Dear Ms. Mallory:
There is alot to like about this historical romance. It has a non virgin heroine who, a real rogue of a hero, a philosophical question at its core, and nuanced writing. There were some plot holes, though, that bothered me throughout the story that kept this from being an unqualified recommended read. In truth though, for those that like a historical with a bit more meat and emotional depth, this will provide good entertainment.
Sebastien is a bastard, one that has been dependent on his vile father for many years until he was able to break free. He’s longed for acceptance into society, the one place denied to him because of his birth. He’s turned that longing into vengeance and when an opportunity arises for him to become part of that society, he doesn’t hesitate to grab at it. There were wonderful characterization details in the story with Sebastien always leaving small evidences of his anger at the aristocracy and his ostracization.
He picked at the edge of the leather chair, the action twofold. It gave his aimless fingers purpose, and he prided himself on leaving unnoticed destruction in his wake whenever possible. He was a guest at the club, not a member. Never a member.
What I appreciated about these details is that they were continued throughout the story. At one point, the heroine asks him to stop and he doesn’t even realize what he is doing, his habit of inflicting “unnoticed destruction” was so ingrained. Beyond leaving chairs in disrepair, he also has made it his mission to ruin the reputations of young women of especially powerful men. He doesn’t ever deflower them but he flirts, charms and seduces them into compromising positions that reflect poorly on their families. In short, he is not a nice man. He is, though, what his father has made him, cruel, heartless,
The duke acts so poorly because the one child that has sprung from his loins who has any worth is his bastard son, rather than his legitimate sons. He despises Sebastien for being smart, for withstanding his pressure. To some extent, he and Sebastien are constantly in competition with one another. To that end, he participates, long with six other men, and with the blessing of the King of England, in setting up a tournament in which participants are invited to enter to win the prize of viscountancy, an estate, wealth, and the daughter of the Earl of Cheevers.
The challenges are not really about sportsmanship or achieving the ideal status of a “gentleman”, but primarily physical challenges (with a few mental ones). Cheating is encouraged, getting caught is not.
The book starts off with the question of what a true gentleman is because Sebastien, by the circumstances of his birth, is not considered to be one. The competition is set up with the idea that you can win your way to status. But the competition is really a debasement. It pits individuals, who are already considered less than by society, against each other and holds them up for scorn and mockery. The men who compete in this “game” are not deemed to be individuals but rather pawns. My one real complaint with this story is the lack of recognition by the characters, particularly Sebastien, at how truly awful the competition was. Of course, one will be the winner and thus maybe it will all be worth it, but I wish that element, the dirty voyeuristic one, had been addressed more fully.
This story is really one of Sebastien’s redemption, of realizing that there is something of greater value than belonging to society. The heroine, Caroline Martin, is an interesting character but Sebastien looms large in this story. I would have liked to have seen Caroline be more vibrant on the page. Caroline lives the life of a woman in society who has no money of her own which is at the whim of her closest male protector. In this instance it is Earl of Cheevers who seems to both loathe and like Caroline. He admires her intellect and her spine of steel but he feels the need to constantly remind her of how precarious her life is and how greatly he controls Caroline’s life. Because of this, Caroline wants Sarah, the bride prize, to live a life without such constraints.
Caroline and Sebastien are intensely attracted to each other but Caroline will not be mistress to Sarah’s position of wife. Sebastien must decide to whom he wants to belong: Caroline and society.
I admit that I was disappointed with the ending because it choose to go the Disney route and I felt that it cheated the emotional impact of the story. The ending was writtine in a very positive way in which almost every likeable character (and even one unlikeable character) was written. The overweening need in romance for everyone to be happy wears on me. That said, this book made me very interested in reading the next Mallory. B