REVIEW: The Ruin of Evangeline Jones by Julia Bennet
Dear Julia Bennet,
Your book, set in 1888 London, sounded like something I would enjoy so I took a chance and bought it. The story starts with a séance. The titular heroine is a “medium” while the hero, Alex (a duke), has a passion for unmasking con artists. He is particularly interested in Evie; before meeting her he stumbled on an erotic picture of her at a printer’s shop and bought it. He is obsessed with the photograph and he carries it in his pocket. Alex is also broke; his father was a wastrel who got them into debt before he died so Alex has to marry for money.
Since the age of twelve, Evie has been working for “Captain,” a mysterious Svengali figure. Captain rescued Evie when she was a child. She was a servant at a brothel has recently turned twelve, so she would soon have been working on her back had Captain not found her. Captain masterminds their cons and takes the majority of her earnings. Evie knows he’s bad news, but she still feels some gratitude and does not know how to extricate herself from their connection.
At the séance, Alex tries to expose Evie but can’t figure out how she pulls off her tricks. She makes a good guess at what his late father might have said to him and for a moment he buys into it. Alex is freaked out at first, but after leaving he pulls himself together and wants more than ever to ruin her. So Alex offers Evie a wager. She will allow him to shadow her as during each of her supposed contacts with the dead for a week. If he can prove she’s not a medium, she will publicly repudiate herself and her work. If he can’t, he’ll pay her a hefty sum.
Captain tells Evie to take the bet but she is concerned that Alex is not stupid and the closer he gets, the more likely he is to catch her out. But Captain insists that she accept the wager anyhow and since displeasing Captain is also dangerous she caves.
The more time they spend together the hotter Alex’s attraction to Evie burns. When, during a carriage ride, she discovers he has her semi-nude photo and carries it with him, she insists that he get himself off while she watches. And he does.
Evie soon realizes that the photo didn’t find its way to Alex randomly; Captain made certain of it. Captain wants to throw them together, wants for Evie to entice Alex for some nefarious purpose. But Evie begins to have feelings for Alex and he for her. If Captain’s motives are sinister, as Evie senses, will she comply with his orders where Alex is concerned?
This book showed a lot of potential at first. Evie is an intriguing and unusual character, streetwise but not cynical, deceptive but honorable in her own way. She does not con people who are grieving for long and she tries to comfort them; it’s the people who attend seances as a lark or for titillation that she squeezes most of the money from.
I liked her and at first she captured my attention. Her relationship with Captain was one of the most interesting aspects of her character—I don’t remember ever reading about a heroine who had a male mentor/manager in the art of running cons. Evie didn’t set out to be a con artist and would not have become one if Captain hadn’t insisted.
Captain is also an interesting character; clearly a bad guy but not in a cartoonish way. It’s easy to understand why Evie once looked up to him. He has a kind of magnetic pull.
Alex, though, is boring and morose. I have loved some brooding heroes but I think they work best when there’s energy to their brooding, when it’s an outgrowth of their journey toward an irrevocable action or a powerful conflict. This was not the case with Alex. He brooded but didn’t do enough about his situation or his relationship with Evie. In the 53% I read it was Evie who was the driving force.
It’s a problem when the villain has more charisma than the hero does. It was also hard to invest in Alex’s dilemma about having to marry into money because I didn’t see him fall in love.
And that brings me to what may be the book’s biggest problem: pacing. The romantic relationship feels rushed. When Alex and Evie recognize that they care for each other, there’s no basis for these feelings. They just pop out from nowhere. It’s all the more jarring because in Alex’s case he has reason to distrust Evie and in Evie’s case, Alex is so dull that it’s hard to see what attracts her to him.
As I said to a friend, seeing the characters fall in love is one of the top two things readers come to romance for (the other being the happy ending). For a book to fail on this score is a significant flaw. And even though the romantic relationship is rushed, the external plot is sluggish. For big chunks of the 53% I read, nothing happens in terms of the plot. It barely moves.
My other big issue was anachronistic language. “Knock-on effects” (1972), “definitely” used as an emphatic affirmative (1931), channeling in “channeling his anger into fear” (this usage of “channeling” from 1919), “no-frills” (1921), “collision course” (1944) as well as jarring phrases like “so, message received” can all be found here. It’s a crying shame because otherwise the writing and particularly the sentence rhythms are lovely. Here are two examples:
Pedestrians trudged past, shoulders hunched, heads down, uniformly damp and miserable.
Ever since the séance—no, even before that. Ever since he’d first seen that photograph, his behavior had been unsatisfactory—Yes, that seemed the best word—but he observed his own rash conduct as if hovering outside himself.
Every time I started to enjoy the beauty of the language, an anachronism sprang up, and another, and another, like weeds choking what could have been a pretty garden.
I did not notice any anachronisms in the story itself. Aside from the language, the author seems to have done some research into the period. Nevertheless, I wanted more period details. By 1888 there were telephones, tramways, and electric lights. In the first 53% of the book, I did not see much of that. There was a photographer who used flash powder for flash photography and that was good but I wanted more.
I liked the details about how Evie and Captain pulled off their cons, the tricks of their trade. These were interesting to learn about and added dimension to the worldbuilding.
There was also nice sexual tension to the carriage scene I described above. It was fresh and I have not seen anything like it before. But it didn’t go anywhere for chapters afterward, and Alex’s morose personality put a damper on that little spark.
In addition to the issues I’ve mentioned, some of the characters’ motivations are weak. Take Captain—he has a scheme that depends on Alex falling for Evie, and to that end, he made sure Alex saw the erotic picture of Evie in a small print shop on Holywell street. But how could Captain know that Alex would purchase the picture, become obsessed with it and that it would attract him to and lead him to fall in love with Evie? That’s not something that can be engineered so Captain’s motivation seemed shaky to say the least.
Similarly, Alex promises Evie a princely sum if she wins their bet. But how can he possibly afford to pay her that amount when he has no money and a mountain of debts? Does he know with 100% certainty that there’s no way she can win? Does he plan on shorting her if she does? Neither explanation is given, perhaps because any explanation would paint him in an unflattering light.
At the 53% mark I lost interest in the book and put it down unfinished. It’s too bad because the heroine is interesting and so is the plot concept. But the hero is annoying, as are the numerous anachronisms and the slow pace. DNF.
I really enjoyed this book a great deal. To me it seemed like a much better version of the setup from Courtney Milan’s book Proof By Seduction (which I really disliked because the hero was so unpleasant and even convinced the heroine that somehow she should be punished for what amounted to helping a number of people). I didn’t find Alex boring at all. I am not sure if this is partly because I knew him from Julia Bennett’s first book ‘The Madness of Miss Grey” which I liked even more than this one.
I didn’t have the problem with the anachronisms you did because I did think the novel had a nice atmosphere and I felt immersed in the late 19th century (unlike the Widow of Rose House which was full of anachronisms and kept pulling me out of the story- I kept thinking it was set in the 1940’s and had to remind myself it was supposed to be the 1870’s) but everyone has their own pet peeves and deal breakers when it comes to historical accuracy. Apart from the occasional oversights you mention no one in the novel spoke like an overtly modern person, at least to me.
I also thought the Captain’s plan was a long shot- but maybe he was merely hoping Alex would be fascinated by Evie rather than expecting him to fall for her. I enjoyed Evie as a heroine very much and bought into the attraction between the two leads.
Alex’s wager didn’t bother me at all because a princely sum for Evie would be very different from the kind of money Alex needed to straighten out a duke’s estates. It reminded me of Meredith Duran’s book “A Lady’s Lesson In Scandal” where the hero was using the poor heroine to help him make a lot of money but to her a knickknack from his house she considered stealing and escaping with could be life changing for her. I’ve seen figures that say a clerk at that time would earn 52 pounds a year so Alex giving her 1000 pounds would be a princely sum to her but probably wouldn’t be a drop in the bucket of what he would need to change his situation at all.
I thought the Captain was an interesting character but not as charismatic as you found him. There was always a underlying threat of force to him combined with his manipulation and bullying manner that put me off. I liked Alex and appreciated that while he suspected Evie and had reason to distrust her he never used it as an excuse to be cruel or mean to her.
Ultimately it comes down to taste. I enjoy Julia Bennett’s writing style and characters as well as her sense of atmosphere. I appreciate her employing different settings than the typical historical romances that seem centered around the “ton” and the “marriage mart” so often. I have been very dissatisfied with a lot of the historical romances I have read the past few years with some notable exceptions and I was very happy to find Julia Bennet as I think she brings something unique and original to the genre.
@Christine: I don’t remember Proof by Seduction well, just that I didn’t like it much.
I think if I’d read Bennet’s previous book I might have liked Alex better. His sister’s predicament had to have brought out strong emotion and / or action in him and in this book he lacked that. I thought about reading the other book first because I usually prefer to read books in a series in order. But then I saw that the previous book was a variation on the doctor / patient trope and that is one trope I can’t stand. I just can’t buy into that fantasy or believe that such a relationship can ever be healthy. So I noped out of that one.
I haven’t read The Widow of Rose House but I have it in my TBR pile so I’m sorry to hear that! The anachronistic language in this one really got in the way of my enjoyment. There were more anachronisms than I mentioned, actually. For example, I remember Evie used the phrase “that’s for certain” more than once. The “for” jarred me. Why not just have her say “that’s certain”? That would have sounded much more true to the time period, and the meaning would be just as clear. The anachronisms were all the more frustrating to me because in other ways the writing was so good. It was like looking at a delicious slice of cake that makes you salivate and then realizing the chocolate sauce on top of it is really mud.
W/r/t Captain’s plan—even hoping that Alex would be fascinated with Evie on the basis of one sexy photograph is a reach. Alex could just have easily skimmed over the photograph and passed over it in a matter of seconds. What if his type was a shorter blonde, or a curvier redhead? What if he was too fastidious to like sexy pictures? What if he already had a mistress or was secretly in love with someone? These were not things Captain could know.
Evie was a great character, I agree. She was the reason I kept reading for as long as I did.
That’s a great point about the money at stake in the wager. I didn’t think of that but you’re right.
I agree re Captain having an underlying threat or force combined with manipulation and bullying, and how that was off-putting. When I said he was charismatic I didn’t mean that he was attractive. Hitler is said to have been charismatic for instance; that’s how he got all these people to follow him and cheer for him. Charisma is independent of whether someone is good or bad, attractive or revolting. So what I meant was that Captain had a force of personality, that his characterization was strong enough that he jumped off the page. Alex lacked that.
I agree with you on wanting more variety in settings. I have also been hard-pressed to find good historicals in recent years. I had high hopes for this one and it wasn’t really a bad book, just kind of boring, you know? Most of the books I give DNFs too aren’t that bad. If a book is terrible I usually ditch it in the first chapter and then I don’t know enough about it to write even a DNF review.
I would recommend “The Madness of Miss Grey”. I enjoyed it more than this book and if you are worried about the doctor patient relationship aspect of it I am very critical about that and I had no problem with it. If it helps to know the hero is more of an ally of the heroine against the doctor who is in charge of the facility -who is really her doctor and has all the control. It does take a little while for the hero to understand all of what is going on with her situation and he does have some control over her at times, he’s always a force for good and never takes advantage. I would say she is the more forceful one (will wise) in the relationship. I enjoyed it very much.
I am trying to imagine my impressions of Alex without having read TMOMG first and I can’t really do it as that was my introduction to him so my favorable first impression of him comes from that novel. I’m sure it worked to set up my liking for him in this one. I did find this one more over the top plot wise (and you didn’t even make it to the end).
If you had anachronistic issues with this book then I think The Widow Of Rose House will really set off your alarms if you read it. It’s not a bad book plot wise and most people really love it, there were just so many things that kept throwing me out of it starting with the hero pulling out a pen from his jacket and writing notes at a restaurant (on a napkin maybe) in the 1870’s. The language and most of the behavior is completely modern IMHO.
The only other (new to me) historical romance author I have found recently that stands out as offering something different is S.M. LaViolette. I have read a few of her books. I enjoyed them all but they all had something that kept me from saying they were great instead of good. One book completely changed genres at the halfway point and turned into a gothic heroine in peril story from a pretty hot historical romance.
With so many of my previous must-buy authors either not producing or producing more slowly like Joanna Bourne or Meredith Duran it seems like Lisa Kleypas is one of the last HR authors on my auto buy list still actively producing.
I don’t think I’ll try TMOMG. Even if I can get past the doctor / patient aspect I expect some of the language will be anachronistic in that too. I see that S.M. LaViolette also writes as Minerva Spencer, so I’ll pass on her books too. I tried a sample of a Spencer book and she is not for me.
I agree on Lisa Kleypas. I am also reading Mary Balogh and Loretta Chase still. There are so many historical romance authors I miss–Miranda Neville, Piper Huguley, Kate Noble, Carolyn Jewel, Cecilia Grant, to name some. At least Jeannie Lin has a new one out! I have really missed her.
If you have any interest in m/m or m/m/f then I would recommend Aster Glenn Gray’s Honeytrap or The Threefold Tie. She uses unusual settings and plot concepts and I’ve yet to read anything of hers that disappointed me.