Dear Ms. Ridley:
I don’t buy any romance novel unless I’m certain, based on past experience, that I’ll enjoy it. But you were offering a free novella and I like the price of free. I downloaded it from Amazon and read it in a quick evening. Nice story, loved the heroine, wish it could have been fleshed out into a novel. With sex scenes next time? Sigh. All in all, a decent morsel, but I wanted a meal. And you certainly gave me the solution.
The last pages of the novella included a link to your website to sign up for discounted pricing on new releases. Me, I love a discount. I’m a sucker. If you tell me I’ll receive 50 cents off a refrigerator by joining an email list, I will do it and stare proudly at the 50-cent discount once I’ve purchased, like I accomplished something clever that was only reserved for the privileged.
I dutifully signed up for your mailing list, confirmed my email, and received an unexpected bonus: another free story. Oh, you’re good. You know me. I downloaded it immediately, mailed the file to my Kindle app on iPad and iPhone both, and settled in. And it was great.
Okay, you proved yourself. I was ready to buy.
I decided to read the second in your Dukes of War series, since the free book from Amazon was the first in that series. But I don’t just start a book all helter-skelter like the young kids do, without looking before they leap, without considering the full state of affairs amongst story and author and series and characters. You don’t just push in without any context. That would be wrong. One must engage in foreplay to properly facilitate a smooth entrance into new territory. Was that crude? I was referring to sex. That was a sex joke.
Before I start reading a book, I analyze the summary. I also read the Amazon reviews (taken with a billion grains of salt). I also tend to read every single page on the new-to-me author’s website. And their Amazon author page. And at least one or two (or five) pages of the author’s blog. Okay, sometimes I read all the pages. That’s how I roll.
So as I was performing due diligence before reading the second in the Dukes of War series, I got distracted by your marketing video for Dark Surrender, posted on your author page on Amazon. It was the third in a series that included two paranormal historicals (one of my favorite genres!), except this third in the series wasn’t paranormal. Your description of the heroine intrigued me: You described her as a strong-willed woman who had experienced everything already and was not ashamed of her past. She wasn’t ashamed of her upbringing, of not being a virgin, of experiencing horrors.
To be honest, I am not a fan of heroines who grew up in the streets. Sometimes it works but usually it’s an awful jumble of cliché and bad accent attempts. There is almost always a sense of inferiority combined with trite feistiness, and your average author cannot pull this feat off without repeating all the same things hundreds (thousands, these days) of authors before her did. Still, my interest was piqued. I flitted around your website until I found the Dark Surrender page.
I promise I meant to return to the Dukes of War pages, but I happened to see an excerpt. A three-chapter excerpt. I started reading, figuring I would just get a glimpse of this heroine and pop back to see her later, after the Dukes of War series.
Nuh-uh. By the end of the first chapter, I already loved the heroine. By the end of the second chapter, I was a fan of the hero. By the third, I was a wild fan of the hero’s daughter, of the heroine, and of the hero all at once. This wasn’t fair. I basically had a gun to my head, telling me my only option was to pay you 99 cents for the whole novel and immediately read it all. Well, 99 cents isn’t going to break the bank—not this month, anyway—so I paid my dollar and I opened my iPad and commanded it to download the book. There is a primal satisfaction in seeing a download-in-progress become an actual book to read and experience.
Ms. Ridley, I am ashamed to say I didn’t even visit the website pages for the first two books in the series. My whole meticulous system fell away in the face of impatience to read the fourth chapter. Chaos, I say. I finished Dark Surrender that night.
If I were to summarize this book, I would say Violet, a woman down on her luck and wrongly accused, crawls into an old abbey, which turns out to be the lair of our hero and his daughter and their servants. Classic gothic start. The hero, Alistair, is desperate for someone to watch his daughter because she’s basically a horrid child who is impossible to deal with. Bear with me; it’s not as trite as you think.
Violet ends up being the only person the child can stand (she despises her father) and the father is both jealous and impossibly grateful to the heroine. So grateful he would do anything to keep her there. Here’s your salary, and here is your salary again. And just in case, here you go: it’s your salary a third time. And a fourth. And a fifth. Not enough? Let me know. Violet’s the only one Lillian will talk to in a civil way. Violet inspires Lillian to finally learn to read. Violet is teaching Lillian how to draw and paint. Violet is magic. Violet must stay. Violet, here: it’s your salary a sixth time.
22% into the book, you just wrecked me. I loved them so much. The father/daughter relationship was so horrible, and yet so believable. I don’t even like children in romance. They’re annoying and cutesy and I feel obligated to like them or I’m a jerk. So what happens is that I don’t like them and I’m a jerk.
I took in every accusation flung by nine-year-old Lillian and I swallowed it all without the slightest hesitation. Every word was painful. So many words. That poor father. That poor child. Lillian was pretty much a terrible daughter, screaming and attacking and always insulting everyone, never letting anyone close. When I say this scene included the worst conversation she ever had with her father, that’s saying something. My heart: IN PIECES.
I already mentioned I don’t like children in romance. Even more, I dislike problem child tropes. Yes, yes, the child just needs someone to communicate on their level, to accept them and love them, bla bla bla, Lifetime TV Original Series, weepy weepy, get a kleenex. Will the fake humanity never stop? But Lillian is a problem child for jerks like me. She was contrary and brilliant and stubborn and vicious and overall pretty damned fantastic.
I also tend to avoid governess novels like all governesses have leprosy. Unclean, unclean. But Violet was so sincere in how she handled Lillian. She understood this sort of child. She immersed herself in the Lillian of things, and I knew, instantly, that she was going to make this family’s life better, and they’d complete her as well. And I wanted to see that.
And this is the difference between two books, each employing tropes I dislike: the disliked tropes no longer matter, because what matters to me is these characters, and whether they’re okay or not, and anticipating the story that unfolds around them. Make me care about the characters and you could throw my most hated tropes at me—virgin wife in marriage of convenience comes in contact with estranged husband, rake extraordinaire and of course a duke with some hackneyed nickname related to the Devil or Sin or Wickedness, who mistakes his wife for an experienced whore and tries to tempt her to become his mistress, and she doesn’t correct him, and she doesn’t kick him in the balls, but instead goes along with it in some attempt to get payback, but instead she falls in love with the bastard, and he is laid low and comes back to the fold, and this blushing virgin bride is the best he’s ever had, and he always loved her, really, from the moment he first saw her, but just didn’t know it, and they lived happily ever after, but I didn’t get that far because I purged the book from my Kindle after half a chapter—throw that all at me and I will still love your book. All you have to do is make me care.
I adored this heroine. She took nonsense from no one, and I am such a fan of women who speak their mind and won’t be walked over. Violet was brave and resourceful and most of all, she had a true heart. This heroine deserved the love she received.
And Alistair was a man equal to her, devoted and loyal to the core—almost too loyal, really. He was so committed to his daughter. He read to her every night. He talked to her every day, attempting to teach her things, hoping she absorbed a tenth of what he said. The entire time, she was beyond rude, kicking, biting, pushing, yelling, ignoring. He came back every day. He brought flowers. He never quit on her. He understood she has reasons why she was angry and dreadful and he loved his daughter all the same. And he always came back.
He needed someone to love him, and more importantly, he just wanted to be allowed to love his daughter and see her happy. And Lillian was very, very unhappy. She refused to give him an inch until Violet arrived and everything fell into place. They were a broken puzzle until they pieced themselves together and became a family.
My only complaint is that the villain was like a cardboard cutout, checking all the vilest boxes. Liar, check. Rapist, check. Murderer, check. Denying poor orphan girls education because a sanitarium makes more money than a school, check. There was nothing decent in this man, nothing redeemable. He was so predictable in his evillainy (this is a word; I have made it one by telling Microsoft Word to learn the spelling) and I just didn’t care enough about anything he said or did.
I also thought the villagers were a bit too cruel and ridiculous in their witch hunting. I dunno; they’ll all band together and kill the daughter if they know she’s living? Because she has an ailment that makes them think she’s possessed by a devil? Really? The whole town? Eh.
But I can move past all that because other than those two elements, it was lovely. Dark Surrender was a satisfying and emotionally charged read from top to bottom, like bittersweet chocolate drizzled over…over…god, I suck at similes. It was good, people. It was really damned good. The prose was fresh and the emotion was solid and I’d like to live in a former English abbey now, please. It was a quick read, the sex scenes were hot, and most importantly, the people in this book mattered. They were good people. They deserved each other’s love, and they earned mine as well.
PS: As of this review’s publication, I’m caught up on all current Dukes of War books. Good times. I still liked this one the best.