JOINT REVIEW: Someone to Honor by Mary Balogh (part the first)
PLEASE NOTE: We are planning a spoilerific discussion for later on, once the book has been out a little while and readers have had a chance to read it for themselves. The discussion below is spoiler-free.
Kaetrin: Someone to Honor is book 6 in the Westcott series. In book one, Someone to Love, a bigamous marriage was exposed upon the death of the former Earl of Riverdale, thus unveiling an heiress and rendering three of his children illegitimate. Abigail Westcott was the youngest daughter thus affected. At the time aged 18, she had been just about to make her come-out in the world of the ton but it was no longer something open to her given the “stain of her birth”. Now, six years later, she has successfully and continually resisted being drawn back into the world of fashionable society. None of her family seem to understand that she does not wish to participate. She has powerful relatives – an earl, a duke and a marquess – all of whom stand ready to add to her countenance. She would be received in many places and would be able to make a good marriage – although perhaps not as high as previous to the news her father was not legally married to her mother (on account of having a former, still-living-at-the-time, secret wife). But Abby doesn’t want it.
Janine: I thought Abby was right in feeling that she didn’t want to marry into a family that would consider her lesser, even if they did accept her.
I don’t know if, in the real regency, even the aid and support of Abby’s powerful relatives would have been enough to overcome the obstacle of her illegitimacy, but since that idea was baked into the novel from the beginning, and since the plot wasn’t about Abby marrying into the nobility, it wasn’t hard to go with the flow.
Kaetrin: Yes, I always liked that Abby’s sense of herself wasn’t confined to society’s view; that she wasn’t prepared to accept the label as less-than.
Since her mother married the Marquess of Dorchester in Someone to Care, Abby has been living with them at one or other of his various properties, away from her childhood home of Hinsford Manor in Hampshire. At the start of Someone to Honor, Abby’s beloved brother, Harry, has returned to England from a long convalescence after injuries sustained at Waterloo and has gone to Hinsford to continue his recovery. Of course, the entire family descend on Hinsford to see him. They had not seen him for two years and had been in imminent fear of him dying and the Westcotts are a very close family, so it was no surprise they would do so. Harry’s presence at Hinsford, the place she thinks of as “home”, gives Abby the opportunity to stay behind with Harry and that is what she decides to do.
Harry was accompanied home by his friend and fellow officer, Lieutenant Colonel Gil Bennington. Harry has asked Gil to stay and keep him company as he continues to return to health. Gil feels strongly that the reason Harry is still so unwell is that the doctors in Paris insisted on keeping Harry indoors, eating only “invalid food” and bleeding him as a treatment for any fever. It’s no wonder Harry hasn’t thrived. Harry is heartily sick of doctors and treatment. He wants quiet companionship and support in getting his strength back and he definitely doesn’t want to be hovered over.
Gil is a widower with a two-year-old daughter, Katy. Katy was taken by his wife, Caroline, to her family before she ran off to party with friends when Gil was fighting at Waterloo. Caroline died and her parents have kept his daughter, refusing to even let Gil see her.
Gil has kept most of his this to himself; Harry only knows that Gil is a widower with a daughter and believes Gil is taking some time before taking on the daunting responsibility of single-parenthood. Gil would be only too happy to take on the task but it has not been allowed to him by General Sir and Lady Pascoe, his parents-in-law. He has retained a lawyer who came highly recommended and the lawyer’s advice is to sit back and wait while he does his thing. Gil isn’t keen on this plan but feels he has no other choice.
Gil is a doting father – or, he was for the brief period after Katy was born and before he was recalled to fight in France but his marriage wasn’t happy. After Waterloo he came home to find his wife and daughter missing. When he finally managed to locate Katy and was not allowed to see her, he did become very angry and upset (of course) but not violent, and then suddenly he was assigned to St. Helena to guard Napoleon – which kept him away from England for another year. Gil knows full well how that assignment came about. It’s convenient for Gil to stay at Hinsford with Harry, to help his friend and to await his fate at the hands of lawyers and the court system.
Gil is the illegitimate son of the daughter of a blacksmith and a more well-to-do man. He was raised solely by his mother, who took work as a washerwoman after she was disowned by her family.
Gil and his mother were extremely poor. Gil’s mother insisted he attend the local school and learn to read and write however. At age 14 he “took the king’s shilling” and enlisted in the army. After the death of his mother, his father bought him an officer’s commission without Gil’s knowledge and then a promotion to Lieutenant. But Gil is a very prideful man and, having heard nothing from his father for his entire life before then, he makes it clear he will accept nothing further from his sire. Gil’s other promotions have been solely on merit. He does feel like an imposter though. He’s “not a gentleman.” He speaks of himself as “guttersnipe”. He doesn’t belong with the officer class. He was far happier as a sergeant.
Janine: The mystery around Gil’s father–who he was, why he’d bought those commissions for Gil after abandoning Gil and refusing to marry his mother, and whether or not this would be pursued further, made Gil’s backstory all the more intriguing.
Gil performs well as an officer despite his reluctance to be in a higher echelon. And he is not at all in need of his father’s charity. He wins prizes in military competitions that, after being well-invested, net him a large house that isn’t quite a mansion. Gil dreams of returning there with his daughter and making a life there.
Kaetrin: When the Westcott family come en masse to Hinsford to see Harry, Gil tries to keep himself apart. He is not of their class after all. But he doesn’t announce to them all the circumstances of his birth either. Their assumption is that he is in fact a gentleman. His manners and bearing as well as his rank indicate that very thing.
Gil has a nasty scar across one side of his face, down his neck and across his shoulder, courtesy of a bayonet, and he is a very large muscular man, so his appearance can be daunting. He has dark hair and dark eyes and he’s quite severe – even dour. He doesn’t smile, not for most of the book. He’s aware that a judge could well take one look at him and believe the stories his in-laws would tell of his violent nature. He’s not handsome but he is described as gorgeous. He’s my type of guy.
Janine: I loved Gil’s commoner status and even more so, his dourness, because they made him such a refreshing, different hero. I tried to think of a hero like him in romance and couldn’t (Cecilia Grant’s dour military man in A Gentleman Undone, Will Blackshear, was the closest I could come, but Will was a gentleman and therefore less exceptional. In addition, Gil’s dourness was more compelling because it served to conceal his true nature and then to reveal his past).
I love the way Balogh introduces and builds on Gil’s character. He’s a study in contrasts–a face that was once gorgeous now marked with a forbidding scar. A dour, closed-off demeanor in man who needs love and secretly wants happiness, no matter that he denies these needs. An almost frightening appearance, though everyone is safe with him.
The descriptions of his physicality and expressions in Abby’s POV highlight that. I was reminded a bit of the descriptions with which the characters in Balogh’s The Temporary Wife (for my money, a book that contains some of her best writing) are introduced; Charity as a drab, mousy woman and Anthony with his shuttered eyes. In both books Balogh takes the risk of turning the readers off, but the misleading introductions pay off in spades when we come to know the characters.
Kaetrin: Yes, I loved Gil’s reticence. It felt familiar and relatable. I loved his steadiness as well and something about him was restful too (when he wasn’t stressing about his daughter). It may not sound very sexy or exciting but he’s the kind of guy I’d want to spend years with. I place a high value on those things – in fact I married a man of similar character, though perhaps a little less dour (depending on one’s point of view I suppose!).
Gil and Abby’s first meeting is not auspicious.
Janine: God, I loved the way they met, too. Abby stumbles on a shirtless Will chopping wood and she’s both attracted and repelled. I thought that was so interesting.
Kaetrin: They don’t like each other at all.
Janine: Yes. She mistakes him for a servant and is so flustered that she overcompensates with a reprimand. Gil mistakes her distance for haughtiness and coldness at first.
Kaetrin: But over the weeks they spend at Hinsford together with Harry, they realise that their first impressions were incorrect and they begin to confide in one another.
Janine: Abby learns that Gil is gentle and sweet underneath his dour and frightening demeanor. Gil realizes that Abby is as far as she could be from the haughty lady he first mistook her for.
Kaetrin: Gil has plenty of opportunities to show his gentle side – with the Westcott children at the start, with Beauty, his dog, with Abby and with Harry, with Katy. He is unlikely ever to be a man of flowery words but he would never let anyone down and he is not sparing in his affections.
Abby sees through the facade after a while and realises that Gil’s severe unsmiling stoicism is a mask. For Abby it’s more about her finally finding the place she belongs. She’s been in something of a holding pattern since the revelations about her father.
Even though they are both illegitimate, Gil feels the stain more than Abby does. Abby, as it turns out, feels freed by the events of six years before, even if she did not appreciate that initially.
Janine: I thought Balogh did such a good job of contrasting their different types of illegitimacy. Gil had never been acknowledged by his father and was all alone in the world, whereas Abby had a loving and supportive family. And she had been brought up in a higher class than Will.
Kaetrin: Both characters are quiet and self-possessed, not sharing a lot of their inner lives with others. But for some inexplicable reason (we readers know what it is of course!) they find themselves confiding in one another and telling each other deeper truths.
Janine: The way this unfolded was fascinating, too. The confessions were unplanned and reluctant; they didn’t even understand why these conversations were happening at first.
“To return to your original question. I do not want to be married because of what I am, Lieutenant Colonel Bennington. At present that is the illegitimate daughter of the late Earl of Riverdale, under the determined protection of the powerful and well-connected Westcott family as well as that of the Marquess of Dorchester, my stepfather. Neither do I want to be married despite what I am. I want to be married, if I am to be married at all, that is, for who I am.”
“And who is that?” he asked.
Abby doesn’t care about his birth but it is definitely a sore spot for Gil. I did get a little impatient with him from time to time because he wasn’t treated as less-than by Harry or Abby and he had plenty to recommend him in his character and abilities. What saved me from thinking him a bit …whiny was that he was impatient with himself about it. He knew he ought not to feel the way he did but he felt it anyway and that made him very relatable. We all have things like that where our feelings don’t necessarily match what we know (or ought to know) to be true.
Janine: I didn’t get impatient with Gil at all. He had every reason to feel as he did–you can’t get much lower on the social rung than being a blacksmith’s illegitimate grandson. The class system drilled people’s social stations into them. When you add Gil’s experience with Caroline and her parents into the mix, I didn’t see why he would feel differently. That he knew he shouldn’t feel this way was something I saw as a mark of his self-esteem. He had enough self-worth to recognize the injustice of his circumstances and to see that, though he could probably never say so to most people with a revolution over class injustices having recently raged in France, he was no less and no more valuable than anyone else.
Kaetrin: I think Gil had the biggest story arc in the book. As a hero-centric reader this worked really well for me.
Janine: I can center around either protagonist or both in a romance. Here, though Abby was a lovely character, sensitive and caring, determined on her autonomy from her family’s good intentions and on being guided by her instincts rather than by other people’s, I was all about Gil. He was the most unusual character. And you’re right about him having the biggest arc; he had to learn to shed his dourness and allow himself to accept that he could be loved.
Abby discovers the rewards of standing up for herself and claiming her autonomy. She works out who Gil is and how to help him learn happiness. She is the perfect person to teach him that because she’s had the foundation of a loving family for her entire life. As she starts to thaw him, she also becomes invested in the outcome of his custody battle and decides to do all that she can to help him.
Kaetrin: The romance was subtle in many respects, at least for the first half to two thirds of the book but very intimate also. Both characters spend a lot of time in their heads but I never became impatient with them for it. They seemed like my people in fact!
Janine: Internal monologues get a bad rap among genre readers. They can be very effective when used to peel back layers, as they are here. And this book was slow burn, so they were needed. Not a single one was wasted. I caught an anachronistic word in one of them; “defeatist,” which is from 1917. But that was the only word choice that jarred me.
Kaetrin: Once again Avery, Duke of Netherby, has some telling lines. At one stage I was all “Yasss!” when he spoke. There may have been a fist pump.
Janine: Avery is such a great character! Aside from his martial arts backstory, which has issues, I have loved everything about him from the first scene of book one.
I was again delighted that Matilda got to be more than fussy old aunt. I am firmly #TeamMatilda now. There is also a hint of the romance to come for her. I am so excited for her book!! (Someone to Remember – out in November this year.)
Janine: Yesss. I was so excited when her book listed on Amazon, I had to email you right away! I’ve wanted Matilda to have her story told for a while now, and I didn’t think we’d get more than a subplot. So yay!
Balogh has been breaking with convention in book after book in this series. In book one we had Avery, with his short stature, feminine appearance, quizzing glass, numerous rings and affected manners. Book two was set largely in an orphanage. Book three had a heroine with a large birthmark on her face. Book four had a forty-three year old heroine. Book five paired a heroine in her thirties with a hero in his twenties. This book gives us Gil, with his illegitimacy and low birth. And now we can anticipate Matilda’s book–I think she is in her fifties! I love this aspect of the series.
I am also eager for Harry’s book after reading this one. Harry plays an important role in this book which I won’t spoil, and he’s another character I’ve liked from the beginning. I’m sure he’ll get a book. Do you think that Jessica will get one too?
Kaetrin: Oh I hope so! I’d like Estelle and Bertrand to get books also. I want everyone to have books! LOL.
Janine: There are a few quibbles we’ll go into in Part II because they’re a touch spoilery, but overall this was a terrific book.
Kaetrin: I’m waffling between a B+ and an A- for the grade. I thought the ending was a little abrupt. That may have been because I was expecting another 30 pages and it turned out that there was an excerpt from an earlier book taking up most of that space and I only had about 8 pages to go. Objectively the story was done but I wanted a little more even so. I’m contrary like that.
Janine: I felt similarly, but I think that 90% of that was due to the excerpt. I was kicking myself for not having read the table of contents more carefully. I did feel that I wanted a slightly stronger, more triumphant note at the end for Abby. But perhaps Balogh wanted us to know that Gil’s arc would continue in future books. Even smiling was a leap for him. There are things to appreciate about that choice, too.
Kaetrin: Oh the last line was a delight.
What is your grade Janine?
Janine: This is my favorite book in the series. My grade is an A-.
Kaetrin: Yes, I’ve decided to go with an A- too.