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Sherry Thomas

REVIEW: His at Night by Sherry Thomas

REVIEW: His at Night by Sherry Thomas

His at Night by Sherry ThomasDear Ms. Thomas,

A new Sherry Thomas book is an occasion for rejoicing; I’ve given A grades to each of your three previous books. So I had high hopes for His at Night, hopes that were stoked further by the blurb on your website. A hero playing dumb (shades of  The Scarlet Pimpernel)? A desperate heroine and a marriage of convenience? Sign me up!  The book got off to a  slightly rocky start for me, though. More on that in a minute.

Lord Vere meets Elissande Edgerton when the houseparty he’s attending is overrun by a horde of rats. The estate of Elissande’s uncle is nearby the rat-plagued one, and so the hostess asks if Elissande can accommodate her guests while the rodent problem is being resolved.

Elissande isn’t quite sure what to do. Her uncle is away from home, and she’s alone with her frail, opium-addicted aunt. She knows her uncle, who is very private and secretive, would never allow such an invasion of his home, and she is afraid of his wrath. But as she  begins to realize that houseguests – titled, wealthy, important houseguests – just might be the key to escaping her uncle’s clutches (and taking her aunt with her), she warms to the idea. She sets her sights on Lord Vere right away; he’s both the most handsome of the newly arrived guests and a marquess.

Unfortunately, Elissande discovers at dinner that night that Vere is also thick as a brick. Like, really, really dumb. So she has to re-calibrate her plans somewhat.  She switches her attentions to his younger brother Freddie, an aspiring artist who feels protective of Vere, whose mental deficiencies can be traced to a riding accident that occurred when he was a teenager.

In fact, Vere’s not as dumb as he looks (or acts), and he has an ulterior motive for being in the household.  And that is at the root of one of my early issues with the book – Vere’s “secret” was revealed in the opening scene, an exposition-heavy discussion between Vere and his colleagues in a secret crime-fighting unit.

I didn’t quite understand Vere and his aristocratic colleagues – they weren’t spies in the traditional sense, dealing with international espionage. Instead, they appear to be a sort of private (or  quasi-government)  crime-fighting unit, using their society connections to uncover various domestic crimes ranging from theft to fraud and beyond. What was never explained was why and how the unit was formed. I didn’t understand (or, honestly, buy) the origins of this rather unlikely group.

Beyond that, what struck me strongly was that I would’ve vastly preferred to be introduced to Vere, the happy idiot, and only find out the  real story  later. I felt that unmasking him in the first scene wasted an opportunity for a very entertaining and dramatic reveal. Perhaps I’m reaching, but I felt a bit like the reader wasn’t being trusted to follow the characters if their true natures weren’t spelled out from the first.

Anyway, Vere is investigating Edmund Douglas, the wealthy owner of a South African diamond mine who is suspected of extorting money from diamond dealers. Elissande is Edmund Douglas’ niece. Douglas’ absence from home and the orchestrated rodent infestation give Vere the opportunity to search the house for evidence, and his facade means that it won’t be suspect if he, say, shows up in a room that he doesn’t belong in.

I had some qualms about Vere (called Penny, short for Spencer, by his family) from the beginning. On the one hand, a hero who is presumed to be a dimbulb is such a rarity in romance that I can’t think of another example of one (I think the closest I can come is the hero of a secondary romance in an old Mary Balogh regency – I’ve forgotten which one). Upon reading the first couple of chapters, I felt conflicted about  Vere  - on the one hand, he was an interesting and entertaining character, and  I could see the opportunity for a juicy story based on his masquerade; on the other hand,  the fact that he was deceiving everyone in his life – even his own beloved brother – was more than a bit unsavory to me. The deception of Freddie is – sort of – explained and repented for, but very late in the book. Too late for me not to spend a lot of time thinking about the fact that Penny had for half his life been perpetrating a horrible fraud on his brother, who was blameless and a very sympathetic character.

Elissande also indulges in morally suspect behavior, but her motivations were clearer and more coherent to me from the beginning, and thus she was more sympathetic, even when trying to trap Freddie and then Vere into marriage. She’s imbued with virtue by the suffering she undergoes at the hands of her vicious uncle, by the way that she tries to protect and save her aunt from him, and by  her obvious remorse for what she feels she has to do to  Vere in order to escape.

Vere and Elissande end up in an arranged marriage after being caught in a compromising position. Vere is angry, but must try to maintain his happy-idiot persona around his wife. Elissande is desperate; regretful that she had to use Vere (and that she’s married to  an irritating moron), but quite sure that she did what she had to do. Fairly quickly, Vere finds his mask slipping around Elissande, and she begins to wonder why he is pretending to be something that she strongly suspects he’s not.

This provides some interesting parallels, in that the three main characters – Vere, Elissande and Edmund – each have facades that start to crack in the course of the story. Vere’s facade is of an idiot, of course. Elissande’s facade is of a serene and loving niece (she smiles a lot) and Edmund’s of a concerned husband and uncle. Elissande and her uncle’s interactions are chilling for their menacing undercurrents, all the more because the nature of his monstrousness is left fairly vague. I really  did like that aspect of the story.

The last third of the book ramps up the action and throws in some shocking revelations; I’m not sure that I found these revelations entirely necessary or that they advanced the story much. I did like the fact that Elissande and Vere once again paralleled each other in having to accept some hard truths about their pasts. Both are genuinely tortured characters; I am a sucker for a tortured hero or heroine, and if they are both tortured, all the better (especially since it means that one is not solely responsible for “saving” the other, a trope I dislike).

There’s a lot to like in His at Night – appealing characters (my issues with Vere’s deceptions notwithstanding, I did like him), a storyline that moved briskly, and, as always, your delightful prose. What I did not like – or perhaps, it’s more accurate to say, what I found a little less sophisticated and polished than in your previous books – was a certain sensibility: call it a lack of subtlety. There were a number of instances where I felt the characters’ emotions and motivations were spelled out unnecessarily and it struck a bit  of a clunky note.  One instance occurs in a flashback, when Vere happens to overhear a villain expound on a murder he had committed. The villain then goes on to threaten his listener, a priest, that he must grant him absolution for his crime or the villain will reveal the priest’s homosexuality. There’s a lot wrong with this: the too-convenient expositiony-ness, the fact that the villain really doesn’t seem to get how religious absolution works, the overlooked detail that the villain, on his deathbed, might not have time or opportunity to spread gossip about the sexual orientation of the priest. In another instance, the hero discovers a notebook in which another villain has written a confession of murder in the margins. It reminded me of those James Bond films where the villain, instead of killing Bond when he has the chance, launches into a detailed explanation of his crimes for the enlightenment of the audience. But  I think I may have noticed these flaws more than I would’ve from a different author, and ultimately they did not greatly impact my enjoyment of the book.

Ultimately, I did enjoy His at Night very much. My grade for it is B+.

Best regards,

Jennie

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REVIEW: His at Night by Sherry Thomas

REVIEW: His at Night by Sherry Thomas

His at Night by Sherry ThomasHere is another new summer reviewer, Sunita, and her take on Sherry Thomas’ release, His at Night.

Dear Ms. Thomas,

When romance novel readers bring up their favorite books, yours are among the first and most frequently cited as exemplary works in current historical romance. Your prose is lyrical and distinctive, your characters are unusual, and I find that your voice has grown increasingly assured with each book. But while I have admired the two previous novels I read (Delicious is still in my TBR), I haven't really loved them. I could see the skill and quality in every page, but I felt distanced from the story and the characters; minor errors jumped out at me, which is a sure sign that I'm not wholly engaged. So I approached His at Night with a bit of trepidation. That trepidation turned out to be entirely misplaced.

You begin your novel by introducing us to your hero. The Marquess of Vere, an undercover agent for the Crown, is investigating Edmund Douglas, a wealthy diamond mine owner who is suspected of extortion. Vere and his confederates take advantage of Douglas’s brief absence from his estate to seek shelter there from a plague of rats which has been set loose in the house they have rented in the vicinity. Douglas’s young and lovely niece, Elissande Edgerton, is somewhat reluctant to invite them to stay, but she acquiesces.

When they first meet, Vere and Elissande are instantly attracted to each other. But Elissande quickly discovers what the Upper Ten Thousand already knows, i.e., by all appearances, Vere is a complete idiot. And Vere in turn realizes that Elissande is using the visit to entrap one of the eligible men of the party into marriage. When Elissande sets her sights on Vere’s brother Freddie, Vere moves to thwart her, only to be caught himself. At the end of their short stay, Vere has gained valuable evidence against Douglas, but he is forced to marry Elissande after being found with her in a highly compromising position.

By the time they journey to London to be married, Vere has realized that Elissande did not entrap him out of ambition but out of desperation and fear, and when they return to the estate to inform Douglas of their marriage, it becomes even clearer to him why she acted as she did. Nevertheless, he is furious at the outcome and in her presence he increasingly behaves less like the idiot the world and his brother believe him to be and more like the brilliant, unhappy, angry man that he really is. Elissande, in turn realizes that Vere wears as much of a mask as she does, and as she comes to know the man behind the mask she blames herself for her deception, which saved her and her aunt from their uncle at the cost of Vere’s freedom.

I don’t want to give away too many spoilers for a suspense plot which is integral both to the storyline and to the relationship between Vere and Elissande. As opposed to novels in which the spy subplot appears to be grafted onto a predictable romantic narrative arc in order to pad out the page length, the mystery in this book is crucial to developing the romance between the hero and the heroine. Vere and Elissande meet and then make decisions which shape their future together because of it, and they learn a great deal about themselves and each other as the mystery is unraveled. Douglas is a superb villain. You expertly convey how terrifying he is without taking him over the top, and the moments of sudden violence administered a real shock as I was reading.

In addition to the principal romance and the mystery, there is a secondary romance that should appeal to readers of Private Arrangements. Vere’s brother Freddie realizes that he has fallen in love with his recently widowed childhood friend, Angelica, but he has no idea whether she loves him and how to find out without jeopardizing their friendship. Their scenes are funny and quite sweet, and they provide a break from the intensity of the scenes between Vere and Elissande, as well as from the villainy of Douglas.

I said at the beginning of this review that I sometimes felt distanced from your heroes and heroines, even when I appreciated them. For me there was no such distance in this book. From the first time we meet Vere and Elissande, we understand how complex their interior lives are. The first few sentences of the book describe the gap between Vere’s appearance and reality:

The Marquess of Vere was a man of few words.

This fact, however, would astonish all but a select few of his numerous friends and acquaintances. The general consensus was that Lord Vere talked. And talked. And talked.

Similarly, the first scene with Elissande, when she is seeing off her uncle, signals the gap between her public and private selves and why it is so important:

Still smiling, she leaned in to kiss him on his cheek, controlling her aversion with an expertise that made her throat tighten.

He required this demonstration of familial warmth before the servants. It was not every man who disguised his evil so well that he fooled his own staff. One heard rumors of Squire Lewis's bum pinching, or Mrs. Stevenson's watering of the beer she provided her servants. But the only sentiment circulated about Mr. Douglas was a uniform admiration for his saintly patience, what with Mrs. Douglas being so frail-’and not altogether right upstairs.

At last he climbed into his carriage. The coachman, hunkered down in his mackintosh, flicked the reins. The wheels scraped wetly against the gravel drive. Elissande waved until the brougham rounded the curve; then she lowered her arm and dropped her smile.

There are other characteristics that emphasize what Vere and Elissande share, such as your choices for their escape fantasies. Vere imagines the perfect companion with a dazzlingly happy smile who takes on whatever role he needs at the time. Elissande seeks comfort from reality by reading from one of the few books she has managed to hide from her uncle, a travelogue of the Island of Capri. When they meet, each sees in the other the embodiment of their sun-filled, happy fantasies, which makes their subsequent disappointments that much more intense. But the fantasies also point to the way in which they will eventually achieve that happiness in reality. Vere and Elissande are damaged in similar ways, but their HEA is not the union of two damaged people. Rather, I believe in it because in spite of that damage, they have managed to remain people who are strong enough to embrace life and to create and share happiness with those they love.

I cannot end a review of a book by Sherry Thomas without talking about your prose. I have not always been swept up by it the way other readers have; I tend to like understated prose styles, and sometimes I found myself admiring your prose as something independent of the story, which diminishes my engagement. But this time I found that the beauty of your writing enhanced the story rather than competing with it. Sometimes it was just a sentence, at other times it was a series of scenes. The scenes of Vere and Elissande on their wedding night, and the scene where she is reciting excerpts from the travelogue to him, were all beautiful and almost heartbreaking in their poignancy. Their first conversation at dinner at Highgate Manor, and then her attempt to mimic his malapropisms during dinner after they were married both made me feel as if I were in the room.

I also liked the way that you integrated the historical context into the story, particularly the railways. Both Vere’s ability to sleep on trains (in contrast to his tendency to have nightmares everywhere else) and the way in which everyone hopped on trains to go from place to place, emphasized that this was a story set at the end of the 19th century, not the beginning.

I have one criticism about the context, and this is something I’ve found to be the case not just in your novels but more generally in historical romances. While I was too caught up in the story to catch possible historical anachronisms, I did notice that these characters were unmoored from other people. What I mean by this is that the geography and the technology of the time felt authentic, but the lack of a dense social network stood out. As a Marquess, Vere never seemed to concern himself with his estate or with an extended family. Even if he was apparently too stupid to run it, no one else seemed to be managing his vast wealth. I’m not talking about sequel bait characters, but rather the kind of world that, for example, Jo Beverley creates, or Georgette Heyer did. When I read historical accounts of the British upper classes of this time, one of the striking features is how intermarried and interconnected they are. People exist as members of families and kin networks more than as atomized individuals. I understand why Elissande’s family is isolated. But Vere and Freddie’s isolation makes less sense to me, especially since one of their initial attractions for Elissande is the power and wealth that their social position brings them.

Nevertheless, this is a minor point that didn’t detract much from my immense pleasure in reading your book. We readers of romance go through a lot of books. A few are wallbangers, more are okay but not great, even more are enjoyable, and some are more than that. When I’m reading a book that falls into that fourth and smallest category, I find myself saying “OMG, I can’t believe how good this is” with one part of my brain while the rest of it is saying “shut up and keep reading.” His At Night made me feel that way, and I thank you for that. Needless to say, this is an A read for me.

~Sunita

Book Link | Kindle | Amazon | nook | BN | Borders
| Sony | Kobo | Fictionwise | Books on Board

This is a mass market from Random House.