The romance world loves a great series. Heck, I love a great series, but like so many readers, I am fickle. So few series compel me to continue to the very end (a certain man named Miles Vorkosigan excepted, and even he has his moments). The problem with all series, great and small, is that not every character should be resolved. Some should remain the mist.
In Jo Beverley’s The Rogue’s Return, Simon St. Bride, an English aristocrat in Regency Canada, is preparing to return home with evidence of thievery in the Indian Affairs group. His temper leads to a forced duel with the man he’s fingered; his actions lead to a forced marriage with Jane (Jancy) Otterburn, a recent immigrant from England. Only this Jane Otterburn isn’t the Jane Otterburn he thinks she is – rather than a poor relation of aristocracy, he ends up with the bastard daughter of a respected family.
It is Jancy’s deception – she has passed herself off as her beloved, deceased relation, the similarly aged and named Jane Otterburn – that drives this story. After starting life as part of an itinerant Gypsy-like group, she is given back to the Otterburn clan due to her uncanny resemblance her father. She’s raised respectably in a merchant household. Her decision to assume the other Jane’s identity is spontaneous; at eighteen, she has lost everything and is afraid of what the future holds.
Simon, who has a wild hair (I cannot resist even the worst puns), has gone to Canada in search of adventure. Now at the advanced age of 25, he’s ready to return to the family hive and take up his duties as heir. He has found evidence that the Indians have been robbed and knows he will find justice in England. In addition to returning to his family, he’ll return to his lifelong group of friends.
When Jancy’s supposed-uncle, Simon’s close friend dies, their marriage is sealed. And it starts off just fine, simpatico, love is blooming, despite worries that someone is trying to kill Simon. Oh, and the huge lie of Jancy’s origins.
That’s a problem, especially as Simon, much to his discomfort suffers from class snobbery in a big way. These two characters fall into a believable, passionate love. Still, one thing leads to another, there’s a duel rematch, Simon is injured, Jancy saves his life, he recovers, they start back for England, she is forced to face the truth, resolves to tell him the truth, much happens. Not all of it good.
And that’s where we pick up this review. Jo Beverley has been writing about her “Company of Rogues” for thirty years. The series is not only a chronicle of an author’s growth, but also the development of a set of characters, good and bad. For even the most avid fan, this is a long period of time; for new fans or casual fans, sustaining interest or details can be troublesome, especially when some of the older titles are out-of-print. In other words, if Simon’s full Canadian backstory was revealed in a previous book, I’m claiming advanced-ish age.
In Beverley’s author’s note, she comments that Simon, as a character, has remained hidden to her for many years. There are hints and suggestions of what he’s done since he was last in England, but the stories he tells Jancy aren’t shared with the reader. Jancy’s past is filled in (to my satisfaction, even), but Simon’s remains in shadows. Because the mystery portion of the plot hinges on this past, I would have liked to see it more fully explored.
As an educated American, I have a fair understanding of the injustices suffered by Native Americans. As a reader looking for conflict, the plotline involving stealing from the Indian Affairs bureau wasn’t well-developed. Much of the first third of the book is devoted to the thievery, dueling as a result of thievery, marrying, falling in love, dueling again, and recovering. Simon’s involvement in the Indian issue isn’t well-defined. Given the way it threads through the story and is resolved, this entire plotline feels gratuitous.
More compelling to me was the issue of Jancy’s deception. The lie, in and of itself, is straightforward and understandable. Beverley shines as she builds conflict around this issue. Simon internally recoils when he realizes he’s married a shopkeeper’s daughter (what will the parents think?). He grows more uncomfortable when a fellow Rogue declares his intent to marry an actress who presented him (Hal, the other Rogue) with a list of her past lovers as discouragement. Simon looks at Jancy and mentally reworks her wardrobe and appearance to fit society’s mores.
This is a guy who isn’t going to want a daughter of thieves and real rogues.
It’s delightful to see this level of snobbery out in the open. We all do it. You do, admit it. Just as Beverley doesn’t shy away from the realities of the human body, she doesn’t pretend that all humans are perfectly egalitarian. This leads to uncomfortable encounters and scene resolution. It’s not romance-pretty. I like that.
My great disappointment – other than the fact that the leads spend an inordinate amount of time injured or sick — is the easy resolution of the story’s problems. Beverley did a fine job of building layers of conflict: Jancy’s fear of discovery, Simon’s uncomfortable class snobbery, a shadowy villain.
Yet when it came time for the final dénouement(s), it all felt too cozy. The villain, who didn’t play a particularly strong role once the group left Canada, popping up here and there to remind us there was a bad dude lurking, seemed almost comical; his nefarious plan was ill-considered. Though I appreciated Simon’s simple solution to the problem, I didn’t get a sense that the crime merited the effort (that is not the say that I didn’t understand the crime, but that it wasn’t as fully developed as I’d like).
Jancy’s revelations about her assumed identity and, further, her family connections were greeted with almost-too-easy acceptance. Given the personalities of the characters, I wanted more direct confrontation. I wanted direct honesty. I got a heroine who falls asleep drunk. This is fiction, baby, I need more oomph!
Somewhere along the line, Simon became comfortable with the idea that Hal wanted to marry Blanche, his mistress, accepted her easily, and translated these open-minded views to Jancy. That’s great, but from a reader’s perspective it all came together too easily. The final chapters of the novel were a bit too much of a love-fest for my jaded tastes.
In a series, resolution must eventually happen. In a romance series, natural resolution comes when all character are safely married. You can’t get into trouble once that happens. There is one more Rogue to resolve. I don’t think Jo Beverley will ever be an author I don’t anticipate, but Simon’s story does make me wonder if thirty years takes the juice out of a series. Oh yeah, I’ll finish it, but, as I’ve wondered before, does every character really need a happy ending?