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Harlequin Historical

REVIEW:  Rinaldi’s Revenge by Paula Marshall

REVIEW: Rinaldi’s Revenge by Paula Marshall

Dear Ms. Marshall,

I read “Rinaldi’s Revenge” due to part of a documentary I recently began watching – the BBC series “The Private Life of a Masterpiece.” Covered on one disc that featured some Italian Renaissance paintings was a three panel work I hadn’t paid much attention to during my study of famous artworks. But learning the history behind the subject jarred my memory of seeing this book offered by Harlequin. The painting is Paolo Uccello’s The Battle of San Romano which tells of the victory won by the famous 15th century condottiero Niccolo da Tolentino. Ah, serendipity!

“Duchess Elena de Carisenda fears her small but wealthy duchy will be taken from her by force. Her only chance for survival is to hire an army to protect her and her people–and mercenary Marco Rinaldi is the best soldier money can buy.

Marco pledges to fight off all invaders, but one look at the beautiful duchess and he insists he’ll pose even more of a threat if he and Elena wed. Strong and commanding, he awakes the sensual woman deep inside her, but soon it is apparent he harbors a dark secret. Is their marriage part of a plan for revenge?”

Rinaldis-RevengeThis is a reissue of a book first published in 2002. I had forgotten how much a little more word count allowed authors in past years to add to the depth of the story and characterization. But it also reminded me that sometimes a bit more editing can be a good thing. “Rinaldi’s Revenge” starts slowly and with lots of clunky information snippets – only some of which seem to actually be needed. I do love to learn new things, especially historical information, but only if it adds to the story. If it feels like a “hey, here’s something cool I learned while researching that I felt I just had to wedge into the narrative somehow” then I’d rather it be left out. But on the other hand, there’s no doubt that the story is firmly set in its time frame.

I enjoyed the character of Elena. True she’s a typical “sheltered woman unexpectedly thrilling to a virile hero” but she recovers fairly well from her initial “zoing!” and doesn’t stand in a puddle of drool, gaping like an idiot. She’s probably not a typical 14th century woman in that she’s been raised by her Duke father to be his heir and thus is better educated, more used to speaking her mind and ruling. Yet this also makes her more interesting and understandable to modern readers. Still, she avoids being the dreaded overly feisty, kick-ass female.

Marco manages to be an alpha without being an asshole. He’s caught on early to how smart Elena is and seems impressed. Also he’s a Lord of some small township so the ultimate marriage isn’t so far out of line. And no one’s really, truly holding out for love. Even Elena is fairly down-to-earth in her beliefs about being able to marry for love and when the subject is broached, she looks at the marriage from a tactical standpoint as well. It’s obvious that Marco isn’t all that he at first appears to be and hints are dropped from early on as to his true past. I like that these hints don’t club me over the head but rather slowly fall into place and build up to the ultimate reveal.

The romance is evenly balanced as far as Elena and Marco falling early for the other, even if they’d deny it at this point. The power balance issues that I often have with historicals are countered with several things. She’s the ruler in charge and has been raised for that role. He’s got some kind of secret background that raises him above a standard jumped up peasant and is a take-charge soldier doing his job. The resolution of their differences actually worked well for me. Elena isn’t used to being left out of decisions that affect her Duchy but Marco isn’t used to consulting a woman. However, it isn’t simple misogyny on his part. He honestly never thought that she’d be interested in it and was going on the premise of “she hired me to do a job and I’m doing it.” When Elena gives him a reasoned and logical argument rather than hysterics and miffed feelings, he pauses, thinks about it and realizes she’s right – war is another form of statecraft and that is what she is used to being in charge of. Marco still occasionally has to stop and remind himself that from now on he and Elena are a pair and make decisions jointly but this transition for him seems well established by the end of the story.

As much as I like how well their relationship progresses, I do question whether they have a realistic wedding night. One brief bit of pain for virgin, untutored Elena and then it’s ecstasy, baby, all the way! And then comes the next day argument followed by the “I’m furious at you! Let’s f*ck!” scene.” The day after her wedding night and up against a wall? Elena is a quick start at this, eh? Then it’s every time ending in ecstasy. I mean every, single, damn time. Climbing the cliffs of ecstasy, touching the sky of ecstasy, going over the waterfall of ecstasy, shooting off the rockets of ecstasy… okay, I’m over-doing the silly here but every, single encounter – including her first time – is out of this world? This could be turned into a drinking game.

In regard to the external conflicts, the book features a fairly standard host of potential flies in the ointment from city advisers on the take to neighboring city rulers who would just love to add the wealthy duchy to their own holdings plus the early hints of hidden motives Rinaldi has. All of them seemed believable and reasonable as sources of issues for 15th century Italians to deal with. I also liked how the conflict was maintained throughout the course of the story – both internally and externally.

So, why a C+ final grade? There’s perhaps a bit too much time spent on descriptions of things and people. A little is good but it got sorta plodding in places. And there is lots of talk vs do, telling vs showing. Maybe it’s just me reacquainting myself with a slightly older style of writing but there were enough times when I felt a bit of pruning was needed here and some time was needed actually seeing something happen vs being told about it that brought down my happiness in the subject matter used and locale of the book. C+


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REVIEW:  Beloved Enemy by Mary Schaller

REVIEW: Beloved Enemy by Mary Schaller

Dear Ms. Schaller,

When I was looking at the Harlequin Historicals for this past April, this cover seemed familiar to me. The generic blurb rang vague bells. Looking back through my reading list, I discovered why. It was first published in 2004 and I had read it then. Curious to see how it would hold up, I decided to read it again.

Julia Chandler lives in Alexandria, VA with her staunchly Confederate family. Their political views have almost totally ostracized them from society as Alexandria has been occupied by Union forces from across the Potomac. Most townspeople have either embraced it or made their peace with it but not the Chandlers. As such, Julia and her younger sister long for the chance to go out a bit. Dance a little, flirt and have some fun. Their chance comes when they get the opportunity to attend a masked New Year’s Eve ball. Only suddenly Julia has another, very important reason to attend.

Julia’s fiance was killed at Manassas and her mother is hot to get her married off before she turns, gasp, twenty-one. And the man mama picks, a second cousin, is enough to make Julia’s skin crawl. Julia knows he’s a bully and wastrel but mama won’t listen. He’s family and an entree to Richmond society. So, gathering her courage, Julia sets out for the ball looking for a man to “ruin” her hoping the resulting scandal will force her mother to chance her mind.

But the man Julia finds is not only too honorable to ruin her but he’s also taken with this pretty young woman who can quote Shakespeare. Major Robert Montgomery of the Rhinebeck Legion has no reason to love Rebs since they started the war and he lost the use of his hand at Gettysburg due to a Reb minie ball. But he finds himself engineering meetings with Julia and thinking of what might be. Until his superiors at the Office of Military Intelligence offer him a chance help the war effort by infiltrating the infamous Libby Prison for Union officers in Richmond and helping with a massive breakout. By agreeing to the plan, he thinks his chances with Julia are over but Julia has other plans.

A good book will make me want to learn more about the history behind it and this one had me googling “Libby Prison” to find out more about it and the famous escape of 109 Union officers on the night of Feb 9-10, 1864. The reasons behind the plan that are told to Rob – that the recent cessation of prisoner exchanges have left the Union forces with a dearth of experienced middle level officers needed for the planned military campaigns of 1864 – make sense. Whether it was true or not I don’t know but it sounds plausible. And you work the actual event so well into the story that I wonder if something like it might really have happened. The addition of Miss Lizzie “Crazy Bet” Van Lew, a Richmond native who worked undercover as a Union spy and who helped with information for the breakout, as a secondary character also helps me buy into the whole plot.

I like Rob and Julia even though a time or two they made some snap judgments. Julia comes across as extremely naive – she has no idea what being “ruined” entails – but then I thought, how many gently brought up young ladies of the time would? The fact that she and Rob can extensively quote Shakespeare to each other makes more sense since they’re both supposed to be highly educated people and this was an age when such memorization was more common. Their realization that they’re in love comes fairly quickly though they do at least question it a little before diving into it. Another thing I enjoyed is how the differences between war torn Richmond and Alexandria, with its proximity to Washington, are highlighted after Julia’s trip south.

I recall that it was about this time that Harlequin seemed to be shortening their Historicals leaving their authors with less time to flesh out the stories. I felt then and still feel now that there are a few things about this book that might have been handled better given more space. The Chandler family is supposed to be isolated among Alexandria society but aside from being told this in relation to attending the ball, little of it is shown. I would like to have seen more of Julia’s feisty younger sister who seemed like a great character with sequel potential. Julia’s bully mother, who ruled the family with the threat of her “nerves,” was a nicely done nod to the stock Southern woman stereotype though she descends into “foaming at the mouth territory.” The villains of the book are fairly standard and suffer from the lack of word count needed to flesh them out but I do like the twists that you use to bring them to their ultimate downfall. But the major shortfall of the book for me is the lack of much attention to the subject of slavery. Julia tosses out the information that their two house servants were once family slaves to whom her father gave their freedom after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Yet after that, there’s almost nothing on the subject beyond a trite thought from Julia that the Yankees just don’t understand the institution as practiced in the South. At that point, I thought “I need some realization from her that her thinking is wrong.” I never got it.

Overall, the book held up fairly well as a reread though I’m curious as to why no mention is made that it is a reissue beyond the original copyright date. I would give it a B- for the unusual setting and nice use of actual history but a fail in regards to the issue of slavery.