REVIEW: Scoundrel by Zoe Archer
Dear Ms. Archer:
This review is testimony to the strength of the second half of Scoundrel. A strong beginning plus a strong ending almost eclipses a somewhat muddled middle of this romantic adventure. Still, the unique and well-described setting (Greece), likeable characters, enjoyable and fun adventure tale, and the interesting fantasy aspects of the book made it a relatively strong read for me.
Bennett Day is, undeniably, a scoundrel. When we first meet him, he is careening through the narrow streets of Athens, trying to dodge an angry husband. As a Blade of the Rose, Bennett spends his life working to defeat the Heirs of Albion, an organization of men that seeks out and uses magic to preserve the international dominance of England and the English. The Heirs pursue magical "Sources" around the world with which they can subjugate non-English peoples and countries, while the Blades try to keep these Sources safe from the Heirs.
The Blades might be characterized as the humanitarians, and Bennett took seriously his love for fellow humans, especially female humans. Bedding the wife of an Heir while searching for a hidden document was, as far as Bennett was concerned, a benefit of an otherwise dangerous job. Although once the husband barged after him, Bennett indulged in another carnal pleasure, that of showing off his athletic prowess. For as a Blade, Bennett could use no magic not gifted to him or possessed by him naturally, so he had to rely on his agility, intelligence, and, sometimes, brute strength, to keep him and the Blades' work safe.
London Edgeworth Harcourt could certainly appreciate Bennett's charms, even though as a proper English lady and a widow just coming out of mourning, she could only look on as Bennett defended her against a dishonest vendor of fake Greek antiquities. London knew the pottery shards were fake because she had mastered, in her solitary life as an unhappy wife and a restless widow, numerous ancient dialects, some of which were known to only a handful of men and her. While her father views her as largely ornamental and groomed for life as a noble wife, London is not so keen on going back to an unsatisfying existence as some man's accessory. For the first time London feels a vitality that makes her yearn for more, even if she cannot conceptualize or articulate what that might be.
The reader, of course, knows that "more" is partially embodied in Bennett Day, who is instantly impressed not only with London's exquisite beauty, but also with the spark of intelligence and independence he perceives in her, not to mention "an air of untapped carnal potential." Between them is a "hot current" of energy that becomes absolutely explosive once Bennett realizes that London is the daughter of one of the most powerful Heirs – as well as the widow of a man Bennett killed. Is London a tool of the Heirs planted to trick and seduce Bennett, or is she an innocent victim of her father and late husband's nationalist obsessions? There is only one way to find out, if only Bennett can get London away from her father for a short while.
Before London's abduction, she knew nothing of her father's life as an Heir, never suspected such an organization – or its counter-force – existed. The shock of hearing everything Bennett had to tell her, and her natural resistance to anything this lying stranger tried to tell her, forces her to find out for herself what her father is about. And much to her chagrin, she finds out far more than she ever wanted to know about who Joseph Edgeworth really was and how he viewed London, namely not as an intelligent woman of burgeoning independence. Edgeworth's obvious plans to marry London off to another one of his boorish Heir cronies force London to make a terrible choice – remain the possession of a man who has no respect for London as a person or team up with her captor and his cronies, whose promises of safety and humanity London has no impersonal way of confirming.
Roughly the first half of Scoundrel is adventurous romance. The Heirs seek the magical Source of "Greek Fire," which would serve as a powerful weapon in their agenda to preserve England's world domination. Bennett, along with Greek witch Athena Galanos and veteran seaman/ship's captain Nikos Kallas, must unlock the mystery of Greek Fire's location on a remote island before the Heirs can do the same. London is, understandably, dazed, confused, and almost disbelieving of her father's true identity and occupation. But she is also deeply attracted to Bennett and hesitantly optimistic that she will not have to go back to an isolated domestic life where she would be, once again, "like a specter haunting her own marriage." The thought of being able to use her language skills and live a fuller life buoys her up against the clinging fear of what will happen to her once her voyage with Bennett and the Blades is over.
Bennett does not share London's ambivalence, but he is shocked at the strength of his attraction to her. Bennett understands himself as a somewhat cynical man who is nevertheless able to love "'every woman [he's] with. Some of them [he] doesn't even take to bed.'" In other words, he's the classic rogue:
"You know women, that I'll allow," Athena said, "However, even you can be played false by a pretty face and a lovely bosom, Day."
"No doubt I've been lied to," he agreed cheerfully. "'You're only the second man I've been with, Bennett,' "My husband's not at all jealous, Bennett,' "I like it gentle, Bennett' – the usual games and tricks. Sometimes, I even believe them. But London Edgeworth is as beautiful as she is innocent."
"No woman is truly innocent," Athena said, "Especially not the beautiful ones."
"That's why I love them."
What seems to set London apart in Bennett's mind and heart is her bravery and intelligence, her plucky determination to leave everything she knows and that keeps her safe to accompany Day on such a dangerous journey. More than a few times I was reminded of the way Rupert Carsington admires Daphne in Loretta Chase's Mr. Impossible, and indeed, the bluestocking/rogue match is a venerable Romance tradition. If you’re one of those readers who still enjoys watching the hero discover that he’s deeper than he thought, while the heroine discovers she’s stronger than she thought, you will likely enjoy Bennett and London, who are somewhat classic but still well-drawn examples of those genre archetypes.
I have to say, though, that despite a very entertaining and fast-paced beginning scene, the romantic build-up in the novel presented several issues for me. First, I really, really, really have grown frustrated with the instant lust device. As a reader, I can completely trust the happy romantic union of a couple who do not have all sorts of burgeoning, tightening, slickening body parts upon first sight of each other, and that includes Bennett and London. Related to that is the way their romance is chronicled through what must be nearly every lusty thought they have about each other, at every moment they have it. Yes, I'm exaggerating (probably), but I felt there was a great deal of telling during this section of the novel, which competed frustratingly with the pace of the adventure plot.
I think I was even more sensitive to this because of London's previously untroubled relationship with her father. Within a matter of hours, London went from clueless but protected and wealthy woman with an illicit linguistics hobby to a refugee with an uncertain future and revelations of familial evil to absorb. And while there are several moments where London does demonstrate awareness of this disconnect and worry expectedly about where her life is going and how confusing her relationship with her father now is, I felt that London was just a bit too resilient for her circumstances. And the mutual lust she shared with Bennett threatened to minimize the trauma even more.
Fortunately, once the initial romantic bond is forged between Bennett and London, the adventure plot can proceed more prominently and smoothly, and it is at that point the novel really takes off. While it took me days to get through the first half, it took me mere hours to get through the second half. All of the things I liked most about the book – the Greek setting, the cultural and mythological references, the nationalistic v. humanitarian conflict, the way the magic blended with Greek history and myth – started to sync together nicely as Bennett and London struggle to find and save Greek Fire from the always-on-their-heels Heirs. And while I have not said a lot about Athena and Nikos, they are actively engaged with Bennett and London in figuring out and facilitating the Source’s location and safety, helping to keep the story and action dynamic.
Despite the plethora of paranormals, good, rollicking adventure-themed Romance seems to me in somewhat short supply. Scoundrel is sort of “Indiana Jones” meets the The Odyssey meets pirate Romance, and one of the book's real strengths is that is makes good use of Greek literary history and myth, from the massive Colossus of Rhodes to the Nereids to the whole concept of the mythical quest. The magic, contextualized in this way (as well as a vaguely steampunk science way), does not come across as corny or forced, and there were a number of sections that were quite cinematic. One of the other things I appreciated was the self-conscious humor injected into some of the more swashbuckling scenes. For example, when Bennett and London enter a hidden temple in pursuit of the Source, Bennett reminds London to be careful because there's "'[n]othing the ancients love more than booby traps.'" Of course there's nothing adventurists and adventure books and movies love more than booby traps, as well, which is wryly acknowledged in Bennett's observation that touching the source could trigger just such a trap, because that "'[h]appens a lot in this situation.'" That indication that the author is winking just a little as her characters are working out the puzzle she's created for them is one of the nice touches in the book.
In fact, for me it was the adventure aspects of the book that worked best for me and seemed most fluidly written. The humor was both sharper and lighter, the romance more naturally expressed, and the political issues between the Heirs and the Blades more meaningfully contextualized. The whole "women are fragile flowers or ruined whores' mantra of the Heirs, especially London's father, was pretty heavy-handed, as was the "the Blades are democratic – we let women into our club' counter-message. The political conflict was actually very interesting and I would have loved a bit more nuance in the way it was developed.
Still, the buoyancy of the adventure plot, the ways in which London was an integral member of the Blades team and an essential component in obtaining the source (hint: she's an Oracle based on her own language skills), the nice way the romance and quest arcs dovetail, and one of the most fun declaration of love scenes I've read in Romance novel in a very long time, Scoundrel ended as a solid B read for me. I especially look forward to the next two books, one of which features a Native American hero (Rebel), and the other a Black hero (Stranger). Hopefully there will be a lot more adventure ahead.
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I haven’t read this yet but will be interested to do so. I will be holding in mind Tasha Alexander’s book about a young Victorian widow – ‘And Only To Deceive’…Emily is now the wealthy widow of a man she hardly knew and free to pursue her heart’s real passion–reading!
So I have questions, eg. why is London dependent on her father? Learning about his activities may estrange them but is she not now in charge of her own monies? Emily had to learn what love is and that she was loved before she was able to have her Greek Isle HEA. Does London have a similar arc? Because I loved Emily’s story of finding herself and so finding love. It’s funny, I am so used to Regencies being similar but it seems a little jarring when Victorian’s share similarities and yet it is quite logical that young widows have the room to manouver in Victorian society that young women don’t so we must expect to see lots of them.
I read this last weekend, and enjoyed it, though not quite as much as the first book in the series. I think it’s mostly because of London.
In answer to your question, Merrian, London never really left her father’s control. Her social contacts were largely limited to his associates and their families; she married the man he told her to marry. When her husband died, her father took control of her life again. She never had control of he own finances. (The Heirs’ attitude towards women can be pretty much summed up as “barefoot and pregnant”.)
My problem with London was not that she wanted to leave that controlling environment, but the way it was handled. She seemed to have spent most of her life trying to gain her father’s approval. Yet Bennett tells her “your father’s a bad man, and so was your husband”, and she takes about 30 seconds to decide that he’s right, and that her future lies with Bennett. This abandoning of all she had ever known in her life came about too quickly for me, even given her expressed desire for independence and control of her own life. There was too little internal or external dialog to explain why she made such a life-altering choice so rapidly.
I keep meaning to get the first book in this series. It sounds like a lot of fun.
Do all the Heirs of Albion name their children after English cities as part of their plan “to preserve the international dominance of England and the English”? And are there other nationalist groups, representing other parts of the UK?
@Merrian: In addition to Sandra’s explanation, I would say that London’s father was such a dominant presence in her life, and her husband such a close associate of his, and her marriage really quite short, that it doesn’t seem strange in the context of the book that she would go back to her family after her husband’s death. Also a convenient plot device, of course. ;D
@Sandra: That was a struggle for me, too, as I tried to convey in the review. There was one point in the book where London seemed a little too much “whee, look at me, I’ve escaped my evil father, am rappelling off a cliff, and my nipples are hard!” It wasn’t until I really got into the second half of the book that I felt the character depth of which Bennett was enamored. IMO, Archer really excels as a romantic adventure novelist, and had the structure of the novel been reversed, my grade may not have been as high. But for me, the strength of the adventure elements assuaged several other things that did not work for me.
@Jennifer Estep: I just want to let you know that IMO you don’t have to read the first book to connect well to this series. I didn’t even finish the first book, in fact, because it just didn’t work for me. Of course, others have loved it, so you may, as well. But IMO you can start with this book (and maybe even the others, although I have not finished them, yet, so can’t confirm that).
@Laura Vivanco: It is only the Heirs and the Blades, at least as far as I’ve read in the series. As for London’s name, her actual first name is “Victoria Regina Gloriana,” after the queen, and London is her middle name. London explains to Bennett that at four,
Wait, the protagonist’s name is London? As in, the city? Who would name their child that? I’m not sure I could get past having to see the city-name, on every page, and my impression that only a bourgeois nouveau-riche would give their child a name like that. I think we’re really pushing the outer limits of the unexpected-names allotment, not counting outliers like ‘Ampersand’ or ‘LeMongello’.
Unless, of course, her real name is Eugenia, and “London” is just a nickname. That, I could probably stomach. Sort of.
oi! where did the edit function go?
(Just as I hit send, I saw the reply directly above mine — it is a nickname. Eugenia, Victoria, okay.)
I just want to add that I came by this series thanks to a very funny post on Carolyn Jewel’s blog. She spent a day with “Warrior”. I liked the post so much I immediately downloaded the book, and become hooked.
Despite my reservations about London, above, I did enjoy the book, and am looking forward to the next two in the series.
@kaigou: Actually, I’m glad you brought it up, because I think it reflects the way in which London has always struggled to carve out some individuality and independence within a pretty boldly conscripted existence. Once she has the room to really grow in new directions, it’s exhilarating to her (and a bit intimidating), and a major theme of the novel.
In fact, the way Archer dovetails the larger quest of the book with the character arcs of Bennett and London was clever, IMO, and there were a number of examples where you can see the layers of meaning being constructed in details that might otherwise be mere throwaways. For the most part, I really appreciated that level of thoughtfulness.