A mere six months ago, I reviewed the ostensible second-to-last novel in Jo Beverley’s “Rogues” series. At that time, I pondered the idea of series that have run their course. Specifically, I wondered if thirty years was too long for one series. Especially if said thirty years was punctuated by periods of unavailability for some of the titles in the series.
I am the ultimate series sucker. You write them, I will come. And will keep reading and reading forever. In fact, I will keep reading long after I have sworn I will stop. There are possibly twelve-step programs for people like me, I simply haven’t found them. But still, there’s a point where even I wonder why I keep coming back…and then suddenly I remember who’s in charge of me, and I take the initiative and stop myself cold turkey.
That’s where I was at with The Rogue’s Return, but I knew there was one more story in the works, and swore I’d see the series through to the bitter end. In To Rescue A Rogue, Jo Beverley brings us the story of Darius Debenham, previously presumed dead, but actually badly wounded at Waterloo, and Lady Mara St. Bride, the younger sister of the hero of Simon St. Bride, hero of my previous review. Dare is alive but not well – he’s addicted to opium — the victim of a nefarious plot — and Mara (okay, it’s actually Adelmara) is determined to save him.
This is a complex, interesting story. First off, drug addiction is something not handled well – or, almost at all – in romance fiction. We have had the occasional alcoholic, but not someone, to the best of my memory, who is truly and seriously addicted to drugs. Then, of course, comes the issue of fighting the addiction. Mary Jo Putney explored this in her book The Rake (the expanded version of The Rake and The Reformer). I can’t recall another serious exploration of true drug addiction (enlighten me, please!). Finally, this book deals with issues of class and social hypocrisy. This is the kind of book I want to brandish when I talk about romance novels.
But it just misses the mark for me.
Mara is wild and impetuous, a victim of her devil’s hair (a shade associated with family members who stray from the homestead; St. Bride’s are steadfast and true and all that) and its connection to an even wild and crazier ancestor. Mara shares her hair affliction with her brother Simon, the hero of The Rogue’s Return, and I think Beverley did a much better job of tying the hair issue to character in this novel than she did in the previous story. More on that later.
Though she’s known him her whole life, Mara is thrust into Dare’s world when she, stupidly, agrees to go to a suitor’s home in the middle of the night. To her credit, she knows this is an idiotic move and saves herself by climbing out of a window and landing on Dare’s doorstep. This is pretty much the last time she exhibits true brazenness in this story. Her subsequent wild-hairness is confined to pushiness. What might be viewed as outré felt more contrived. The reason, I think, sigh, is because Mara is eighteen, yet written with wisdom far beyond her years. I’m sorry, but dealing with addiction isn’t easy, and her ability to do just the right thing rang false. Eighteen is too young.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know all about historical accuracy and people maturing far earlier in the older days and that Jo Beverley knows her stuff. Mara’s wisdom rang false. I’m the reader, I’m always right.
Dare’s story is more complex, especially when contrasted with a lightweight heroine. A younger son, he went off to war, was seriously wounded at Waterloo, and, rather improbably, was found by a woman who held a grudge against another Rogue. Her revenge was exacted by way of addicting Dare to opium. He spent far too much time in the throes of the drug, finally escaping and taking along the woman’s young children, leading to speculation about his role in their births. This, by the way, is only important in the periphery, though the children play a prominent role in the story. Bottom line is that Dare has gaps in his past and questions upon his honor.
Okay, young woman with wild streak. Young man (six years older) with opium addiction, mysterious missing years, and potential stains upon his honor. Which character seems to be the more fascinating? If you guessed Mara, then you have this book. I have been struggling for over a month with the exact reason that this book left me cold. I finally realized that it was because the most compelling character didn’t have the primary point of view in the book. This was Mara’s story, a coming-of-age tale in a way, and focusing on her point-of-view made this an ordinary romance rather than extraordinary.
Beverley chose to start this story as Dare is entering the final – and roughest – phase of his recovery. Opiates create a physical addiction, and Dare is slowly, carefully weaning himself from the drug. This is accomplished through careful dosing and physical exertion, with a dose of powerful willpower. In a way, the most compelling part of fighting addiction is the mental struggle, and I felt shortchanged by the focus on Mara’s personal battles rather than Dare’s fight. I know that Beverley can write compelling wounded heroes and have noted her tendency to focus on her heroines in passing; this time, I felt cheated by the lack of heroic depth.
As noted, this series has been in development for decades. Simon of the previous (sounds like a saint name, doesn’t it?) was an enigma to Beverley – a condition that I believe continued even after she wrote his story – Dare, presumed dead by his fellow characters wasn’t fully developed in earlier stories either. What we know about him comes from the tail end of the previous novel (hey, he’s been found, he’s alive, he’s all over the opium), so character development was critical here (though, it’s important to always fully develop characters even if they have popped up in previous novels of a series). I felt like I was dropped into the life of someone I should know well. I’m told he’s changed, he’s lost his joie de vivre, he’s different. I don’t have an accurate measure of this change. As far as I know, he’s always existed in this half-life, witty when he’s doped up, drained when he’s not. For me to engage in the battle against opium with Simon, I needed to know what I’d lost.
And, I needed to go through earlier stages of his addiction to understand the point he was at when this story started. Telling me that he’s trying to break the cycle isn’t enough. I didn’t see him hit rock bottom (did I miss a book?). In my experience, rock bottom is where you start to reclaim your existence. In order to understand a battle, one must understand the genesis. Beverley’s major stumbles in this book (and, yes, the previous) come from the belief that readers are familiar with her entire series, and possibly that they can fill in blanks based on prior reminisces.
This is most apparent as she starts to bring in Rogues from books past (hmm, now I’m going all Dickens on you). There are twelve of them, two dead (which, I have to say as a long-time romance reader, makes me shudder with horror; Dare was dead once, too). There are auxiliary Rogues. And friend Rogues. And non-Rogue characters who show up because, well, paper is cheap and ink is cheaper. Lots of people are involved in this story, very few stand out as distinctive. And I’ve been with this series from day one. A previous heroine seems to be in the story only to play piano; granted, she came from my least favorite installment of this series, but I recall her as a petulant child. Now she’s just dull.
Okay fine, bring in lots of characters, but make it less family reunion, more distinctive. Please. Naturally all the “good” characters in this book like each other on sight; it’s a classic romance cliché. We very nearly broke this law when Mara had an uncomfortable reaction to Nicholas, the King Rogue and the catalyst for Dare’s horror story (Nick, being a former lover of the woman who addicted Dare). Alas, it was only mild discomfort. Not enough to make it interesting.
All of these Rogues are required for the story’s secondary plot: redeem Hal, a one-armed war hero, and his wife, Blanche, who may be one of the better, non-heroic characters in romance fiction. Blanche is a soiled dove, an actress, the former mistress of Nicholas (he was a bit of as slut, you see). She is bad ton. She’s made it despite the world she inhabits. She’s a survivor. She’s interesting. She’s a secondary character.
Thus, precious pages are devoted to redeeming Hal and Blanche after their marriage – and admirable goal – without much in the way of resolution. I’m not even sure these characters need the blessing of polite society. Their friends need to redeem them far more than they need to redeem themselves, and had this plot thread focused more directly on the issue of class, I would have been really excited. It was prominent enough to fill a dinner party’s worth of scenery; it wasn’t important enough to see through to satisfactory resolution.
Beverley does do one thing that satisfies me, albeit a book too late. As noted above, Simon St. Bride was an admitted enigma for the author, and I felt that devoting several hundred pages to him didn’t solve that problem. In To Rescue A Rogue, he and his wife Jancy are finally conscious and healthy enough to show themselves as interesting, well-rounded people. I felt I understood Simon far more after reading this novel than I did after an entire book devoted to him.
But I digress. We have Mara, wise beyond her years and being somewhat stalked by a misguided beau. Jo Beverley can be wickedly, deliciously funny, and when Mara gives this dude his final kiss-off, it is beauty. We have Dare, fighting for his life. We simply don’t move deeply enough into his battles – even the final skirmish is focused on Mara – to fully grasp the depths of addiction. There was so much happening in the world of Darius Debenham that I was frustrated by the focus on Mara.
Hmm, I’m going to commit heresy here. Had this book not been a romance, had this book been a story of a man fighting his addiction, with, yes, the strength of the woman who loves him, it would have been more compelling. You can split hairs on the definition of romance, sure, but this author’s heroine-centric approach weakened the most powerful aspects of the story. There is an excellent romance in this book, do not mistake me, but it is given short shrift by the weakness of the surrounding story. If I cannot appreciate the depths of Dare’s struggles to overcome his addiction, I cannot appreciate what he wins. He needs to suffer more. He needs to show me that the prize is worth the struggle.
Addiction is one of those things that impacts everyone in its sphere. You cannot be sanguine about addiction, not if you encounter it. The Rogues and their spouses (spice?), even Mara, seem to be a little too comfortable with Dare’s addiction. You can talk to me all you want about being true to the era, lots of people were addicted, blah, blah, blah. Sorry. This is fiction, drama rules here, the more the better. Addiction hurts the people the addict loves. Breaks them, causes them to lose faith, leads to mistrust, even, in some cases, ends relationships.
There is no deep anger here, just acceptance. Ignoring the emotional spectrum surrounding addiction creates too much easiness, and that is what rings false here. In the Regency era, we had far less pop psychology, and addicts were not seen as victims. They were surely seen as weak, but weakness has always been a character flaw. Where was the anger? Where was the sense of being let down? Why didn’t the Rogues question their own feelings about Dare’s addiction? We had several dozen people impacted by this serious disease. Universal supportive acceptance feels false.
I understand the rules of romance, but I also understand the rules of story. Jo Beverley is not an author who backs away from intense confrontation and uncomfortable scenes – this is an author who had a man return from war to discover that his wife had given birth to another man’s baby – but here she seemed disinclined to dig down a layer. This left me feeling unsettled at the more-or-less end of this series.
Here is my dilemma, my weakness, my fatal flaw. This is supposedly the final book in the Rogue series. Except, as you guessed, another book is in the works. I cannot keep doing this. I simply cannot. I am begging for mercy. Not every character requires his or her own story, no matter what crazy notions a few readers have. Stop already. It is enough. Please, someone, save me.