Dear Ms. Lee,
Back in 2005, I read your romance White Tigress, in part because of the unusual setting, 19th century Shanghai, and the unusual pairing, a white heroine with an Asian hero. I don’t recall it well, but I do recall being disappointed with it. The hero’s desire to achieve some sort of mystical enlightenment by possessing the heroine’s yin – through sex – was pretty much the opposite of erotic for me. So it was conversely the fact that this book featured a more traditional English hero and heroine pairing that gave me the impetus to give you another try.
Scheherazade Martin manages a small theater company, the legacy from her actress mother. Scher grew up in the theater, but found that she had more talent for management that for acting. As our story begins, she receives a dishonorable offer from Brandon Cates, Viscount Blackthorn, and later an honorable one, of marriage, from his eager young cousin Kit Frazier. Scher is enormously attracted to Brandon, but he’s not offering marriage, and Kit is. Scher’s upbringing has given her a longing for respectability, and seeing marriage to Kit as a stepping stone towards that goal, Scher accepts him.
Brandon has more than one reason for being angry and frustrated over Scher’s engagement to his cousin. First of all, it was at his family’s behest that he began pursuing Scher in the first place; they wanted to separate her from Kit after noting his growing interest in her. Second of all, Brandon has come to want Scher very much on his own. A third motive, more subtly portrayed motive exists – Brandon knows all too well that a marriage between a member of society and the daughter of an actress won’t be accepted. He’d like to save both Scher and Kit from the censure and rejection that he knows they will face.
The Brandon of the early part of the book is not very likable (actually, I found Brandon fairly unlikable throughout, though he does become a bit more sympathetic once his motivations and backstory are known). His behavior with Scher is very coercive – he’s the type to pin her up against the wall and kiss her senseless in an attempt to get what he wants from her. He doesn’t seem to care very much what she wants. Even late in the book, after he has come to care for Scher, he pretty much says that he’ll do whatever he can to have her, no matter how much she does not want to be a mistress, because he just wants her so much. I think as the reader I’m supposed to find this romantic, or at least hot. Maybe once I would have. Now I just find it selfish and childish.
Scher is more sympathetic, though I didn’t find her to be a hugely well-developed character. I did like that she was depicted as being…not mercenary, but practical. She knew what she wanted – respectability – and for the greater part of the book she did want she had to do in order to attain her goal. She held on for a lot longer than many a romance heroine who crumbles once she decides she’s in “love”, and I admired that.
I found the structure of the story odd in a few places – important events occur “offstage” and while I thought this was an interesting, unusual choice, I’m not sure that there was any good reason for it. For instance, Brandon is already pursuing Scher when the book begins; there’s not even a flashback to the h/h’s first meeting. Later in the book, Brandon is attacked and injured and goes missing, and it’s only several scenes later that the reader finds out that Scher is hiding him and caring for him. There were a couple of other instances of this in the book and I just did not see any point to the device, except to be showy, and that bugged me a bit.
Actually, the latter example bothered me quite a bit for another reason. One of the reasons Scher craves a better life is that both her mother and sister died, we are told, due to substandard medical care, the only kind their class could afford (actually, it’s implied that it’s not necessarily the money that’s an issue, but that good doctors would not make the health and welfare of actresses a priority). But Scher chooses to care for a deathly ill Brandon in a hovel with the aid of a couple of rather dubious characters. She doesn’t inform his family of his whereabouts, even when asked. Not only did I disapprove of her actions (however much she disliked Brandon’s family, they had a right to know where he was, I thought), but they made no sense given her feelings about the deaths of her mother and sister. The only reason I could see for this out of character behavior was to throw Brandon and Scher together, away from society and with him dependent on her.
The nature of Scher’s theater company was unclear to me – I don’t recall there ever being any mention of what plays they put on, and indeed most of the focus was on the goings-on in the Green Room after shows, where wealthy young men mingled with Scher’s actresses while buying the liquor she provides. Because of the emphasis on this and the implication that it was from these after-parties that Scher made a fair share of the theater’s profits, it seemed to me that she was sort of more of a pimp than a theater manager. She was a nice pimp, and it wasn’t like she was specifically taking money for whatever went on between the women and men in the Green Room, but if that part of the business was more profitable than the theater, then I don’t know what else to call her.
I also had some hesitations about what a big deal it was for Scher to marry Kit. I mean, I agree that some romances pump up class differences for conflict’s sake, only to have the issue disappear in time for the HEA. But to have the entirety of London apparently absorbed in the romance between a rather minor aristocrat and an unsuitable woman felt off to me. Also, in the course of trying to break up the couple, Brandon’s sister-in-law does something that’s just shockingly inappropriate, inviting an ex-lover of Scher’s to a garden party so that he can publicly humiliate Scher. The over-the-top reactions and behavior didn’t fit what I think I know about the era.
I found the prose problematic, as well – it tended to the purple. I read way too much about Brandon’s “member” or “organ” – I know tastes differ in these things, and I guess I should be grateful it wasn’t referred to as his “staff of love.” But both of those words turn me off, somehow managing to be both coy and clinical, which I think is quite a feat.
Ultimately, it wasn’t any one thing that made Wicked Surrender an unsatisfying reading experience. The prose and characterization were enough to make it sub-par, and the issues I’ve mentioned above brought it down further. Over all, it was kind of a dreary reading experience. For all these reasons, my grade for Wicked Surrender is a C-.