigh and leaned against his chest.

He closed his eyes and pressed his lips into her hair, and they stayed that way, fitted together, separated only by the whisper-thin linen of Luisa’s shift, until the teakettle began a soft, high whistle.

So what didn’t work in this book? The premise. Oh, the premise: three young princesses sent to England, to hide as men within the homes of various lords. It was so ridiculous that I had to keep reading despite the initial, “oh, for the love of God,” reaction it engendered. Add to that, Somerton—ruthless spy, wily lord—does not have any suspicions of Luisa’s gender, despite the numerous and obvious clues right in front of him. His shock at the revelation made me roll my eyes. Really, you had no idea?

There is also a very clunky (as these things go) deus ex machina by the end, which caused the story to end on an anti-climactic note. Again, I was rolling my eyes.

But, despite the premise and the absurdly tidy ending, How to School Your Scoundrel shines with your attention to period detail (well, not including the hiding as a man bit), gorgeous prose and introduced me to one of the most intriguing male characters I’ve read in a while. The romance between Somerton and Luisa is slow-burning and intense, ending perhaps on an overly sweet note in the Babylogue—yes, that’s what it’s called—but seeing their journey to happiness made me enjoy that bit nonetheless.

With all of that in mind, I have to give this one a B.

Sincerely,

Elaina

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16 Comments

  1. Sandra
    Jul 12, 2014 @ 13:20:12

    She’s German, and the heir? Ain’t no way. The various German states followed Salic law, which meant women could not inherit thrones. That’s why the line of succession for the Kingdom of Hanover split from the line for the British throne when Victoria became queen. Besides which, by the 1890′s Germany had been pretty much united into one Empire under the Prussians, and the 100+ petty kingdoms that had formed the Holy Roman Empire ceased to exist. Former ruling families were still considered royal for purposes of marriage, but that was about it.

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  2. Eliza Evans
    Jul 12, 2014 @ 13:47:16

    I’ve never read Juliana Gray. Where should I start? I prefer reading series in order when possible.

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  3. Bamaclm
    Jul 12, 2014 @ 13:52:34

    I pretty much despise the ‘woman disguised as a man’ troupe and so had decided against these books.

    However …

    Your description of the scoundrelly hero changed my mind with this one. Great review!

    But I think one woman in disguise is all I can take …

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  4. Elaina
    Jul 12, 2014 @ 15:02:26

    @Sandra: Apparently they changed the laws in ye olde Holstein-whatawhatawhata-I can’t-remember-what-it’s-called. The backstory is definitely the most redonk part of the book.

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  5. Elaina
    Jul 12, 2014 @ 15:07:40

    @Eliza Evans: This is actually the first Gray I’ve read fully – the other ones I’ve flipped through. The first one of the 3 princesses is How to Tame Your Duke, although I didn’t have any trouble following this one despite not having read the other two.

    @Bamaclm: Thanks! I agree about the woman disguised as a dude thing. It was the silliest part of this book, but it wasn’t enough to keep me from enjoying the rest of the story. Plow through the first few chapters of this one and then it starts getting good. :)

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  6. Susan
    Jul 12, 2014 @ 20:58:34

    Thanks for the review.

    I read this about two weeks ago and remembered almost zero about it until you refreshed my memory. As you note, there were definitely some problematic areas. The whole setup and the villains were farcical, for starters. And since I hadn’t read the other books in the series, those storylines just seemed intrusive and confusing when they were introduced. I did enjoy the relationship and budding romance between Luisa and Somerton, so that was the big redeeming factor.

    This is the second Juliana Gray book I’ve read and, despite already owning several others, I’m just not sure if I want to continue with her.

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  7. Jace
    Jul 14, 2014 @ 07:20:08

    “Add to that, Somerton—ruthless spy, wily lord—does not have any suspicions of Luisa’s gender, despite the numerous and obvious clues right in front of him. His shock at the revelation made me roll my eyes. Really, you had no idea?”

    This.

    I was soooo excited to read this book, and was anticipating that Somerton would find out that Markham was Luisa, and they’d have some boss/secretary sexytimes, but NOOOO. The SPYMASTER didn’t figure it out until halfway into the book. *facepalm*

    I just gave up on Juliana Gray.

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  8. Elaina
    Jul 14, 2014 @ 08:28:04

    @Susan: Gray has such a great style, but she has the most ridiculous plots. I half-wonder if it isn’t an editorial decision to make sure her books are “different” from other historicals? If she could write novels with less redonk plots, I’d be all over that.

    @Jace: Not to mention Luisa didn’t even try to act like a man (calling her corgi “love”? Come on, DEAD GIVEAWAY). He didn’t even have a suspicion something was off. That just killed me.

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  9. Susan
    Jul 14, 2014 @ 14:21:42

    @Elaina: Seriously! The other JG book I read was A Lady Never Lies, the one about the horseless carriage. It reminded me of a cross between a 60s movie (The Great Race) and cartoon (Wacky Races). It was so silly that I had goofy cartoon music running thru my head at some points. Maybe this is her “hook,” but I wish she’d turn it down a notch.

    I have to say, too, that I wanted to read the JG books while waiting for one of her Beatriz Williams to go on sale, but this has dimmed my enthusiasm for those books quite a bit.

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  10. Jace
    Jul 15, 2014 @ 05:22:45

    @Elaina:

    I forgot about that corgi. I mean, you are in disguise, and you bring a CUTE PET DOG with you while you are undercover. *facepalm* Oh, and your Uncle who is, apparently, one of the greatest minds in the whole world, made no comment or did nothing about this. *facepalm*

    God, how in the world did I finish this book???

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  11. Elaina
    Jul 15, 2014 @ 09:48:35

    @Jace: Ha! Also, what was the point of the Duke dressing up as a woman? The cross-dressing in this book made it so silly when it was trying to be serious (I think).

    You gotta admit, corgis are pretty cute, though.

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  12. Dora
    Jul 15, 2014 @ 11:13:20

    I want to defend Juliana Gray a little bit. I actually think that she invites her readers to enjoy the artificial style of her novels, ghosts and cross-dressed heroines and all. These are comedies of manners set in the same decade in which Oscar Wilde wrote his ‘Importance of Being Earnest’. They are not meant to imitate life in a 1:1 realistic way; they are jolly romps that also share their general feel with comic opera, where all these hoary conventions – girls in breeches being one of them – are just part of the fun. Take the deus ex machina that you criticise: The Duke of OLYMPIA. I mean, come on: it couldn’t be more obvious if she stuck a post-it on his forehead saying “I am the god who will come out of a box to resolve the plot”. It’s *meant* to be a joke.
    Having said that, I share your frustration at Somerton’s inability to see through Luisa’s disguise. Ashland, who is the sexiest of the three prince consorts in this trilogy, is similarly blind when faced with Emilie’s whiskers. It’s actually an interesting conundrum: what I really wanted was some pseudo-homoerotic tension going on, but that would have taken it out of THIS category and put it into quite another one, I suppose. Hatherfield and Stephanie in ‘How to Master Your Marquis’ come closest, I suppose, but it’s still pretty tame. So there is sexual tension between hero and heroine when she is still in disguise, but none of the guys ever wonders why he is suddenly so taken with this twinky. THAT is disappointing.
    But I absolve Juliana Gray from the accusation of silliness, because I think she means to share the enjoyment of it with us.

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  13. Laura
    Jul 16, 2014 @ 01:08:28

    Is he a convincing hero in terms of a HEA? I’m always a bit skeptical of heroes in a new marriage who were blatantly unfaithful in their previous one. Leopards, spots, etc.

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  14. Laura
    Jul 16, 2014 @ 01:10:43

    Also, I have the first book in this trilogy in my TBR pile, but I haven’t read the one featuring his wife. What happens with their child? Do they have a very modern custody sharing arrangement? And is the H still sleeping with other women throughout this book?

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  15. Elaina
    Jul 16, 2014 @ 09:59:42

    @Laura:
    SPOILERS
    SPOILERS
    SPOILERS
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    The only person he sleeps with is his wife in one last attempt to save their marriage, but it’s off-scene and Luisa is still Markham to him. I actually was convinced by his change, or at least willing to give them a “happily ever for now” ending. Gray gives a reason behind his infidelity and complicates the reasons the marriage went south – that it wasn’t only his fault (although, really, it was MOSTLY his fault, ha). I almost always hate heroes who are cheaters, which is why I was sure I’d hate Somerton. But he’s so enamored with Luisa and surprised that someone could genuinely care for him that it kind of melted my resistance to the issue.

    As far as the child, it does become a rather modern custody sharing agreement, with his wife and her new husband having full custody but making certain Philip still sees his father and has a relationship with him. I’m not sure how applicable such a situation would be in the 1890s…but I bought it.

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  16. Dora
    Jul 16, 2014 @ 10:46:05

    @Laura
    I think you are putting your finger on the problem of HTSYS. Somerton, in my view, is actually psychologically disturbed. He is suspicious of his (faithful) wife to the point of paranoia; he plays power games with Luisa that make me slightly uncomfortable; and he is totally hypocritical about his own affairs. He’s a narcissist. Not sexy. If I remember correctly, he doesn’t actually go philandering after Luisa (a.k.a. Markham) has entered his household. In fact, he intends to follow his usual lifestyle but finds that the thought of his whores and mistresses makes him sick. Literally so. What brings about this change of heart (and turning of stomach)? Not sure.
    Luisa at some point accuses Somerton’s wife Lilibet of having closed off herself and her son from Somerton. So this is a very different “explanation” of why their marriage didn’t work; one that sees Lilibet at least partly guilty. She didn’t “allow” herself to fall in love with Somerton. I never really understood what Gray really wants us to think here. Somerton knew that Lilibet loves Roland Penhallow, so he ought never to have bought her from her father. But then Lilibet ought to have fallen in love with Somerton, what with him f***ing her so valiantly. But then Somerton ought not to have given up so soon and returned to his whores. But then Lilibet ought not to have run away from a husband who seems to have crowned his marital exploits with a “forced seduction”. But then Somerton ought to see that his marriage is over and that he actually loves Luisa, etc. etc.
    For me, Somerton is definitely highly questionable as a reformed domestic tyrant.

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