As I confessed in a previous review, there is a certain element of randomness when it comes my book selection process. I judge books by covers, by clever synopses, by really bad synopses, and, sometimes, by guilt. For example, let’s say someone sends me a book for review and I haven’t gotten to it, then I get an email reminding me that this book is in my possession, and guilt nudges me, saying “You should at least open the package.”
Rest assured that this latter scenario rarely happens. But a week or so ago, I received a friendly reminder from a publicist suggesting that I should have received, read, and loved Elizabeth Hoyt’s The Raven Prince. Whoa there, I thought, you think I get around to this stuff in a day or two? You don’t know me.
And of course I’m also thinking that I’m going to show this publicist. You get all “you’re gonna love this book” with me, and I’ll show you. Take that and that and that.
Well, it works in theory. In practice? Let’s just say that I’m conceding the win to the publicist. Don’t tell anyone. I have a reputation to maintain.
Our story is quite simple: widow Anna Wren needs money (don’t we all?). She takes the job of secretary to Edward de Raaf, Earl of Swartingham. Should be scandalous, a woman alone with a man, but this was the Georgian era when men wore powdered wigs and high heels and women could be alone with them without fear of reputations being shredded.
So anyway, Anna has good penmanship and soon comes to appreciate Edward’s finer qualities (to wit: manly figure, intelligence, and can-do attitude). She also begins to wonder why men get to have all the fun, while she, a hapless widow, is expected to remain sex-free. This wondering really gets going when Edward plans a trip to London to take care of his physical needs. One thing leads to another, and Anna decides that she’s going to take care of her own sexual urges with an unsuspecting Edward. Apparently, face-hiding masks can be very effective. Who knew?
Anna is wise, mature, self-deprecating, and totally poor. She’s not boring, however. Due to her apparent inability to have children (bonus points for guessing the ending based on this clue), her husband cheated on her before his untimely demise, and she’s still feeling the sting from her loss of pride. This does not stop her from living life to the fullest. Nor does this stop her from acknowledging that she’s a sexual being trapped in a small town with few prospects. Also, very little privacy. She’s chafing at the boundaries of her world, but realizes there’s not much more she can expect from life. Working for the local earl for the princely sum of three pounds a month is beyond thrilling for her – of course, she takes the job before she meets said earl.
Edward, ah, Edward. I feel like there’s so much to say, yet so much I’d rather let you discover yourself. Let’s just say that there’s an unwritten rule in romance: the first male and female characters you meet are, in theory, going to be the hero and heroine. Edward shows up in the first scene, and I was quite certain that there is no way this man was the hero. Can’t be. He’s described in terms that suggest a strong absence of physical beauty and a really nasty temper. This man, I thought, is going to be some sort of villain.
Edward, it turns out, is not a villain. He does indeed possess a rotten temper and is scarred – the remnants of the smallpox that killed his family many years before our story begins. He’s also the proud keeper of the world’s ugliest dog. Being rich and powerful does have its advantages, and Edward has returned to his ancestral home, ready to start a family. He even has a well-bred fiancée waiting in the wings.
While briefly taken aback by the presence of a chick secretary, Edward’s devotion to his Agrarian Society (tell me that British men haven’t always been weird) is such that he’s willing to overlook gender flaws. Plus he appreciates that Anna is as willing to banter with him as she is willing to fight with him. As the reader of this novel, I appreciated the fact that both the banter and the fighting were well done. I’m sure I’ve mentioned it in the past, but, just in case I forgot, I’m not terribly fond of dull back-and-forth and even less fond of arguing pretending to be unresolved sexual tension.
I am, however, fond of these elements when they reveal character. Anna’s attempts to find a proper name for Edward’s dog serve as a lovely example, as they show that Edward is not overly impressed with himself:
“Do you think ‘Duke’ is a good name? she asked.
His face blanked for a second before it cleared. He glanced at the dog in consideration. “I don’t think so. He would outrank me.”
It is through his humor and intelligence that Edward, like the Raven Prince of the title (see also: Beauty and the Beast), becomes beautiful in Anna’s eyes. The effects of smallpox are visibly evident – and, in all fairness, probably quite evident throughout polite society, so Edward wasn’t that unusual a sight – yet Anna quickly moves beyond noticing them. There were times when it felt like Hoyt was working harder to remind me that his man was scarred than necessary. I’d moved beyond his physical appearance as well.
This is a sexually tinged novel, and, to my surprise, the level of sensuality was high. Maybe it’s because these characters were quite evidently attracted to each other. This wasn’t a romance that felt like the author was painting-by-numbers. She created a true connection, and this made the scenes between Edward and Anna-in-disguise all the more intense, though I’m still having difficulty fathoming lovemaking while masked.
Of course, that might be revealing a bit too much about me.
Not surprisingly, Anna’s decision to seduce poor, unsuspecting Edward has consequences. I mean, you live in the same place your whole life and then take off with someone who is clearly not a lady’s lady, what do you think is going to happen? Well, for starters, your husband’s former lover – who isn’t so much wracked with guilt as she is desperately trying to conceal her red-headed child’s true parentage – is going to take notice and engage in a little blackmail.
While romance novel blackmail is a lot like a high-speed chase (the dude always gets arrested at the end, why they bother, I’ll never understand), you still feel for Anna. Why can’t she have a little fun, too? Why should that awful Felicity Clearwater get to be rich and have lovers while Anna has to suffer in silence? Go for it, Anna, I kept thinking.
And she did. And she enjoyed herself. And she didn’t feel a bit of remorse. Okay, a little remorse. She’d deceived Edward. But still…it was all good ‘til Felicity stuck her nose into things.
Throughout the novel, the characters and story moved in unexpected directions. Don’t get me wrong, Hoyt includes a good dose of standard conventions, right down to the righteous heroine saving the downtrodden whore, damn what the town thinks (yes, that is too a convention). Yet each time I felt like I’d read this or that scene before, I went in a new direction. The prostitute with a heart of gold wasn’t quite as nice as you’d think. When Anna storms off in a huff, she realizes she’s behaving like an idiot. Edward must clearly break off his engagement, but the father of his jilted bride-to-be doesn’t fight back in the way you’ve come to expect.
I like being surprised while I’m reading. There is something quite satisfying about being all smug and knowing exactly what’s coming next, only to realize that I don’t have a clue. There’s probably a proverb or something about pride and falling, but I don’t have time to search far and wide across the Internet.
Naturally, I have some quibbles with this novel – what, after all, is life without quibbles? Dull, I tell you, very dull. The two key plot elements – Anna’s decision to seduce Edward and Felicity Clearwater’s attempts at blackmailing Anna – were not as well-developed as they could (or should) have been.
There is an obvious attraction between Edward and Anna, right from the moment they properly meet. But this attraction isn’t built up to the point where Anna’s “I’m going to London and sleeping with this guy” actions feel entirely organic. I needed a more visceral response, more righteous anger as we approached Edward’s departure for London. A little more intensity, and I would have completely bought Anna’s decision.
Likewise, I didn’t feel Felicity’s fear or anger. She put a lot of effort into plotting Anna’s downfall, but it wasn’t quite developed enough. Off all the characters, Felicity came closest to being stock. Had more page time been devoted to deepening her motivation, I would have been a much happier camper – though having never camped, this is just conjecture on my part.
I also, and this is pure selfishness, would have loved to see more page time with Edward and his guy friends. There is a scene toward the end – the stupid guy scene where Edward tries to save Anna’s reputation even though, well, it’s all under control – where the three men interact with each other with the timing of a well-rehearsed (and funny) comedy troupe. I wanted scenes and scenes of these men. It turns out I’m going to have to settle instead for subsequent books featuring Edward’s buddies.
This brings us to the ending. If you’ve been following along, you realize that Elizabeth Hoyt does enjoy romance conventions. You know what happens. My consolation – and the reason I’m being mostly forgiving on the miracle birth scenario – is that the inevitable child is described in terms that suggest he’s a holy terror.