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REVIEW:  The Game and the Governess by Kate Noble

REVIEW: The Game and the Governess by Kate Noble

Dear Ms. Noble,

A few friends of mine have been recommending your books to me for a while now, and so this summer I got The Game and the Governess.

The-Game-and-the-GovernessThe novel begins in 1817, at Mrs. Beveridge’s School in Surrey. Phoebe Baker, a young lady educated at the school, became a charity pupil when her father’s fortune was stolen by his secretary, Mr. Sharp. Now the school term is coming to a close and eighteen year old Phoebe, whose father died shortly after losing the money, must make her own way in the world.

Phoebe writes an angry letter to the man she blames for her misfortune, the Earl of Ashby. The earl once employed Mr. Sharp, the same secretary her father later hired. Lord Ashby knew Mr. Sharp’s character, since he too was one of Sharp’s victims, but chose not to bring Sharp to justice, in order to protect himself from becoming a laughingstock.

In her letter, Phoebe tells the earl that she holds him responsible for what befell her, and that if they ever meet, she will make him pay—not out of malice, but for justice.

Five years pass, and the next scene introduces Ned Granville, the earl. After being swindled by Sharp, Ned hired his good army friend John Turner to act as his secretary. John took the position on a temporary basis, intending to save the money needed to restore his family’s mill, but disasters struck and prolonged his service to Ned, and Ned, who doesn’t understand John’s desire to be his own man, will not loan him the money needed to fix up the mill.

One night, while Ned, John and a third army friend, Dr. Rhys Gray, are playing cards, “Lucky Ned” has a winning streak. A debate begins between Ned and John as to the nature of Ned’s good fortune, both with the ladies and otherwise. John deems it a direct result of Ned’s position as an earl.

The argument turns into a wager. John and Ned agree to trade places while on a trip to Leicestershire, where Ned must go to decide whether to sell his deceased mother’s house. While staying at a nearby estate owned by Sir Nathan Widcoate and his wife, Lady Widcoate, Ned will take on the role of the earl’s secretary and John the role of the earl.

If Ned can, while working in John’s position, successfully win a dance in public, a token of affection, and intimate knowledge from a lady, he will win the wager and with it, John’s mill. If he cannot, John will win five thousand pounds, enough money with which to fix the mill and quit the position of secretary. Neither man realizes Phoebe Baker is the Widcoates’ governess.

At the Widcoates’, Ned slowly catches on to the fact that a secretary is treated far less deferentially than an earl, and although the house is full of young female guests, all of them have set their caps for John.

Deprived of the privileges he takes for granted and rebuffed at every turn, Ned finally, when he learns the Widcoates’ young governess was brought up as a lady, sees his chance. He and the governess alone are housed in cramped rooms on the third floor, so he has ample opportunity to get to know her.

In the five years since she left Mrs. Beveridge’s School, Phoebe has learned to find the good in the world. Despite a position that requires her never to smile in public, Phoebe finds at least one absurdity in each day—something to laugh over, if only in private.

Phoebe loves the children she teaches, but realizes someday soon they will be too old to need a governess. She has been saving her money to purchase a ticket aboard a ship that will take her to her relatives in America and away from the exacting standards of her employers.

Years ago Phoebe gave up her vengeful plans for the Earl of Ashby, but his presence at her place of employment upsets her. Her feelings of uneasiness don’t extend to the earl’s oddly-behaved “secretary,” at least, not until he tries to steal a kiss.

Ned’s apology the next day is sincere and accompanied by a huge favor, and as she begins to become better acquainted with him, Phoebe realizes she is in danger of losing her heart—and possibly her position.

Will Ned win his wager with John? Will his eyes be opened and will he realize what a snotty jerk he has been? Will he realize his growing feelings for Phoebe have little to do with the wager? And what will happen when Phoebe discovers that he is the man she holds responsible for her own change in position?

In case it isn’t clear from the plot summary above, Ned begins the book as a spoiled, over-privileged ass with a sense of entitlement. He has a steep learning curve ahead of him and at first I found him hard to read about.

I kept reading not because I liked anything about him right away, but because I felt the narrative was conscious of his arrogant sense of entitlement and was heading for an interrogation of privilege, while Ned himself was heading for a rude awakening. Happily, this turned out to be the case.

Ned’s arrogance was not of the overbearing, dictatorial variety, but rather that of a jovial aristocrat blinded by his own privileged position and blithely unaware of the full effects of his actions on others.

Thus, when Ned arrives at the Widcoates’ estate and begins to get his comeuppance, it takes him a while to realize that the women in the household aren’t interested in his attentions. When he tries to play footsie with one guest and later to kiss Phoebe, he gets a couple of magnificent setdowns and one person goes even further to “put him in his place.”

Eventually the ugly truth does begin to penetrate Ned’s thick skull, and slowly he loses his sense of entitlement and most (but not all) of his arrogance. He also learns to enjoy working for what he wants, and to feel empathy and appreciation for people not of his status. This transformation is at times subtle, but it’s there, and while I didn’t fall in love with Ned at any point, I greatly enjoyed watching him grow as a human being.

Phoebe is another story, in the sense that I loved her almost from the moment she reappeared in the book five years after being dispossessed. As a governess, she is neither a servant nor a lady of the house, and is therefore isolated and vulnerable.

Her intelligence and her empathy are both in evidence, and as she slowly begins to trust Ned, I became invested in the relationship and in my hope that he would treat her as she deserved, not just as an object for his wager with John.

It was a joy to see Phoebe bloom from the unsmiling governess into someone who could joke with another human being, confide in him, and come to trust him. But even while it was a joy, I was in suspense the whole time to see if Ned would prove worthy of her trust.

Phoebe and Ned both have affecting backstories. I won’t reveal them here, but Ned’s helped me understand and even sympathize with him, while Phoebe’s broke my heart. I waited with bated breath to see what would happen once Phoebe learned the truth of Ned’s identity, and I appreciated the exquisite suspense with which this was drawn out.

Another thing I enjoyed a great deal was that Ned and Phoebe weren’t immediately attracted to each other. Instead being gripped with instalust, the characters slowly become acquainted, which imbued the moments of physical intimacy with romance. That holds true of all but a sex scene that comes late in the book and feels shoehorned into the story.

The prose style was enjoyable as well. It has an elegant simplicity punctuated by humorous moments, such as Ned’s insistence on responding to everything—even setbacks—with the utterance “Brilliant! Marvelous!” which takes on a delicious irony when he doesn’t mean it in the least. I even liked the chapter headings, which read like something from the rulebook for a betting game, titles like “The first hand is played.” And “Sometimes, even a novice player has to wager everything.”

The book was heading for keeper status, but then came the final 15% of the novel, the first part of which contained elements that felt like they belong in a book from another genre.

Spoiler: Show

The story briefly devolves into a different game – one of “Was it Colonel Mustard in the living room with the wrench?”

Once that’s over, there isn’t enough page space left to let the fallout from Edward’s deception play out fully, so we get a rushed and not entirely satisfying resolution.

Still, I was glad to read a book which does not treat all aristocrats as noble-hearted hero material and plays out on one level like a courtship between a governess and a secretary, where—equally refreshing—the main characters don’t ogle each other’s body parts or get hard and wet before they know each other. For its thoughtful sensibility, The Game and the Governess gets a B.

Sincerely,

Janine

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REVIEW:  Knaves’ Wager by Loretta Chase

REVIEW: Knaves’ Wager by Loretta Chase

Dear Ms. Chase,

I’m sure you are familiar with Choderlos de Laclos’ 18th century epistolary novel, Les Liaisons dangereuses. It has been adapted to stage and screen, and the cinematic versions include Dangerous Liaisons, Valmont, and Cruel Intentions, among others.

Knaves' Wager by Loretta ChaseIn Les Liaisons dangereuses, the corrupt Vicomte de Valmont wants to seduce the married Madame de Tourvel, widely known for her incorruptible virtue. Valmont is interested in Madame de Tourvel not only because she presents a challenge, but also because he has a wager riding on it. The beautiful Marquise de Merteuil has promised to spend a night with him if he succeeds.

For some reason, I’ve long enjoyed romances whose plots bear a similarity to Les Liaisons dangereuses, as your book Knaves’ Wager does. First published in 1990 as a traditional regency in the Avon line, Knaves’ Wager has been recommended to me by several people, including DA’s Sunita. I’ve been eager to read it for a while, but all the more so recently, thanks to a Twitter conversation. Imagine my surprise and delight when, a few days after that discussion, Knaves’ Wager was released as an ebook.

Knaves’ Wager begins with Lilith Davenant, a 28 year old widow, traveling to London with her niece, Cecily Glenwood. Lilith is described this way:

Lilith Davenant was tall, slim, and strong. Her classical features—a decided jaw, a straight, imperious nose, and high, prominent cheekbones—had been carved firmly and clearly upon cool alabaster. Her eyes were an uncompromising slate blue, their gaze direct, assured, and often, chilly.

Lilith seems as cold as a slab of marble, but she has one soft spot: her nieces. Like her elder and younger sisters, Cecily has thoughtless, unreliable parents, and thus depends on Lilith’s personal and financial assistance to enter the marriage mart.

Unfortunately, Lilith’s once-considerable fortune has dwindled. What her late and feckless husband didn’t gamble away her former man of business invested badly. To add insult to injury, Lilith has recently discovered an old debt of her late husband’s owed to the Marquess of Brandon, a man who gambled and caroused with Lilith’s husband, driving him to his death in the process.

The idea of being indebted to Brandon is loathsome to Lilith, but if she pays back the money her husband owed him, she will not have enough funds left to bring out her four young nieces unless she does the unthinkable and marries again.

Lilith loved her late husband, but he was faithless and debauched throughout their marriage, and ignored her except for brief and unpleasant nighttime visits. Now Lilith dreads physical intimacy and has no desire to ever marry. But marry she must, if she is to pay off her debt to the Marquess of Brandon and finance her nieces’ come-outs.

This conflict comes to a head when Lilith and Cecily encounter a curricle by the side of the road. The curricle’s owner lies beneath it, injured. Lilith has him transported to the nearest inn where she sends for a doctor. The injured man, Mr. Wyndhurst, is arrogant, insolent, and possibly depraved. He is described in Lilith’s POV as “the very model of a bored, dissolute scoundrel.”

Lilith and Wyndhurst exchange some words as she feeds him broth, enough for him to attempt seduction and meet with a cold rebuff. The next morning, Lilith learns that Wyndhurst’s relations came and got him, and he has paid his bill, leaving a cheeky message for her with the innkeeper, one that causes Lilith to smart – but not as much as does the innkeeper’s new information: Mr. Wyndhurst is Julian, Marquess of Brandon, the same man whom Lilith blames for the death of her husband.

Unable to bear the thought of remaining in Julian’s debt, Lilith orders her man of business to pay back the money she owes and accepts an offer of marriage which she had been weighing. Her new fiancé is Sir Thomas Bexley, a widowed, short and balding baronet with diplomatic ambitions.

Sir Thomas no more loves Lilith than she loves him, but he admires her unimpeachable character and believes that marrying her can only serve his political aspirations well. For her part, Lilith plans to be a good fiancée and wife to Sir Thomas. She is grateful that his considerable wealth will allow her to continue bringing out her nieces.

Meanwhile, Julian, Marquess of Brandon, is exhorted by his relatives to travel to London and liberate his cousin Lord Robert from an unfortunate betrothal to a French courtesan, Elise. Julian could care less what happens to Robert, but Derbyshire is boring, and London offers the presence of one Lilith Davenant. Julian wants to amuse himself by seducing Lilith because of an attraction he sensed when he met her, and because he knows she will resist him with all her strength.

In London Julian discovers that Elise is almost as wily as himself. His cousin Robert has written love letters to the French courtesan and she will not easily release them. She plans to use them to sue for breach of promise should Robert back out of his proposal.

Julian threatens to have Elise’s house broken into if she does not hand them over, but Elise, who senses Julian’s desire for Lilith, offers him an alternative: seduce Lilith within eight weeks, and Elise will hand over the letters freely. Fail, and the compromising letters are Elise’s to do with as she sees fit.

A challenge is irresistible to Julian, and a challenge accompanied by a wager is even more piquant. While his cousin Robert slowly falls for Cecily, Julian employs will, charm, and underhanded scheming in a campaign to seduce Lilith. But Lilith has considerable will, charm, and brains of her own. Will Julian’s win his knaves’ wager? Or will it cost him his heart?

I won’t call Knaves’ Wager a redemption story because that’s not exactly what it is. It’s more of a story of two people opening up to one another despite very different aims, discovering the truth of their hearts and minds, and growing in the process.

The electronic version, which I read, has a handful of OCR errors, so on occasion a word can puzzle or amuse. For example a minor character named Hobhouse has his name spelled “Hothouse” at least once.

Readers should also be aware that this book is written in a very different style from your current novels. It’s less humorous, more serious, and wordier as well. Dialogue can be longer and the pacing of the novel is slow and deliberate compared to the pacing of today’s books. Although on occasion I did wish more would happen a touch faster, for the most part I was deeply absorbed.

Julian begins the book with the goal to seduce Lilith, nothing less and nothing more. His initial reasons, at least those he acknowledges to himself, are somewhere between mischievous and villainous. He’s charming enough that it’s hard to dislike him, but it’s also hard to trust him for quite a while. He wants to prove he can bed Lilith, but beneath that, he’s also drawn to her strength, and because he has to work to breach her defenses, she breaches his own in the process.

There’s a lovely journey of self-discovery for Julian as that happens. He is so unused to being in love that he mistakes his emotions until it’s almost too late.

Lilith was an absolutely wonderful character. I have a love for protagonists with a “still waters run deep” quality, and Lilith is such a one. Beneath the cool exterior she presents to the world lies a vulnerable woman who both needs and deserves love, and just as Julian has to mature enough to realize he is capable of loving, Lilith must eventually arrive at the realization that marrying Sir Thomas would be a mistake.

In the interim, her attraction to Julian tortures her; not only does she have no illusions about his intentions toward her, she also feels guilty for betraying Sir Thomas, if only in her heart.

It would be remiss of me not to mention that there are no sex scenes, but although I wanted one, just to see how it would have gone, I never felt the book lacked sexual tension. That was something it had in spades, due to the terrific chemistry between the main characters.

Lilith also read older than her 28 years to me, but again, this didn’t lessen my enjoyment much. There was a level of maturity to the story that is rare and that I greatly welcome.

Knave’s Wager satisfied me to a degree few books do these days. It is easy to see why so many readers love it and why some consider it a genre classic. I am giving it an A- grade.

Sincerely,

Janine Ballard

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