I set high standards for the romance genre – some might suggest that my expectations far exceed what the genre can achieve. I do not believe this to be true. There have been many romances that stand above the crowd. And, yes, many that make me scratch my head and ask, “How in the world did this get published?”
I do not wonder this about Awaiting The Moon by Donna Lea Simpson. I have little patience for vampires and werewolves and things that go bump in the night, mostly because most authors strain credulity when trying to make these phenomena plausible. Simpson sucked me in and made believe that, sure, a nice guy with a never-ending list of family problems might also be hiding a werewolf-sized secret.
The basics: Elizabeth Stanwycke escapes England and scandal when she’s offered a job as a tutor in Germany (yes, Germany). She arrives at the dark, brooding castle of Nikolas von Wolfram after a frightening accident involving a young woman fleeing for her life. Inherently curious and incautious, Elizabeth plunges into a world of secrets, intrigue, and terrifying encounters – and that’s just on her first night in the castle.
I know, I know, where to start? I will admit that when I saw Elizabeth’s name, I groaned. Same for the Wolfram name. So old-fashioned, so romance-y. In a way, by choosing these names, Simpson was throwing down the gauntlet: she was daring me to forge ahead despite her bows to cliché. I took the bait. I had no choice – these names, the set-up, it was the kind of conventional that intrigued me. I suspected a sly trick.
I was, happily, not disappointed. It is my experience that heroines who are described as impulsive or imprudent are generally simpering misses whose misbehavior is glossy and cute. Not so with Elizabeth. She has flaws that other romance heroines wouldn’t dare to exhibit. She is the character who, despite all warnings, will go into the dark and dangerous woods. She knows it’s stupid, tells herself there must be a better way, yet makes the choice that fits the moment. She is not a coy innocent, her past improprieties were the result of her active choices (even if the outcome was not), and her flaws are not minor. Best of all, from my perspective, her inner dialogue is sharp and sometimes unkind.
This was better, Elizabeth thought, edging forward. At least the old woman was entertaining, which was more than she could say for the rest of the brooding, melancholy family.
Because Simpson is building upon the Gothic tradition, Nikolas does not fare quite as well as Elizabeth. That is not to say that he not a well-drawn character. But he is the keeper of the family secret, and in the effort to keep the plot twisting, Simpson censors much of his inner dialogue. This is the problem with indulging the hero’s point-of-view in a novel like this. He cannot complete his natural train of thought for fear of revealing too much to the reader, and sometimes the cutting off his inner dialogue feels like the choice of the author, not the character.
The rest of the characters – there are many and there will be a sequel – are stock, but not stock. They are not necessarily nice, not necessarily sweet, not necessarily polite. Simpson builds these characters with great skill, and even the sulky, resentful young nephew transcends what could be a stereotypical role. There is one overly sweet young girl, but her kindness feels like a mask. Every character seems to hide a secret.
In fact, I am feeling so good about the secondary characters that I am only going to briefly mention my irritation with the use of “dis” and “dat” by one character. This felt like overkill, especially since Simpson did a generally good job of capturing the German speech pattern and, sigh, had already made it clear that this character made her “w” sound like a “v”.
But I digress. When was the last time you read a historical romance set in Germany? During the Georgian era (okay, the cusp of the Regency)? I have wracked my brain* and can’t think of any. The exotic setting (hey, this is romance world, not reality, and Germany is exotic in romanceland) plays nicely with the darkness of the novel. I mean, when you think Germany, you think impenetrable forests with creatures that may not be all wolf, if you know what I mean. Some of you might also think of beer and expensive cars, but that’s your thing.
The plot is well-crafted – even though I am a jaded reader, I wasn’t sure, absolutely sure, that I’d put the pieces together correctly until the end. The existence of the werewolf remains in question throughout. Though the pacing was leisurely (perhaps this is a problem in a story that requires the next full moon to ratchet up tension), action moved forward. There were a few eye-rolling moments, particularly toward the end when Nikolas makes a fundamental and uncharacteristic error. And the story’s villain is not as finely crafted as he could be – adjectives tend to signal his malevolent nature.
In some ways, talking about the romance part of a romance novel feels like stating the obvious: and at the core of the story, there was a romance. And this romance was no exception. Because Elizabeth was not drawn as coy or victimized, the physical attraction between the characters was strongly developed. Their meeting of hearts and minds felt natural, and the sex, well, I wouldn’t call it hot, but it was interesting. Elizabeth isn’t a virgin (and Simpson does a good job of twisting the “she only finds good sex with the hero” cliché into something fresh), yet Nikolas needs to refrain from consummation to keep him family line from continuing. It works in the context of the story.
There was, indeed, true romance in this romance. This is the kind of unexpected story that I expect from first-time authors, not seasoned authors. I was surprised to learn that Simpson has a storied Regency career (darn use of the middle name fooled me!) because she writes without regard to the so-called rules of the genre. She attacks clichés with glee. Best of all, her writing is fresh and distinctive and confident – it says something about the state of the genre when I am surprised to discover innovation from established authors.
Awaiting The Moon reminded me why I tend to avoid paranormal romances. Far too often they don’t feel new or different or even logical. This book felt new, different, and, yes, logical. In fact, I am going to say something rare – I am looking forward to the sequel.
* – In theory. Mostly I just stared off into space and contemplated dinner.