Dear Ms. Bernard,
I was drawn to your book for a fairly superficial reason – I liked the title. It’s semi-alliterative and evocative, and I am a sucker for the angst potential in a good revenge plot.
The story begins with a prologue set in a Bengali dungeon in 1857. Eight Englishmen find themselves imprisoned in a dark cell, each kidnapped for reasons that are unclear (they remain unclear at the end of the story; since this is the first book in a series presumably the reasons will be expanded on in future books). They introduce themselves to each other and banter, before the scene shifts to the first chapter, set two years later in London.
Our hero is one of the formerly imprisoned men, Galen Hawke (I’m going to have to sigh twice, one separate sigh each for the first and last name). Galen is tormented by memories of his imprisonment and doesn’t sleep well. Over breakfast with the strumpet he picked up the night before, Galen finds out that he and his surviving comrades are being talked about in society as a secret club, known as “the Jaded” (sigh number three for that name). The woman tells Galen,
“I’ve heard the Jaded described as a sullen group of impossible men too handsome for their own good, and you–while you are a delectable specimen, you are the dreariest man I’ve ever met.”
Sigh number four is occasioned by the phrase “sullen group of impossible men”, I’m afraid.
The strumpet departs, and Galen’s attention is caught by an item in the newspaper: a Miss Haley Moreland (our heroine; her first name inspires sigh number five) is engaged to be married. Galen is familiar with Haley Moreland as the much-beloved object of affection of his late friend John Everly (a normal 19th century name! Yay! Too bad he’s dead). John was one of Galen’s fellow prisoners in Bengal; he died in Galen’s arms after their escape.
This is where the revenge of the title comes in. Galen had heard all about John’s devotion to and love for Haley; John had declared his intention to marry Haley as soon as they returned to England. And, boy, is Galen pissed:
Galen struggled to focus, disbelief and fury warring behind his eyes. It couldn’t be the same woman that John had spoken of! She would be in mourning! She would be some distraught pale version of a girl bemoaning a life without her one true love…
Just like that, Galen has a new purpose in life: to get revenge on Haley Moreland, who has so cruelly thrown off the cloak of mourning that Galen thinks she should be wearing, less than a year after John’s death. He decides that he will break Haley’s heart and then “laugh, Miss Haley Moreland, when you cry at my feet.”
Oh, good gravy, there aren’t enough sighs in my body for this plot development. I’d start hyperventilating and faint dead away.
Look, I get it – Galen is Messed Up. He has been scarred by his imprisonment, and he’s obviously not thinking very clearly. But this is such a lame, weak excuse on which to hang a revenge plot that from that point on I couldn’t decide if Galen was too loathsome to care about, or too stupid to hate. I may have the advantage of knowing that Haley is a romance heroine, and thus probably all things good and virtuous. But even without the advantage of that knowledge…there’s just no getting around the fact that Galen is a huge asshole.
As for Haley, she is indeed blameless, though the true story of her relationship with John doesn’t come out until fairly late in the book. But her hasty engagement (to a basically harmless but over-the-top buffoonish fellow) is motivated by the usual self-sacrificing heroine’s reasoning: she has an alcoholic father and a quirky aunt who are depending on her to make a good marriage and support them. Haley would be just as happy being a modiste; she has a flair for dress-making and has often practiced economy by making her own clothes, in spite of her aristocratic pedigree.
Galen’s pursuit of Haley follows along fairly predictable lines; he is, after all, ridiculously handsome and she is a naive young miss with a rather toad-like fiance (who doesn’t seem that crazy about her; she’s marrying Herbert for his money and he’s marrying her for her lineage). Haley tries to resist, but soon succumbs to secret meetings with Galen, eventually giving in to his seduction completely. The love scenes are fairly hot, though rather purple. I raised my brows at the depiction of Galen’s semen as his “crÃ¨me” the first time it appeared; little did I know that it would be referred to thusly thereafter. “CrÃ¨me” makes me think of some sort of new drink at Starbucks, or perhaps an off-brand hair conditioner. It strikes me as a rather silly attempt to pretty up the word “cream”, a word that would have been bad enough, honestly, in this context. My preference is for oblique references or exact terms, and nothing in between. Though “seed” is so ubiquitous, I suppose I’m inured to it at this point. But no man-juice, cream, crÃ¨me or baby batter, please. (Heh: I just found this on Wikipedia under “cream”: “Words such as creme, kreme, creame, or whipped topping are often used for products which cannot legally be called cream.” I guess that’s true of Galen’s semen.)
Anyway, also fairly predictably, Galen begins to have regrets. After all, he’s an asshole, not a monster. His musings mostly seem to come on the form of wondering whether he can have Haley without betraying John, though; he doesn’t give a lot of thought to the betrayal that he’s already committed against Haley. This did not endear Galen to me.
This is the second historical romance in a row that I’ve read that contained a rather murky and indifferently plotted suspense subplot. In this case, I think it may be something that plays out over several books. Galen and his friends are being pursued by various factions because of some treasures they took in their escape from Bengal (where apparently the treasure rooms are right next to the dungeons, and conveniently unguarded, I guess. I don’t know – it really wasn’t explained). The best I can say about this subplot is that it didn’t interfere with the main story too much.
I have the feeling that this book may work better for some other readers than it did for me. Emotional involvement in a romance can be a tricky thing, and if I’d cared more about the hero and heroine, I could have ignored Galen’s paper-thin reasoning for wanting revenge and some of the other problems I had with the book and just enjoyed the angst. My grade is a C-.