REVIEW: The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie by Jennifer Ashley
Dear Ms. Ashley:
As a satisfied reader of your Regency pirate series, I was definitely on board to try your new late Victorian book about a hero who suffers from Asperger’s. The barbaric aspects of a growing medical tradition and the increasing urbanization and complexity of British society are a perfect fit for a story that explores the sometimes narrow gap between obsession and madness. And in a genre where love is often portrayed and expressed in extreme measures of desperation, the fit is very fine. So it should be no surprise that I enjoyed The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie, both in its unusual choice of hero and its deft use of many solid genre conventions.
Lord Ian Mackenzie has been out of the asylum for only a bit longer than Beth Ackerley has been widowed. Ian’s father had him committed at the age of nine, ostensibly for his uncontrollable rages, inability to meet another’s gaze, and obsessive tendencies. Beth’s husband, an East End vicar, left his young wife in roughly the same state he had married her in: poor. Although her maternal grandfather was a squire, Beth hardly grew up in comfort, and by the age of ten, she had practically grown up in a workhouse, only finding financial security inheriting a substantial fortune from a woman whose caretaker she eventually became. Newly engaged to the clearly unworthy Lyndon Mather, Beth cannot help but notice the handsome and unusual Lord Ian at the opera, especially when he approaches her with news of her fiancé’s unsavory proclivities.
Determined to win Beth Ackerly into his life and his bed upon the first moment he sees her, Ian shows no hesitation in maneuvering Beth away from Mather, in the same way he takes Ming bowls into his appreciative possession. Although convinced he is incapable of love and unable to pierce the more affective aspects of interpersonal communication, Ian knows desire, and something about Beth focuses every bit of Ian’s physical and intellectual attention upon her. Proposing to her the very first night they meet, Ian is unfazed by Beth’s reluctance, following her all the way to Paris to win her. Beth is more than a bit intrigued by the handsome and intense Ian, although she is nowhere near ready to marry a man she has just met, even one that kisses so wickedly and passionately as Ian Mackenzie:
His hand loosened more curls, rendering the maid’s work useless. “You were a vicar’s wife, respectable, the sort to be married. Otherwise, I would offer a liaison.”
Beth resisted rubbing her face against his glove. “Have I got this right? You want me to come to your bed, but because I was once a respectable married lady, you must marry me in order to get me there?”
She gave a half-hysterical laugh. “My dear Lord Ian, don’t you think that a bit extreme? Once you’d had me in your bed, you’d still be married to me.”
“I planned to bed you more than once.”
It sounded so logical when he said it. His deep voice slid through her senses, tempting her, finding the passionate woman who’d discovered how much she loved touching a man’s body and having that man touch her.
The budding passion between two mutually attracted, passionate people cannot be restrained, though, at least not in Romance, and it is not long before Beth and Ian are engaged in a variety of sexual explorations, with Ian’s eagle eye still firmly focused on the prize of marriage, and Beth’s on the deepening feelings of attachment she is having toward the powerful yet vulnerable Ian. Against the backdrop of 1881 London, Paris, and Kilmorgan, Scotland, Beth and Ian’s relationship seems idyllic, except for the unwanted attentions of one Lloyd Fellows, a Scotland Yard detective convinced that Ian and his eldest brother Hart (the Duke of Kilmorgan) are responsible for the murders of two High Holborn prostitutes. Fellows’s fixation on finding the Mackenzies guilty is as strong as Ian’s on securing Beth in marriage, and all too soon Beth finds herself between the two men, convinced of Ian’s innocence but determined to uncover the truth behind the murders.
Without a doubt, the heart of The Madness of Lord Ian is Ian, despite his repeated insistence that he does not have one himself. Ian is incredibly gifted in languages and mathematics, a musical prodigy despite the fact that he cannot read the notes, and capable or memorizing documents, maps, and conversations word for word despite not necessarily understand them. He cannot comprehend irony or subtext, is beset by constant migraines, as well as frequent nightmares, and while is a masterful puzzle-solver, his lack of confidence in his own mental stability makes him susceptible to rages that rob him of memory. Further, those close to him vacillate between pity and fear of his “madness,” undermining any confidence Ian might gain in his own faculties. While the asylum may have been a horrific punishment for the sensitive, struggling boy that Ian was, his emotional problems were/are very real, and nothing, not even the love of a good woman, will exorcise most of his demons.
In truth, Ian does not know whether or not he has killed in one of his rages, which makes him fight Beth’s determination to clear his name. He is also extremely loyal to Hart, because it was his eldest brother who rescued him from the asylum after their brute of a father died. In some ways Ian reminded me of Faelan from Kinsale’s Uncertain Magic, and despite his autistic tendencies, Ian is in many ways the ideal romantic hero: physically strong yet emotionally vulnerable, passionately devoted to the heroine yet tortured inside, determined to protect those he loves yet firmly in need of rescue himself. In fact, it may be less that Ian is unique among Romance heroes and more that his more pronounced, more extreme difficulties reveal the relative “madness” of many epic heroes within the genre.
Beth, while very strong in character and intelligence, also functions to enrich Ian’s characterization. She is that standard Romance combination of plucky and innocent, despite having an alcoholic reprobate father and being raised in a workhouse among poverty and crime. Both aspects of her personality function in critical ways within the novel, of course, because the tortured hero is always most powerfully attracted to the woman whose goodness is crystal clear, and the heroine’s background allows her to accept Ian’s eccentricities without judgment, as well as facilitating her own investigation through the more degraded areas of London:
The woman was incredibly innocent. She’d seen what she’d seen in London’s slums, she’d been destitute and desperate, and yet she still looked for good in the Mackenzies. Unbelievable.
Exactly. Like Ian, I could never really believe that a woman who had lived most of her life among prostitutes, criminals, and impoverished laborers would be quite as naÃ¯ve as Beth.
I had some moments of confusion about Ian, too, especially when “[h]e always had difficulty deciphering what another person was feeling,” but he was so adept at figuring out how Beth would proceed once she was determined to clear his name. Was that the Asperger’s or the characterization – I was never sure. Also, because Beth cannot always communicate her complex emotional state with Ian, she journals much of it, which sometimes felt clumsy and as nothing more than an excuse to fit more sexual encounters into the novel amidst endless speculation on whether Beth was a “lady” or whether her sensuality was a mark of baseness. I am, I think, so very tired of that characteristic in historical Romance heroines that I easily find it intrusive. On the other hand, though, I was charmed by the fact that Beth liked to joke with Ian, even though Ian could not understand a word of it. I found that amusing, in part because it emphasized a larger truth of male-female conversational disconnect.
The Madness of Lord Ian is the first book of a series encompassing all four Mackenzie brothers, and still to come are the stories of Mac, the famous artist whose estranged wife befriended Beth in Paris; Cameron, the widower genius horse trainer whose son is a slightly less wild Mackenzie male; and Hart, the politician and widower who promises to be the most complex and difficult of the lot (I am most looking forward to his story). And as Ian points out,
“All of us are mad in some way,” Ian said. “I have a memory that won’t let go of details. Hart is obsessed with politics and money. Cameron is a genius with horses, and Mac paints like a god. . . We all have our madness. Mine is just the most obvious.”
If I remember correctly, Mac and Isabella’s book is next, and there was plenty in The Madness of Lord Ian to set the stage for this tempestuous couple, another brooding, complex male paired with a devoted but independent female. In fact, I suspect that this series will gain a wide readership because of the way so many standard Romance elements ground the love story, despite the unusual circumstances of the heroes. Also, while not rich, the historical elements are not insultingly anachronistic, either (although I wondered about the existence of ice used to reduce swelling during the Scottish summertime, when the sun barely sets). Further, the draw of Scottish heroes who do not use fake Scots-speak is a big bonus, as is the fact that the Kilmorgan title holds high status in both Scotland and England, making the transcontinental path of the story believable. The plotting is relatively predictable, but the emotional connection between Ian and Beth remains strong enough to make it interesting, in part, I think, because of the incredibly magnetic presence of Hart Mackenzie, whose own sexual history may be even more scandalous than Beth’s one-time fiancé, the unsavory Lyndon Mather.
It strikes me that these novels will all investigate the line between passion and madness, and that they will all offer a new perspective on the concept of “normal,” which is itself a welcome addition to the genre, as far as I’m concerned. I was definitely entertained enough by The Madness of Lord Ian to recommend it and to look forward to Mac and Isabella’s story. B