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REVIEW:  Beauvallet by Georgette Heyer

REVIEW: Beauvallet by Georgette Heyer

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Dear Readers,

If you’ve never read anything by Georgette Heyer beyond her Regencies, or you’re not interested in prissy Regencies, preferring action and adventure, then do yourself a favor and try this one. It might be that because my introduction to Heyer was through her Georgians and Beauvallet that this is where my preference lies but, honestly I think it’s because these are just darn good books.

What’s the plot? Doña Dominica de Rada y Sylva is on her way back to Spain with her ailing father from his administrative post in the New World. The captain of the ship taking them home spies a vessel he knows is captained by English privateer Nicholas Beauvallet and, unable to resist trying to bring this most hated man in Spain to justice, he orders his men to open fire. Never one to turn down a challenge, Nick and his crew respond and the battle is on. Unfortunately for the Spanish captain, the fight is short, the English win and he and his crew are put in lifeboats and advised to sail to the nearest island.

Dominica is no shrinking violet and loudly states her opinion of Nicholas and the English. It’s not pretty. But Nick laughingly dismisses her tantrums and sees that she and her father, as well as her duenna and their belongings are transferred to his ship. What are his intentions, he’s asked – or is challenged depending on who’s doing to speaking? Why, to carry them both back to Spain. Doesn’t he know he’s a wanted man in Spain? Yes, but he’s not going to let a little trifling like that stop him.

As they sail across the Atlantic, Dominica pouts, sulks, flirts with others and generally tries to act as if she doesn’t care. Something that is negated by the fact that she can’t stop asking Nick’s valet and first lieutenant about him. He, on the other hand, is bluntly open and honest about the fact that he’s in love with her and wants to marry her. It’s only in the finale of the voyage that Dominica is honest with herself as well. But what’s to do? Nick has promised to set them down on Spanish soil and he’s a man of his word.

He promises to come back for her before the year is out but Dominica is a realist at last and knows his chances are slim to none that he could pull off getting her out of a land which wants him dead, dead and then a little more dead. She doesn’t count on three things. One – he doesn’t turn down a challenge. Two – he’s a man of his word. Three – his family motto is “Reck Not!”

This book really needs to be read while listening to a soundtrack by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Something dashing, with lots of trumpets blaring to stir the blood and make you think swashbuckler-y thoughts then a switch to lush violins for the romance. Warner Brothers should have made this in a movie as it’s packed with derring-do, panache, boldness, cunning and laughs.

Okay first let me list some reasons you might not like this book and get them out of the way. Nick calls Dominica “child” a lot and there’s an obvious difference in their maturity levels. This is slightly off putting to me but not as much as it would be in a more contemporary novel. Dominica is headstrong as is the case with a lot of historic Heyer heroines and worse, she’s a high spirited aristocrat though she doesn’t annoy me as much as Leonie from “These Old Shades.” A lot of time is spent early in the book detailing the Beauvallet homestead in Hampshire with lots of noblesse oblige and brow knuckling servants who are just damn happy to please the Quality. None of this lasts long and the book is soon off and soaring into high adventure but I thought I’d mention all this and the fact that it’s soon finished in case anyone thinks they’re going to get bogged down in it for the duration.

Now for the good stuff. Nick is bursting with energy and vitality and goes straight for what he wants. What keeps him from being overbearing is by being easily cowed by some of Dominica’s whiles and stratagems – though others he sees through and chuckles at. When he tells her that he loves her, he means it and no second guessing.

By the time the action moves to Spain, Dominica begins to show some spirit that I can actually admire instead of her highstrung antics aboard the Venture. She sharpens her wits on the situation, displays herself better and shows herself a worthy woman whom man like Beauvallet would find a satisfying life with. Pretty only goes so far.

For Nick “failure is not an option” not because he’s going to push past anything and triumph against all odds – he just doesn’t ever think he’s not going to come out on top and with what he wants. “Can’t, won’t, unable” are words that aren’t in his vocabulary – he cheerfully can’t conceive of them. His daring escape from prison in Madrid will make your blood sing with excitement. I can feel the sheer joy of it leap off the pages as Nick improvises and charges headlong at all obstacles. Reck Not! indeed.

Still though Nick is usually devil-may-care about most things, when something stands between he and what he wants – he will buckle down and do what he must – such as when he told Dominca’s Aunt Beatrice had she been a man, he would have killed her if she continued to try and thwart him.

There are two secondary characters I have to mention as well. I had forgotten the character of Nick’s valet Joshua Dimmick – what fun. I love his running monologues as he talks to himself, using great language. Is it period or just made up? I had so much fun reading it that I don’t care. At least then you could still get good family retainers and valets. And I almost admire Senora Beatriz who has the wit to admire her foes when they act bravely, display courage and almost beat her. I pity her her weak husband and indolent fool of a son. What she could have accomplished without them as millstones around her neck.

A good pace is maintained throughout. There’s tension where it’s needed and high spirits anon. The fights are more hinted at but there’s enough to follow what’s going on and add color to the narrative. The romance is stirring and the ending will keep you glued to the pages. I do think Nick acted wisely in not telling his Queen his true reason to head to Spain, though. If you’ve only read the Heyer Regencies, treat yourself and give this one a try. A-

~Jayne

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REVIEW:  The Ugly Duchess by Eloisa James

REVIEW: The Ugly Duchess by Eloisa James

Dear Ms. James,

Last year I read and really enjoyed your book When Beauty Tamed the Beast, yet for some reason I haven’t gotten around to diving into your extensive backlist yet. When I saw that The Ugly Duchess was available for review, though, the plot blurb drew me in immediately. Our hero and heroine, James and Theodora (called Daisy by James though she herself prefers Theo) have been raised together practically from the nursery (she’s his father’s ward) and are in many ways best friends. When she is 17 and he 19, his spendthrift father informs him that he must marry Theo; not only has the Duke of Ashbrook run his own finances into the ground with bad investments, but he’s, um, “borrowed” some of Theo’s money in the mistaken belief that he could make it back and replace it before anyone knew it was gone.

The Ugly Duchess By: Eloisa James James has an understandably rocky relationship with his father, whose irresponsibility has long been apparent. He is furious not only at having to marry against his own wishes, but with his father’s insistence that he must make Theo fall in love with him; she cannot know that it’s her dowry he’s really after. James just knows that Theo will discover the truth and be devastated. He hates both the idea of hurting her and the inevitable end of their friendship. But his father forces his hand; the news that the estate is in such dire straits might not be enough to make James capitulate, but the prospect of his father going on trial for embezzling his ward’s inheritance is.

Meanwhile, Theo is chafing at the restraints that keep her under her well-meaning mother’s thumb. Theo is less than lovely, and in fact is often said to look mannish. She has strong features – dramatic cheekbones and an aggressive chin – and she is just sure that she would look much better were she allowed to dress herself. Her mother’s frilly, girlish choices – whites and pinks replete with lace and flounces – are intended to make Theo look more feminine. They end up having the opposite effect, and thus Theo is a bit of a reluctant wallflower during her first season in London. She has her eye on a matrimonial prospect – an acid-tongued young man whom she thinks she could impress with her wit, if only he’d notice her.

As it turns out, before James can even get very far in the “make Theo fall in love with him” plan, the lines between what he’s doing out of duty and what he wants are blurred. Theo is starting to look at James in a different light, too. When they are discovered in a compromising position at the Prince Regent’s musicale, James blurts out a proposal, and before you know it, they are married.

James and Theo have the sort of awkward wedding night you’d expect between two teenagers who had previously had a sibling-like relationship and who have little experience between them (James has had one mistress of short duration). But their next encounter is better – much better. Unfortunately, it comes right after Theo discovers that all of the papers that covered her wedding are calling her “The Ugly Duchess” and just before she overhears her horribly boorish father-in-law (seriously, he could have been taken down a couple of notches – he was so awful and offensive) spill out the “truth” about the embezzlement and the plan to manipulate her into marrying James. (I put qualifying quotes around truth because it’s clear that James’ feelings have become confused, even in such a short time – he’s actually very happy about the marriage, though tormented by the secrets he’s kept from Theo.) Just like that, the young couple’s wedded bliss is torn asunder; Theo kicks both James and his father out of the house – a house she now owns, due in part to James, who made sure during the drawing up of the marriage settlement that Theo was treated more than fairly.

I really liked the set-up here, even if I didn’t honestly understand why James had to “pretend” to fall in love with Theo. Their relationship seemed close and honest enough that he could have come to her with the truth – perhaps not about the embezzlement, but about the need to marry to save his estate. And honestly, everything happens so fast that he never really does much pretending or manipulating – which makes his intense guilt and their long estrangement feel kind of like a Big Misunderstanding. I generally consider it a “Big Mis” plotline if whatever causes the estrangement could have been sorted out in a conversation, and I think that’s sort of the case here. Not entirely, because there are psychological reasons on both James’ and Theo’s parts for their behaviors, but at least a bit (the fact that it does get sorted out in pretty short order in the end backs me up here, I think).

Even more problematic is that James’ solution is to take a ship (the one asset Theo specifies that he can keep) off and eventually, become a pirate (oh, sorry, privateer). Now, there’s a certain suspension of disbelief required for me to accept that a 20-year-old heir to a dukedom would take up piracy. The whole interlude didn’t really speak well of James’ character (and I’d previously rather liked him), though of course he’s kind of a Disneyfied pirate, only raiding other pirate ships and only killing really bad pirates. His attitude in the scenes depicting his years (yes, I said years) of piracy reminded me of nothing so much as Max from Where the Wild Things Are – he’s run away from home and he’s sulking his way through an awful adventure.

Meanwhile, Theo languishes in the country, rebuilding her absent husband’s family fortune. I was a bit disappointed here, too; there had been a number of indications that Theo had a strong personality and some interesting ideas about fashion and style that might bring her out of ugly-ducklingville and into swan city. Theo does head in that direction eventually, but it takes a while.

I liked the way that Theo’s looks were dealt with – often an unattractive heroine in a historical romance will have features like overly plump lips or big bosoms or thick hair or other traits that may (or may not) have been unfashionable at the time but are clearly meant to convey to the modern reader that she’d be considered attractive today. Theo instead seems to have the sort of strong features that might get a woman called “handsome” or “striking” – in a sincere, not a backhanded-compliment way. She’s not conventionally pretty, in other words, but she knows how to show her looks to their best advantage.

The pacing of The Ugly Duchess feels uneven at times – the last third of the book takes place over a much shorter period time than I expected it to, given the issues that needed to be resolved. The characters can be inconsistent, also, and some storyline threads are hinted at but not pursued (for instance, I felt it was strongly suggested early in the book that James was dyslexic, but it was never touched on again). I did like that some of James’ earlier traits – he has a fierce temper, for one – are shown to have been moderated by time and maturity. At the same it, it bugged me a bit that James had seemingly been improved by the separation, whereas Theo was really only healed of her neuroses (some of which had actually been triggered by James running off) by James’ return.

All in all, I felt like The Ugly Duchess had a really strong beginning, a problematic middle, and ultimately a satisfying (though also problematic) ending. Even when I was annoyed by the book or the characters, though, I found the story very readable and compelling. My grade is a B+. Now, to get to that backlist!

Regards,

Jennie

 

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