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REVIEW: Ruthless by Anne Stuart

Dear Ms. Stuart:

Elinor Harriman is the quintessential elder sister of romance. To wit, she is desperately trying to keep her little family together by protecting, guarding and working herself to the bone. Simultaneously, she is, of course, trying not to let on to her younger, more beautiful sister, Lydia, exactly how desperate their circumstances have really become. These circumstances are entirely due to their frivolous mother. Years ago, Lady Caroline Harriman was divorced by her husband, Baron Tolliver, and her daughters disowned all because she was so brazenly unfaithful. Since that time, they have been living on the largesse of Lady Caroline's boyfriends or living on the hope of Lady Caroline getting herself a boyfriend. But now, due to their mother's past frivolity and current syphilitic madness, the Harriman sisters are in dire straits ("money for nothing and your chick for free"). They are living in precarious circumstances in a rotting neighborhood in Paris with only their beloved Nanny Maude and their man of all work, Jacobs, both who are less servants than family.

Ruthless by Anne StuartThe book opens with Elinor returning from a lawyer's office. Their father is dead and though he never provided for them in life, it seems he has left them something in death. Unfortunately, that something is in England and with the family finances as they are, it might as well be in Timbuktu. To make matters worse, Elinor arrives home only to find that Lady Caroline has managed to arise, like a syphilis ridden Lazarus, and abscond with the last of the family jewels. Forced to follow, Elinor and Jacobs "borrow" a coach and drive off into the night, knowing full well where Lady Caroline is headed. She's gone to the house of the Comte de Giverney, the notorious Lord of the Heavenly Host-’a group of aristocrats who throw orgies the likes of which populated the imagination of the Marquis de Sade, or so the rumors go. But into the fray goes Elinor, after her mother and her money. She doesn't have a choice, after all.

Like all good rakes, Francis Rohan, Comte de Giverney, is suffering from ennui. I understand. I mean, there are only so many mock, Satanic rituals a man can go to before it's like, same old same old. This is really a classic Stuart-ian set up. Ennui-ridden rake, whose reputation is almost as bad as the aforementioned de Sade, meets spinister-ish, put-upon Virgin, who's just trying to do her job, damnit, and keep her family together. Satanic rake can't figure out what the attraction is. I mean, she's not really his type, all that innocence, etc. And hell, she's not even that pretty. But there's something about her . . . maybe if he shags her the strange feeling will go away. Oh my god, no! It's only gotten worse and now it's being accompanied by some foreign and hitherto unknown need to protect her and smell her hair. Panic! Panic! Flee! Hey, dude, at least you're not suffering from ennui anymore, eh? Eh? -wink, wink, nudge, nudge-

Francis Rohan is a Stuart hero, para-excellence. First of all, he is clearly a Scorpio. Second of all, well, I'll just let Elinor explain the second of all, shall I?

The King of Hell was everything they said he was, both less and more. He was reputed to have the ability to seduce an abbess or the pope himself, and she could see why. It wasn't his physical beauty, which was considerable. He had dark eyes behind a fringe of ridiculously long lashes, pale, beautiful skin, the kind of mouth that could bring despair and delight-’and what the hell was she doing, thinking about such things?

If I ever meet a man who has a mouth that can bring both despair and delight, I'm going to chloroform him and marry him in a barely legal marriage ceremony in one of Las Vegas' more tawdry chapels. But I digress.

So Elinor is understandably attracted to Rohan. However, this is not a state of affairs she likes much. She distrusts men in general. A natural enough reaction considering her absent and uncaring father, the parade of debauched protectors her mother has gone through and her own experience with a Sir Christopher Spatts. So when Rohan starts generously sending the Harrimans things like groceries and chairs, Elinor is naturally suspicious. Moreover, she can't help but believe the person Rohan is really interested in is her sister, Lydia. This, too, is a natural enough reaction considering the fact that Rohan purposely flirted with Lydia to make Elinor believe just that. We, of course, know better. And in any case, Lydia has no interest for the reprobate Comte. All her attention has been taken up by his friend, Charles Reading, who is equally smitten with her.

Further tragedies await all these people before their relationships can evolve into a HEA, including, but not limited to the mystery of who is out to kill Francis Rohan, the Harriman sisters' mysterious cousin, the new Baron Tolliver, and the death of their mother, Lady Caroline. The last puts them further at the mercy of the nefarious, Rohan, who takes them in after she dies-’and certainly not out of the goodness of his hear. Oh no! He's obsessed with Elinor at this point and trying to get her out of his system. Ha!

I admit it. I totally love this kind of plot-’aging spinster meets rakehell-’and usually, you do it so well! But something was missing for me in Ruthless. It's your own fault, Ms. Stuart. I've come to expect a lot from you. It wasn't so much that this particular plot deals with one of you oft-treaded themes. No, I've read most of you backlist and I never get sick of this scenario. That's not the problem here.

See, all authors-’and I do mean all authors-’have one plot/theme they are utterly obsessed with. Everything they write is an attempt to perfectly render this one plot/theme. This is true of everyone, regardless of genre or time period. Sometimes, they have more than one plot/theme they do this with, but usually there is only the one. For example, Othello is Much Ado About Nothing is Cymbeline is The Winter's Tale (wrongly accused of infidelity, woman dies or "dies"). You get the idea.

In this ever-pressing quest to manifest the plot/theme perfectly, there is the risk that you don't get it right sometimes. Or that sometimes it works for some people and sometimes it works for others. It's one of those mysteries of art that can never be solved. It isn't about originality (which is a silly notion, in my opinion), because romance deals heavily in archetypes and we often see the same plots over and over. This doesn't detract from the pleasure or the excellence of a well-told story.   What it is about is some kind of magic-’the magic between the author and the story, the text and the reader that just makes a book . . .   marvelous. And I'm afraid that Ruthless suffered from a lack of   . . . something that missed that magic for me. This is where it gets tricky to articulate but I'm going to give it my best shot.

I think my main problem was that I just didn't believe in Francis. Everything hangs on Francis. It is Elinor's reactions to Francis that frame the story. It is her meeting him that changes their lives. In the case of this book, a lot hangs on the hero. Francis uses the fact that he believes he's bad as an excuse for pretty much everything he does, but after the umpteenth time he says he must be doing these out of characteristic things because he's bored, I failed to believe that was the reason. Or more to the point, I failed to believe that he believed that was the reason. I didn't really believe he was bad, and I couldn't believe that he believed he was bad nor could I believe that Elinor couldn't see he wasn't bad. So much depends upon Francis being able to trick both himself and Elinor into thinking he is a rotten son of a bitch, when in fact he's not. This is at the heart of the barrier between him and Elinor, and at the heart of Elinor's resistance to him.

For instance, in The Devil's Waltz (my favorite of yours) I completely believed that Christian was absolutely and indisputably capable of doing something really awful to Annelise. Even though I knew there would be a happy ending, I felt the risk of it going all horribly wrong. You made me feel that there was a real threat of loss and pain, not only in the greater story but in the moment when Christian says, "I don't speak French," I felt the sting just as much as Annelise did. That risk of pain and heartbreak that you executed so well in The Devil's Waltz just did not present itself in Ruthless. To me, Francis Rohan was like Neil Patrick Harris-’he only played the rake on TV. And man, I wanted to believe in he was that bad. Or at least believe that Elinor or Francis believed it, which I couldn't quite get my head around.

That's not to say that I didn't enjoy the book. I did. Just not as much as I had hoped to. B.

Lazaraspaste

Book Link | Kindle | Amazon | nook (link not available yet) | BN | Borders

This book’s official pub date is August 1 but it is already shipping and likely in stores.

Lazaraspaste came to the romance genre at the belated age of twenty-six. While she prefers historicals, she's really up for anything . . . much like her view of food! Some of her favorite authors include Jo Beverley, Anne Stuart, Lisa Kleypas and Joan Smith. Once a YA librarian, she is now working towards an advanced degree in literature with the mad idea of becoming a critic and teacher. Though she loves romance, fantasy has always been her first love. She hates never-ending series and believes the ending is the most important part.

26 Comments

  1. Bronte
    Jul 19, 2010 @ 06:04:59

    Love anything written by Anne Stuart and I will definitely be in line for this book. I don’t think anyone writes the bad boy like she does. One of my favourites of hers (even though it did kind of shock me at the time) is “Into the fire”. If an author can make you fall in love with an alcoholic former drug dealing jailbird then you know they’ve got something special.

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  2. Eliza Evans
    Jul 19, 2010 @ 06:56:24

    I’ve never actually read anything of Anne Stuart’s. Where should I start with her historicals? I’m not much into romantic suspense.

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  3. DS
    Jul 19, 2010 @ 07:43:25

    I don’t know how that happened. Double post when I tried to edit.

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  4. DS
    Jul 19, 2010 @ 07:49:12

    I am trying to think of some reason why the estate wouldn’t bear the expense of transporting the heirs back to England.

    Well, other than the fact that it would make for a very short book.

    I’m not going to even try this one, I know I am going to be annoyed.

    @Eliza Evans: If you like really angsty historicals try to find a copy of To Love a Dark Lord It’s oop but used copies are available on Amazon for less than $3, so even with shipping pretty reasonable.

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  5. TKF
    Jul 19, 2010 @ 09:00:34

    Francis Rohan is a Stuart hero, para-excellence. First of all, he is clearly a Scorpio . . . If I ever meet a man who has a mouth that can bring both despair and delight, I'm going to chloroform him and marry him in a barely legal marriage ceremony in one of Las Vegas' more tawdry chapels. But I digress.

    *snort* We need a lot more reviews from you!

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  6. Christine Rimmer
    Jul 19, 2010 @ 09:02:11

    What an amazingly good review. I love what you say about how each author has a theme/trope/plot she’s obsessed with and writes over and over. So true. And I so agree that Anne Stuart is a genius in her best books at making the hero seem to be a truly dangerous man, so he acts as both the villain and the hero simultaneously.

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  7. Barbara
    Jul 19, 2010 @ 09:40:57

    Thanks for the witty review!

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  8. Grace
    Jul 19, 2010 @ 10:32:13

    I love Stuart’s work, especially her historicals. However, this sounds so similar to her Prince of Swords, I might have to rethink the autobuy.

    Recommendation for her work – I’ll second To Love a Dark Lord. Angsty with a dark hero (she is very, very good at writing dark heroes).

    She also contributed to an anthology ages ago called To Love and To Honor put out by Avon Books. Her story–The High Sheriff of Huntingdon– had a hero who reminded me strongly of Alan Rickman’s portrayal of the Sheriff of Nottingham in Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood. I love that story and have reread it many times.

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  9. Susan/DC
    Jul 19, 2010 @ 10:59:28

    It wasn't his physical beauty, which was considerable. He had dark eyes behind a fringe of ridiculously long lashes, pale, beautiful skin, the kind of mouth that could bring despair and delight . . .

    Made me think of the description of the groom I read in yesterday’s New York Times weddings section:

    “With his black leather pants, tight shirts and spiky hair, he resembles an overconfident rock star. He looks like someone who could break your heart so badly, it would have split ends.”

    The split ends analogy works because the groom, Angus Mitchell, is the son of Paul Mitchell of the hair care products empire. Unfortunately he’s now taken, so no barely legal marriage in Las Vegas — even tawdry wedding chapels recognize bigamy as an impediment.

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  10. Sunita
    Jul 19, 2010 @ 11:02:31

    @Grace: I actually think he’s closer to Simon of Navarre than he is to MacAlpin. He’s not as amoral as the latter. And I know Stuart is consistently telling us he’s bored and jaded, but she shows us that he’s more numb and shut down than anything. Can you imagine McAlpin obeying his old nanny, or dragging a sofa from Yorkshire to Paris?

    ETA: Jayne wrote a great review of Prince of Swords a while back:
    http://dearauthor.com/wordpress/2007/03/01/prince-of-swords-by-anne-stuart/

    I really liked Francis, in part b/c I felt as if he were trying to convince himself he was bored and jaded rather than actually being so (although I love those heroes of AS as well).

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  11. Janine
    Jul 19, 2010 @ 11:38:20

    First of all, he is clearly a Scorpio.

    LOL!

    @Eliza Evans: It is interesting, even though I usually prefer historicals to contemporary romantic suspense, with Stuart it’s the contemporaries that capture my imagination more. My favorite Stuart is Black Ice. But since that book is a contemporary, I’ll third the recommendation of Prince of Swords. I think it’s a much stronger book than To Love a Dark Lord.

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  12. DS
    Jul 19, 2010 @ 12:41:56

    I think by the time Prince of Swords came around I had read too many of her dark heroes. It didn’t grab me at all.

    I do though, think that Anne Stuart would be the perfect case for an author who should put her oop print books out in digital form. I would probably rebuy Nightfall, Ritual Sins and Moonrise. Contemporary romantic suspense, but my favorite among all of her books.

    For some reason although the tropes in these three were familiar the books seemed more original than others she has written since that were more obviously homages. Any book that keeps me mentally searching for “where did I read that plot twist before” is not doing its job at keeping me engaged with the current story and characters.

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  13. Janine
    Jul 19, 2010 @ 13:09:27

    @DS: Agreed those three books are very much worth reading, but I’m not sure I would call them romantic suspense. More like straight suspense with some romantic/sexual elements. I found those books incredibly compelling but not very romantic.

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  14. lazaraspaste
    Jul 19, 2010 @ 13:55:20

    I’m a big Anne Stuart fan. I enjoy most of her work, even when it isn’t as good as I want/expect it to be.

    If you are looking for a historical, I love The Devil’s Waltz to the point where I have written on it academically. That is true of Black Ice as well, which I just re-read for my IASPR conference paper.

    Tropes, cliches and motifs are like salt, garlic and olive oil. Absolutely essential, but occasionally mis-used. Of course, sometimes that mis-use is entirely a matter of taste.

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  15. Elyssa Papa
    Jul 19, 2010 @ 14:20:05

    I loved this review. The same old, same old line made me laugh do hard. And you just made me want to reread The Devil’s Waltz and Black Ice (which has so many hot button issues for me but it still crackalicous). ;)

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  16. Sunita
    Jul 19, 2010 @ 14:33:33

    @lazaraspaste: It’s so interesting how people rank Anne Stuart books so differently, even when they’re fans. I love Lord of Danger and Prince of Swords and they hold up for me on rereads, but a lot of other Stuartophiles aren’t that keen on them. Whereas Devil’s Waltz, which so many people love, is one I cannot keep in my head at all. I’ve read it three times and retained almost nothing.

    Nightfall is still my gold standard for Tortured Hero Meets Naive Heroine in Romantic Suspense.

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  17. Janine
    Jul 19, 2010 @ 15:21:44

    @lazaraspaste: Like Sunita, I’m not so keen on The Devil’s Waltz, but I would love to take a gander at your paper on Black Ice. It’s quite possibly my favorite romantic suspense book in the entire romantic suspense genre, although Meagan McKinney’s A Man to Slay Dragons gives it a good run for its $$.

    One of the main reasons I prefer Stuart’s contemporaries to her historicals is that I find her language/voice more suited to contemporaries. She has a paranormal series currently in the works (under the name Kristina Douglas) and I am really looking forward to it.

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  18. Kaetrin
    Jul 19, 2010 @ 16:34:02

    Oh, I loved this one. I gave it an A- and the minus was only because I so totally bought how wicked Rohan was that his “taming” was just a little let down. This was my very first AS and I then went out and picked up Devil’s Waltz from my library. I enjoyed it but Rohan was, IMO, much better – maybe because he’s my first AS hero? Who knows. I just know that Rohan’s gone straight into my top 10 all time favourite romance heroes. I want one of my very own!!

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  19. Eleri
    Jul 19, 2010 @ 19:03:56

    I’m in the camp that like Anne Stuart’s contemporaries more than her historicals which is weird because generally I like historicals better. With Anne Stuart I think it has something to do with the fact that I never completely buy the HEA and w/ a contemp. I figure if things didn’t work out, the heroine could always walk away…haven’t tried Nightfall yet but I’ll have to track it down.

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  20. Ann Bruce
    Jul 19, 2010 @ 19:32:37

    @Eliza Evans: A Rose at Midnight is my favorite Stuart historical. Others include To Love a Dark Lord, Prince of Swords, Prince of Magic. And Lady Fortune has a special place in my heart because Stuart made me love a book with a court jester for a hero. That’s talent.

    She also has a massive list of contemporary category titles that I love, starting with Partners in Crime.

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  21. Eliza Evans
    Jul 19, 2010 @ 21:47:41

    Thank you all for the recommendations! I ordered a copy of Prince of Swords – $3 plus I could use my amazon prime for shipping, so I should have it tomorrow. I also got the sample of The Devil’s Waltz for my Kindle. To Love a Dark Lord is closer to $10 used, so I’m going to read the others first.

    I also found a digital bundle of several of her books called Anne Stuart’s Out of Print Gems. This is totally a situation where I’m cranky that there’s not a bigger digitized backlist. Don’t publishers want to take advantage of my lack of impulse control?

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  22. Karen Hammond
    Jul 20, 2010 @ 01:34:25

    So when Rohan starts generously sending the Harrimans things like groceries and chairs, Elinor is naturally suspicious.

    Dear Miss Elinor: Please accept my gift of groceries and chairs. It is my fondest hope that you may, thusly, make for yourself a lovely Kwanzaa cake (although I was completely unable to obtain corn nuts, not having been discovered yet, and I understand that canned apple pie filling is similarly hard to come by, but perhaps you can substitute gravel and actual apples, respectively). With the chairs I have no doubt that you can construct an appropriately festive tablescape to complement your Kwanzaa cake. As soon as KitchenAid is founded, I shall forward to you a color-coordinated stand mixer forthwith.

    Sincerely,
    Francis

    *********

    Dear Francis: I fear you have mistaken me for Sandra Lee, which only further supports my belief that you are a degenerate rake with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

    Call me!
    Elinor

    ******

    Sorry, the whole groceries and chairs thing set me off and I had to share.

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  23. DS
    Jul 20, 2010 @ 11:07:29

    @Eliza Evans: Annoying isn’t it? And these aren’t even orphaned books. The rights to most of her earliest books should have reverted decades ago. And the earliest ones probably didn’t even have a digital rights clause in the contract so she should still own those rights– the Harlequin situation is probably different. Harlequin tends to sew everything up tight– per this 2004 article from Booksquare: http://booksquare.com/a-brief-discussion-on-the-reversion-of-rights/.

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  24. lazaraspaste
    Jul 20, 2010 @ 18:31:07

    @Sunita–I have not read Nightfall as it is OOP and has yet to appear at either of my favorite used bookstores.

    @Janine–You know, even though sometimes I get irritated with lack of accurate historical detail (i.e. titles, especially), I don’t really have a big problem with the contemporary feel of the language. I don’t think you can get that unless the author actual imitates the style of writing of the time, and that can be perilous.

    @Kaetrin–The Devil’s Waltz was my first Stuart so that might have something to do with it.

    @Karen Hammond–Ha! Well, in the book he didn’t send such a delightful note, which is really too bad.

    We should launch some kind of letter writing campaign to get all these Out-of-Print books back.

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  25. Kaetrin
    Jul 20, 2010 @ 19:40:16

    We should launch some kind of letter writing campaign to get all these Out-of-Print books back.

    Yes! where do I sign up?

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  26. sol
    Jul 22, 2010 @ 13:33:31

    well looks like i’m gonna have to read all of her books i can get my hand on and make my mind up.
    Just ordered Devil’s Waltz, fingers crossed i’ll like it enough to check out her backlist

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