WENDY: Hero. Heroine. Bestiality. Happily Ever After. One of these things is not like the others. Care to guess which one? Dawn Thompson’s The Ravencliff Bride has a hero — shape-shifter Nicholas Walraven — a heroine Sara — a Happily Ever After — and while it doesn’t have scenes of bestiality, the idea of that beast is unleashed to hover and provide uncomfortable moments in what is, otherwise, an uninspired romance.
The story is simple and stale. Nicholas, seeking companionship and refuge from the ton’s match-making and meddling, sends his long time friend and steward, Alex Mallory, to wed by proxy the daughter of a family friend, Sara. The marriage can be in name only as Nicholas’ condition prevents intimacy on a physical level (so he insists) and trust on an emotional one. By marrying Sara, Nicholas saves her from debtor’s prison. In other words: she owes him, and therefore he expects her to follow, without question, the laws he lays down.
Nicholas’ shape-shifting manifests as a wolf named Nero (Nero Wolfe, anyone?). Here is an important distinction: Nero is the wolf equivalent of a lap dog, a pet: friendly, playful, and loving. He is not a werewolf; he does not change with the moon but rather with his emotions. Anger, fear, and arousal transform Nicholas into Nero. The wolf form remains until whatever emotion triggered the change is exhausted. That is a calculated ploy that allows the author to force her characters through the plot. It is the threat of the change rather than the outcome that cripples Nicholas. It also takes the teeth out of the story. Making Nero harmless, not allowing him to threaten the non-shape-shifting cast, forces the conflict elsewhere. Thompson chooses to center the friction on what Nicholas refuses to tell Sara, the Big Misunderstanding. And thus three hundred and forty pages of, “You should tell her that you are Nero,” answered with, “I can never do that,” ensue.
At the very least, Thompson understands the necessity of a menacing wolf and it isn’t long before one is created for no other reason than it’s needed. Lonely in the big drafty Manor, Sara—despite warnings to stay away from the wolf—befriends Nero. Clueless that Nicholas and Nero are two forms of the same entity, Sara falls in love with the pet, lavishing attention and affection on it when Nicholas spurns her. Through Nero, Nicholas is able to treat Sara as the mate he wants and needs. When Alex stumbles drunk into Sara’s room intent on raping her, it’s Nero who saves her, fights off Alex and, you guessed it, bites Alex. Then Alex, so trusted prior to the start of the story that Nicholas sent him as a proxy to marry Sara, becomes the menacing wolf. Alex’s wolf form doesn’t rain terror down as much as he shows up occasionally to give Nicholas a new reason to lock Sara in her rooms.
The motivation for Alex’s turn as bad guy is completely absent. In his scenes before his attack on Sara he is pompous and, perhaps, inappropriately flirtatious. While The Ravencliff Bride certainly needs someone/thing to create strife—or a plot that doesn’t circle back on itself—Alex is a poor choice.
Weak motivation plagues the characters throughout the story. Too often characters’ actions simply don’t ring true. Nicholas chooses to marry Sara, specifically Sara and not some other debtor, for reasons that are never expounded upon beyond the friendship of their fathers. Nicholas is bound up in trust issues that seem to exist because he needs a reason not to tell Sara about being a shape-shifter. Nicholas refuses to be intimate with Sara (despite the urging of everyone) because he might transform in medias res to Nero. This has never happened to him before, but if he didn’t have this reason, what would keep them apart? Sara repeatedly ignores warnings regarding the vast unmapped nature of the manor because, it would seem, her stupidity is the only means to place her in harm’s way.
Sara’s motivation to marry Nicholas, sight unseen, is the strongest character impetus of the book. After her father’s death, she loses everything and lands in the Fleet. Wanting to escape prison and the possible forced entry into a brothel, Sara gladly accepts Nicholas’ offer of marriage. However, the story opens with Sara’s carriage ride to Ravencliff Manor. This entry point robs the reader of the opportunity to see Sara in prison, to have a first hand understanding of how desperate she was for escape. As the story progresses the reader is given Sara’s motivation ex post facto and continually told of the horrors she endured and what was lost in the process. Had the story open earlier, this ground work would have been laid and the need for the constant, telling reminders of Sara’s past unnecessary.
Neither Sara nor Nicholas is overly compelling or likable. Nicholas oppresses; Sara punishes. Each presents their worst to other, raising the question of why these two characters would fall in love in the first place. Then there is the Nero issue. Nicholas tells Sara on their first meeting that their marriage can never be consummated. What he doesn’t tell her is that he’s so attracted to her, so aroused by her mere presence that he knows Nero will emerge. This is where the uncomfortable moments begin to creep in; the moments where a reader might fear what is to come in the Sara-Nicholas-Nero triangle. While it’s clear that dog-on-human action is never the goal, too many references are made to Nicholas’ arousal triggering transformation. That coupled with the doggies kisses and Nero’s need to mark his territory (Sara’s bed) with his urine, make for sordid tone.
The Ravencliff Bride reads as a scrapbook of romances gone by. There: the verbally abusive hero who bullies to hide his too tender heart. Look at that one: it’s the heroine who is purported to be intelligent, then makes a series of the most poorly thought out decisions imaginable. And that: there’s the scene were they almost have sex. Remember this one: where the hero and heroine have the Big Misunderstanding. This is a walk down memory lane best left untrodden.
HELENKAY: In one afternoon, Sara changes from a woman confined to debtor’s prison to Baroness Walraven. Married by proxy, she travels to Cornwall to meet her new husband, the mysterious Nicholas Walraven. The carriage ride includes the usual dangers – dark night, bad weather, poor roads and a lecherous companion, Alex Mallory, the man Nicholas sent to act in his stead.
This beginning sets the tone for The Ravencliff Bride, a story that manages to be gothic, suspense, historical and paranormal. The hero is brooding. The heroine is beautiful. The house looms. The cliffs are dangerous. The entire set-up is one meant to produce a shiver. The problems in the book are two-fold – the build-up is slow and the setting is almost too familiar in romance novel lore. The added paranormal element, a refreshing historical heroine and a faster second half of the book are all that save this one from being utterly forgettable.
The romance begins as a marriage of convenience and grows into something deeper, though it is never clear why this is the case. Through little communication and even less time spent together, Nicholas and Sara somehow fall in love. Nicholas refuses to consummate the marriage due to a secret he is afraid to divulge. His trust issues are significant and hold him back from being with the woman he professes to love, almost from the first time he sees her. Sara refuses to accept her fate as historical arm candy and pushes Nicholas to tell her the truth.
Even though Nicholas does not trust Sara, the house pet Nero does. The wolf/dog keeps Sara company when Nicholas refuses to do so. Despite Nicholas’ pleas that she leave the dog alone, and the house’s staff warnings that Nero is dangerous, Sara forms an attachment to him. When Nero bites Alex, suddenly there are two animals on the estate, one of which is a killer.
Nicholas fills the typical role of the rich tall, dark and handsome hero. His affliction and concerns about disclosure keep him hidden away on his estate. He is gruff and curt with Sara, despite his attraction to her. The source of his affliction is not a secret – it is spelled out, in full, on at least three occasions in the book. This, combined with the overly long "tell me your secret/I can’t tell you my secret" game played by Sara and Nicholas weighs down the book.
The plot stumbles, moving slowly for the first 100 pages of the book. After that point, the pace picks up. The last 100 pages are compelling and fast-moving. But, the reader has to get past repetitive writing and many superfluous scenes to get there. The reader also has to suspend belief for the romance in this story to work. Sara falls in love with Nicholas early in the book, and at a time when he hasn’t given much reason to find him lovable. He’s unavailable, rude and closed. There aren’t many hints to a more attractive side of his personality. In short, the growth in the relationship is not clear and does not unfold in a way that allows the reader to follow along.
One of the strengths of this historical romance can be found in Sara. In many ways, she is atypical. Sure, she is a 23 year-old virgin, but she is not fearful. She is attracted to Nicholas, sexually and otherwise, and wants to be a wife to him in every way. When he pushes her around, she pushes back with an ultimatum – Nicholas must tell her the truth or she’s leaving. Sara never backs down from Nicholas. She’s prepared to act as a governess or any other societal role rather than live in a false marriage. She is strong and sure and doesn’t dissolve into weepiness or shrew-like behavior at every turn. In many ways, she is the strongest character in the book – the strong element in the book, really – even though her humble beginnings would suggest she is not going to inhabit that role. Unfortunately, Sara does not have enough pull to save this book.
HELENKAY’S QUESTION: The Ravencliff Bride has an eery gothic feel to it, or it’s supposed to have that feel. This hearkens back to the early days of romance, where dark castles sitting on cliffs above the sea were the norm. My sense was that this type of romance had fallen out of favor, relegated to "remember your first romance" tales. In your view, is the story and sense of atmosphere dated or can it work in a modern world?
WENDY’S RESPONSE: Gee, it would be so easy to quibble over whether a drafty castle is atmosphere… I strongly believe that any storyline can feel modern, in the right hands. Take for instance Kyra Davis’ Sex, Murder and a Double Latte. The protagonist is an author who finds herself inside one of her own plot lines. How many times have we all read that? But, Davis breathed new life into that setup with a fresh voice. It’s actually possible to forget the familiarity of the plot as Davis imbues her heroine with life. Does The Ravencliff Bride accomplish something similar? No.
WENDY’S FINAL THOUGHTS: Not recommended.
HELENKAY’S FINAL THOUGHTS: A slow start bogs down The Ravencliff Bride. Recommended with reservations.