There are times when I feel like I need to confess the awful truth to Wendy and HelenKay (and, well, Lorna and L.J.). This is one of them. When it comes to picking books for review, I have almost no process. I pretend I do, and sometimes that pretending leads to an actual thoughtful choice.
But mostly it’s a matter of serendipity mixed with my desire to read where no reviewer has read before. But it’s the serendipity that seems to lead me to the most interesting books. In the case of Lady Anne’s Dangerous Man by Jeane Westin, I was poking through the teetering book pile, desperately seeking something new and different to read. Not even for review. I just wanted something that would let me escape for a little while. I was aiming for disposable but interesting.
So yeah, there I was. Picking up the book every time the husband left the room, sneaking peeks at paragraphs when I had a spare thirty seconds, making excuses (“Oh, sweetie, I’ll be there in just a sec, I need to, uh, do something.”). Who knew the Restoration was so much fun?
Lady Anne, a not-so-trembling young virgin (it’s okay, Wendy, I promise), is eager to marry her beloved – well, could be beloved – paramour. Granted, one of her goals is to avoid the bed of King Charles II, a lecher of first rank, but she’s also having trouble keeping her deathbed promise to her mother; mom was a bit of a Puritan and preached the virtues of virginity.
But Edward, the could-be beloved, betrays Anne. What’s a man to do when his king has a yen for young, pretty virgins? If you guess “act like a man”, you’re wrong. Anne’s father intervenes by making a deal with the devil: the Robin Hood-esque bastard John Gilbert. Anne is whisked away to John’s hidden lair. And so the game begins.
John is not a misunderstood criminal. Okay, maybe a little. Cheated out of his rightful inheritance, he has few options, what with patronage and peerage and all. His band of merry men are rough and tumble, and John’s control over his gang is challenged by a ruthless competitor. He wants Anne, but understands the rules of the society she inhabits, in some ways more than she does.
Westin balances John’s sense of honor with human weakness. He’s idealistic, almost feminist, and runs his gang on democratic principles. He also makes some bad choices and gives in to temptation. Cursing himself all the way. It’s refreshing to encounter a hero and heroine who acknowledge the weakness of the flesh, succumb, and take responsibility for their actions. John’s choices propel him toward a life of respectability, but even a clean rap sheet won’t allow him to marry Anne. The difference in their social classes is insurmountable.
While flirtatious idylls in a robber’s lair are lovely, the real world must intrude, and the novel quickly becomes a road romance. Road romances can be fun, especially when you get to use swords. Our characters journey to London – separately, as Anne is convinced that John is in league with Edward. John is, in a manner of speaking, in said league. Going it alone isn’t the greatest decision for a woman of the Restoration era, but when you truly don’t know who you can trust, better the devil you know. Anne strikes out to find her uncle and safety.
Well, you know the story. The uncle’s not so interested in Anne’s plight, being the old fashioned sort who believes in men dominating women and all. Anne and John parry and thrust and evade, but they are fighting a determined adversary. Yeah, he has money and power, they don’t.
In retrospect, Edward proves to be a far more persistent villain than the situation dictates. Anne and John, while battling their own mutual distrust, the plague, and various betrayals, finally find themselves on the losing end of Edward’s schemes. However, Edward seems to be playing a bigger game than mere heiress-marrying, and when, after a seemingly-happy plot twist, we encounter him again, he’s moved his devious ways up several levels: he’s dabbling in what seems to be premeditated treason, making me wonder why his pursuit of Anne was so intense. At one point, he seems to remain in play only to cause trouble for Anne and John.
Westin piles on the disasters for her characters. Every time you think they’ve finally caught a break, something bad happens. About three-quarters of the way through the book, I was thinking, “Enough. It’s too much.” And it was. Disaster after disaster after bad news after horrible event. This sets up a heroic-but-over-the-top conclusion to the novel. And yes, without giving anything away, I’m saying that the biggest obstacle between Anne and John’s happiness is dismissed quite summarily.
So why am I so happy with this book? In the manner of the best Regency romances, this story relies on saucy comments and battles of wills. More importantly, Westin has a fresh, confident voice and writes with authority. She mixes humor and angst without overloading the reader with the latter. It helps that she’s mining fresh territory as well – this book could have easily been set in the Regency era, but her choice of the Restoration opens up new possibilities, even as I see similarities (ah, how often in our history will we see eras of sexual exploration bumping up against times of sexual repression?).
Yes, the continual bad breaks were a little too much, but the strength of writing and freshness of Jeane Westin’s voice kept me turning pages. For those who’ve read or will read this one, I even felt a sense of satisfaction when encountering the picture-perfect final scenes. Yes, Wendy, no birth control was employed when Anne decided her precious virginity could be lost. You know what happens when romance characters get it on mid-story…