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.