Wicked Fantasy by Nicole Jordan

wickedfantasy.jpgWendy:  Nicole Jordan’s Wicked Fantasy, the third entry in the Paradise Series, introduces Antonia Maitland, a young heiress trying hard to curb her desire for adventure and follow her deceased father’s wishes that she marry a nobleman.  When Trey Deverill, a member of the Guardians of the Sword, and a long time friend of Antonia’s father, receives an urgent message that suggests Samuel Maitland’s death was murder and Antonia’s life might be in danger as well, Deverill makes his way to London to protect the innocent and ferret out the truth.

Deverill arrives to find Antonia quite grown up from the sixteen year old girl he’d met and kissed four years earlier.  She is days away from announcing her betrothal to Lord Heward—the man Deverill suspects killed Antonia’s father as part of a larger scheme to wed Antonia and take control of her vast financial empire.

From their first encounter, Antonia has been enthralled with Deverill for both his adventurous life and the passion his kisses inspired.  But, despite her admiration and lust, she refuses to listen to the reservations Deverill presents on Heward.  After a sizzling encounter with Deverill, Antonia moves up her engagement announcement in hopes that she will prove to Deverill—and perhaps herself—that her trust and faith lie with Heward—even if her passion belongs to Deverill.  

Not satisfied with winning Antonia’s hand, Heward frames Deverill for murder, hoping to eliminate him altogether.  Rather than be imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit, Deverill leaves London and abducts Antonia least she too fall victim to Heward. 

As Deverill collects evidence to clear his name and implicate Heward, his feelings for Antonia develop beyond mere desire and the need he feels to protect her.  The closer Antonia and Deverill grow, the more Deverill’s long held fears and Antonia’s pledge to uphold her father’s wishes are threatened.

Wicked Fantasy is a light and buoyant read that moves through London’s upper crust society, sin clubs, the Cornish coast, an English schooner, and an island in the Mediterranean Sea.  Jordan jumps directly into the heart of scenes, never meanders or drowns her story in the superfluous. She keeps her hero and heroine together and present on the page for the vast majority of the story.  Their dialog is, at times, witty but too often stiff:

He grinned, appreciating the fearlessness of her manner, but raised his hands in temporary surrender.  “Very well, you have the advantage at the moment.”

“I want your word you will leave me alone, Deverill.”

“I’m sorry, love, but I can’t comply.  I suppose that means you will just have to shoot me.”

Antonia is a Regency Era heroine whose sensibilities regarding women’s roles, adventure and sex are perhaps more modern than true to the time her story is set in.  Yet, her innocence is charming because it is not accompanied with absolute ignorance.  The action and intrigue that the men in her life bring happens largely around her, but not actually to her.  Her greatest role is to fall in love with Deverill and bring happiness to his life.  And that, she does.

Deverill is slightly—but only slightly—more complicated than Antonia.  He is a man with a past that haunts him, one he cannot escape or seem to make restitution for.  He’s committed his life to protecting those who can’t protect themselves and is consistent in that pursuit.  His desire to protect Antonia, his encouragement of her, even his high handedness, are charming qualities.

Antonia and Deverill’s relationship is one of starts and stops, headlong rushes and abrupt endings.  They stay in just enough conflict to be compelling and force the turning of the next page.  While there is never any doubt that they will live happily ever after, watching them get to that point is engaging and enjoyable.

Unfortunately, for all the time that is spent laying out Heward’s possible crimes and the impact his nefarious actions have on Antonia and Deverill, the quest to bring him to justice happens off screen.  The evidence collected against Heward is procured by Deverill’s Guardian friends and related to the main characters via post.  After the investment made in the setup, the lack of steps to the payoff is disappointing.  As is Heward’s eventual comeuppance.  Not only is his story—the only external conflict of the book—resolved fifty pages before the end of the book, the scene reads like a courtroom drama—and not a very good one at that—with Deverill taking the part of grandstanding lawyer. 

“Mrs. Peeks, please tell us about the day Mr. Maitland died.  Lord Heward paid him a visit, is that so?”

The elderly woman’s moth flattened.  “Indeed.  His lordship called on Mr. Maitland late that afternoon and brought him a bottle of brandy.  Called it a peace offering in fact.”

“Why would he need a peace offering?  Were they at war, Mrs. Peeke?”

Worse yet, Antonia and Deverill’s happily ever after comes twenty pages before the end of the book making the final pages pointless and tedious, thus dragging down an otherwise well paced story.

Wicked Fantasy takes a familiar story and freshens the telling with characters that are delightful despite their lack of depth and are persuasive though not memorable.  The story does not aspire to profundity and succeeds by understanding what it is: escapist entertainment.

HelenKay: Wicked Fantasy has all the ingredients you expect from a historical romance – a beautiful heiress, a handsome rogue with a devastating past and a villain determined to keep them apart while getting his greedy hands on the heiress’ fortune.  The plot doesn’t break new ground but the flirty edge to the writing helps carry this book past the haven’t-I-read-this-before feeling that settles in early in Chapter One. 

Antonia Maitland is the only child of a wealthy ship magnet, Samuel Maitland.  Her father expects her to marry into respectability and benefit from the life Antonia’s mother had before she married the tradesman.  He ships her off to boarding school but a mis-timed visit home gives her a glimpse of her father’s guest, a very naked Trey Deverill.  At her request, Trey also delivers Antonia’s first kiss.

Having had a taste of passion, the action jumps forward four years.  Antonio’s father is now dead, allegedly from a heart ailment, and Antonia is on the verge of marrying Mr. Out For Her Money, Baron Heward.  Heward meets all of the qualifications Antonia believed her father wanted for her in a husband.  He’s titled and a savvy businessman.  Problem is, he may also have killed her father, dealt in the illegal slave trade and ruined the otherwise solid reputation of her father’s company, which he now heads.  Then there’s the issue of his possible plans to kill Antonia next and become a very wealthy widower right after they marry.

Deverill returns to protect Antonia from Heward and uncover the truth behind the death of Antonia’s father.  Antonia refuses to believe Heward has engaged in any treachery even though she can’t quite bring herself to believe Deverill is wrong about his concerns. 

Deverill is the typical pirate-hunting seaman who is estranged from his noble family, works for the Crown on the side and lives with demons stemming from a horrific incident in his past.  Despite Deverill’s considerable talents, Heward bests him from the beginning, first by setting Deverill up for a murder charge.  The plan backfires when Deverill runs rather than stays and fights the charges.  He kidnaps Antonia and takes her to safety then settles into collect the evidence he needs against Heward.  The escape leads to his ship, to Cornwall then eventually back to London.  While Deverill concentrates on getting Antonia out of her dress, his friends in the super secret club, The Guardians, work to clear his name.

Deverill is a flawed hero.  Scarred from a difficult past and hampered by his inability to foresee Heward’s traps before he sets them.  This low-level incompetence is a bit unusual for a romance hero but Jordan balances it, at times more successfully than others, by keeping the majority of the action regarding the murders off the page.  The majority of the book centers on Deverill’s relationship with Antonia.  He wants her, compromises her, but is bound by duty to stay away from her.

As a heroine, Antonia is likable and resists the fresh-out-of-the-schoolroom feel that afflicts many historical romance heroines.  She doesn’t rely on whining and complaining to get her way.  She is fairly strong, refuses to see her loss of virginity as a reason to marry and is sexual, despite her naïve upbringing.  Her promise to marry for title, not love, is her biggest obstacle.   

Wicked Fantasy avoids the marriage of convenience construction you expect, in part, thanks to Jordan’s decision to liberate Antonia from some of the easy heroine stereotypes.  Unfortunately, with the mystery aspects solved and obvious, and the conflict between Antonia and Deverill slight, the plot drags in the middle section of the book.  Very little action actually takes place during almost 150 pages while Jordan builds the attraction between Deverill and Antonia.  Witty dialog carries the book through this lean period but the plot remains slim and too familiar.  Further, the strengths of the writing are, at times, overcome, by the tendency to use cliched phrases.

Wicked Fantasy suffers from inconsistency and a general sense that everything feels typical.  While many aspects of the writing were strong and interesting, there may not be enough here to hold the interest of readers who avoid historical romance or of those who read it quite regularly and, therefore, demand something new and different. For those who do like the writing  – and you likely will – but aren’t sold on the plot, it appears Wicked Fantasy is one in a series so the others may be worth a look.

HelenKay’s response to Wendy:  Many times romance heroes are larger than life.  They know everything, can lift anything and possess an innate sense of how to save the heroine.  It could be argued in getting set-up by Heward several times, Deverill failed to meet the usual hero standard.  Did you find these issues consistent with Deverill’s character, in particular, and with the alpha male ideal, in general?

Wendy’s response to HelenKay:  The impact Heward’s setups have on the story is far more important than Deverill toeing the alpha male line.  When Heward frames Deverill for murder, the story is propelled forward and it is from this point that Antonia’s belief in Heward falters and her faith in Deverill begins to flourish.  Then, when Deverill stages Heward’s capture and confession, Heward knows a trap has been laid and turns the tables on Deverill.  It’s a possible misstep for a hero, but more significantly it gives Antonia the opportunity to prove she is worthy of Deverill.  In both instances, Jordan makes choices for the good of the story versus imbuing Deverill with faultless decision making capabilities. 

HelenKay’s final thoughts:  The most interesting aspects of Wicked Fantasy are the hero who isn’t always right and the heroine who isn’t like every other young historical heroine.  The hero and heroine and their charming banter carry a book that otherwise does not stand out.  Recommended with reservations.

Wendy’s final thoughts:  Wicked Fantasy is a fun and buoyant read.  Despite a few missteps, the story is too charming to pass up.  Recommended.

You can visit Nicole Jordan here and buy this book here or here.