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REVIEW: A Sense of Sin by Elizabeth Essex

Dear Ms. Essex,

Your second novel, A Sense of Sin, came to my attention through the blurb that described the plot.

He Could Be Her Ruin – After a shocking letter and then a mysterious warning about the dangers of unworthy men, Celia Burke is on edge. With her precarious position in society, the merest look could tear her reputation to tatters. And the roguish viscount pursuing her seems interested in far more than just a look…

She Could Be His Salvation – Rupert Delacorte, Viscount Darling, believes the ravishing Miss Celia Burke played some part in his beloved sister’s death. Looking for revenge, he swears he’ll seduce and ruin her – without actually touching her. Yet to win Celia’s trust and ignite her passions, Delacorte must open his hardened heart to her – and in the process, risk falling for the very woman he hoped to destroy…

I love a well-executed revenge story, and A Sense of Sin, set in England in 1794, revolves around both blackmail and revenge. Rupert Delacorte, Viscount Darling, known to his closest friends as Del, is being blackmailed about the circumstances of his sister’s death. The anonymous blackmailer has informed Del that his sister Emily had an affair with her close friend Celia Burke, and that this was what led to Emily’s suicide. If Del doesn’t meet the extortionist’s demands, the blackmailer will make this information public.

Del, mad with grief for his sister, has tried to drown out his sorrow in alcohol and women, to little avail. Now he has decided to seduce Miss Burke, whom he believes to be not only the cause of Emily’s death, but also the blackmailer. Because he cannot bear to touch Celia, Del is determined to seduce her and bring about her ruin using words alone.

But Celia too is being blackmailed — although she was never Emily’s lover, such rumors might be believed and could lead to her ruin — and a confrontation in which Del mentions blackmail leads Celia to believe that Del is the person blackmailing her.

Celia does not understand why Emily’s beloved, grieving brother would blackmail her, but when she learns from a friend of Del’s that Del has also wagered that he can ruin her with words alone, she decides that going along with his seduction is the best way to get him to stop the extortion (Since she never discusses this tradeoff with Del, I wasn’t sure how she arrived at her reasoning here).

Through their conversations, an attraction develops, though both try to resist it. They also bond over shared grief for Emily, and eventually begin working together to catch the true blackmailer.

One of my favorite things about A Sense of Sin was your prose style. You have a lovely way with words that gave the language a smooth elegance not found in many books.

The other thing I loved was Celia. It’s not every day that I find such a virtuous heroine so compelling, but you made me care about her deeply. Celia had an innate kindness and a candor that were as disarming to me as they were to Del. She was gentle and caring, yet determined to learn to stand up for herself. She also had a secret: her serious study of botany, which she feared would be discouraged if her parents learned of it. She was a wonderful character.

I was less keen on Del, despite his interesting past. Although he was a viscount and the heir to an earldom, Del ran away from home as a teen and joined the navy without revealing his title (I wondered how realistic this was). While his parents worried for him, Del corresponded with his sister Emily and encouraged her study of botany. He became a success in his own right while in the navy, a self-made man.

I think Del was intended to come across as a good guy driven by his grief, but he seemed a bit dense to me because it took him so long to catch on to Celia’s innocence. I wonder if I might have felt differently had I read the first book in this trilogy, The Pursuit of Pleasure, before reading A Sense of Sin. I don’t know if Del’s grief over Emily was portrayed in greater depth there, but since it wasn’t delved into as much as I might have liked in A Sense of Sin, Del’s seesawing between his attraction to Celia and his need to hate her came across as immature flip flopping.

There were times when even Celia, who was otherwise intelligent, seemed a little slow on the uptake. I wished that she and Del had caught on to the truth sooner, since the blackmailer’s identity was obvious to me, and the villain was one dimensional.

My other major issue was the pace of the book. Your writing style was very appealing to me, but rather than being drawn to linger over it, there were several times during my reading of the book’s first half when I was tempted to skim, because I wanted something to happen. I felt that the story needed to move faster.

Despite the sensuality of the story, Del and Celia don’t get down to business until the final 20% of the book. Prior to that we have Del’s attempts to seduce Celia with words. The scenes in which actual touching took place were steamy, well-written and well-integrated, but the earlier monologues in which Del described to Celia the ways he wished he could touch her but could not weren’t nearly as effective for me. I was reminded of phone sex, which can often feel artificial in books.

With that said, I thought the physical attraction itself was conveyed in a very natural and smooth way. I often find mental lusting intrusive and annoying in books so I was impressed by the natural way Celia’s budding sexual feelings were portrayed. There was a gracefulness to your descriptions whether the subject was attraction or anything else.

I vacillated on what to grade this book because it has both considerable strengths and considerable weaknesses. In the end I have decided that because I closed the book feeling that Celia could have done better than Del, I can only give this book a C+, but I will definitely look for more of your work in the future.

Sincerely,

Janine Ballard

Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character-driven books. Examples include novels by Shana Abe, Loretta Chase, Patricia Gaffney, Cecilia Grant, Judith Ivory, Carolyn Jewel, Laura Kinsale, Julie Anne Long, Alison Richardson, Nalini Singh and Pam Rosenthal. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, "Kiss of Life", appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com. or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.

5 Comments

  1. Joy
    May 04, 2011 @ 15:29:36

    There’s not much, if anything, about Del in _The Pursuit of Pleasure_, IIRC. There is, however, in that book, a heroine who takes over the hero’s job and does it better than he does. Essex is one of my autobuys now, but I agree she needs to improve her heroes.

    Like you, I really enjoyed the prose in this book–moreso, perhaps, because I read it right after something very poorly written.

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  2. Janine
    May 04, 2011 @ 15:38:03

    @Joy: I have The Pursuit of Pleasure TBR and your description of the heroine raises my interest. I’m sorry there wasn’t more about Del’s grief for Emily there, though. I felt his character needed to be more tortured to evoke more of my sympathies for his revenge scheme.

    Her prose really is lovely. If Del had been a match for Celia, and the pacing had been better, this could have a terrific book.

    ETA: How do you feel the two books compare? Did you like The Pursuit of Pleasure better, or A Sense of Sin?

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  3. Joy
    May 04, 2011 @ 21:53:40

    @Janine: I liked _A Sense of Sin_ just a smidgen better; I think the hero is more appealing and I like the way Celia’s extreme nerdiness is portrayed–I enjoy reading about historical scholarly monomaniacs; they remind me of my own family.

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  4. sula
    May 05, 2011 @ 09:45:58

    I snagged Pursuit of Pleasure when it was a freebie on Amazon and went in to it with low expectations. However, I was quite pleasantly surprised by the author’s prose and by the characters themselves, particularly the heroine. I’d be interested in reading this one as well.

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  5. Janine
    May 05, 2011 @ 11:46:20

    @Joy: I didn’t find Del all that appealing so maybe I’ll feel differently about The Pursuit of Pleasure.

    I loved Celia’s scientific bent too. Her studies were so important to her and her fear that she would be found out and disapproved of or even made to stop made me care about her deeply.

    @sula: Thanks for offering your input. It’s good to hear that about The Pursuit of Pleasure.

    ReplyReply

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