Books to the Sky

Archive for the ‘historical’ Category

Piggybacking off of my previous post, here’s a trilogy of Regency romance novels. The series features three friends who fought in the army together, all three of them with somewhat unsavory pasts, and all three now resorting to illegal activity for some greater good. It’s a trope I think of as “the noble criminal.” Two of the three men are “forced” into illegal activity to achieve something good, and the third gets involved in an elaborate plot with a very dangerous man in order to help a woman in an untenable position. But we’re made to know that all three men are basically good underneath.

After the Kiss
Meet Sullivan Waring, a horse breeder who moonlights as a cat burglar. We learn very early on that he’s actually in the process of stealing back what he views as his property. Sullivan is the bastard son of an earl who won’t acknowledge him. His now-dead mother was a painter. While Sully was off fighting on the Peninsula, his father gave all of his mother’s paintings away to his friends. So, Sully wants the paintings—the only thing he really has left of his mother—back and goes about stealing them. His real trouble begins when he’s caught in the act of liberating a painting from the Chalsey estate; he’s caught by young Isabel Chalsey, whom he kisses to keep from screaming.

The setup is a little silly, but Sullivan is a likable hero. The plot is a little convoluted: Isabel blackmails him into helping her learn to ride a horse, because he arouses her curiosity (and some other things) and she wants to get to the bottom of why he’s a thief before she turns him over to the authorities. They thus end up spending a lot of time together. The conflict in the novel is mostly external, as social mores make it impossible for Sullivan and Isabel to be together when they, predictably, fall in love. Which is a little irritating, particularly since it takes Sullivan until the end of the book to put together that he’s well-respected enough that his common bastard status doesn’t actually matter, at least not to Isabel.

Sully’s BFFs are coming in the next books. Phineas Bromley is still off fighting and Bramwell Johns is Sully’s companion throughout this novel. Bram, actually, is the one who provides Sullivan with the intelligence he needs to steal back his paintings. And Bram is totally the best character, cynical and sharp-tongued.

Before the Scandal
Lieutenant Colonel Phineas Bromley’s crime is that he resorts to robbing coaches in order to find clues as to who is harassing his family. He’s helped along the way by his “ruined” childhood friend, Alyse.

The book fails as a whodunnit, because the culprit behind all the trouble at the Bromley estate is obvious from almost the first page. I also wish the scandal involving Alyse, which was important enough for the book to be titled after it, were juicier. It’s one of those peculiarities of the genre, I suppose; it doesn’t take much to ruin Alyse’s reputation, and now she’s a 25-year-old spinster playing Cinderella to her cousin and wicked-stepmother-type aunt.

Otherwise, there’s some good mayhem in this one, and Phin is a great character. (I liked Alyse, also, and I like that not much is made of the fact that she and Phin start sleeping together out of wedlock; the point is moot since she’s already “ruined” I guess.) But one of the best scenes in the book is towards the end, when Phin has to confront his brother William, and William makes Phin confront himself. It’s a little bit easy, but it’s a good redemption arc, not that Phin ever necessarily needs to be redeemed.

This is probably the best book of the three. And Sully and Bram show up to help Phin steal coaches and/or act as his cover when the villain discovers Phin is the thief. It’s fun to see the three of them work together.

Always a Scoundrel
I liked this book, but it was kind of a disappointing end to the series. Bram is the most depraved character and gets most of the best lines. But there is, unfortunately, a lot in his book that just didn’t quite work.

First, the Love at First Sight stuff was kind of unnecessary. We’re told repeatedly that Bram has been with a lot of women, but then he meets Rose, who touches his arm once, and he’s a goner. It’s hokey, and it’s also pretty unnecessary; I don’t need for it to be Twoo Wuv from the get-go because there are a lot of other things going on between Rose and Bram that are far more compelling reasons for them to fall in love. Bram thinks to himself at one point that Rose has all of the qualities he most admires in his friends, for instance, and Rose and Bram come from families that ostracize them in similar ways, so they have lot in common. Why have all the weird cosmic stuff when they first meet?

Second, Cosgrove is an annoyingly one-dimensional villain. There’s a lot of space there for him to be more interesting—he and Bram are friends at the beginning of the novel, after all—and he’s just not, he’s all evil all the time. (And he gets his at the end of the novel in an almost cartoonish way.)

Third, I feel like Rose, for being the sheltered second daughter of a prominent family, is way more worldly than is believable. When she and Bram inevitably have sex, she’s remarkably knowledgeable.

But, on the other hand, Bram is still a great character. He’s got a Robin Hood act going in the beginning of the novel and I thought it would be a repeat of the previous books, with Bram nobly committing crimes in order to serve some greater goal, but he ends up giving up the thievery when he meets Rose (though not because she inspires goodness in him, mostly just because he’s too distracted). Phin and Sullivan also come back in this novel, and I think they are around just enough.

So that’s what a contemporary Regency series looks like.


This is an unpopular opinion, but I am not a huge Jane Austen fan. I read a lot of Austen when I was in high school, in part because all those movies came out around that time: IMDb tells me that the Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma all came out in 1995/1996 (also Clueless). I liked all the books at the time, though I always thought they were so nice and polite. I find also that a lot of women, when you ask them what their favorite romance novels are, will site Austen’s books, but… I don’t view them as romances, really, not by the definition we give romances today.

I’ve never been a big reader of historical fiction, either, and I figured my tastes in the classics veered more towards the overwrought and the Victorian. (Jane Eyre is one of my favorite books of all time, and it came to my attention recently that some events in the novel would have had to have taken place at the tail end of the Regency period, given that the book was published in 1848. I think of the novel as more Gothic or Victorian, not as sentimental as the Austen novels are.)

A few years ago, I started reading romance novels again after a very, very long hiatus. I stuck mostly to contemporaries, as I was kind of turned off by the Jane Austen sensibilities (and the great, great majority of historical romance being published today is Regency, for reasons I can’t quite figure out). But then a friend gave me her copy of Flowers from the Storm. I’d heard from several places that Laura Kinsale was one of the best writers in romance, and I’m willing to give anything a try so long as the writing is good. And I devoured this book. I don’t recall exactly which time period it takes place in; I think it’s vaguely Victorian, mid-19th century. I was really surprised how sucked into this book I got. So I then read other Kinsale, and I started checking out other historical romance.

Ann Herenden writes in an essay at the end of Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander that one of the reasons she (an American woman living in 21st Century Brooklyn) likes writing in the Regency period is that it gives her the opportunity to focus mostly on social niceties and witty banter. A lot of the Regency novels put out today have the same themes as an Austen novel. They’re mostly about society, about social castes and dukes and ladies and how one is supposed to behave at parties, etc. I thought that sounded boring until I started reading other Regencies. (I particularly like Julia Quinn, if you want a recommendation.) These modern books have modern sensibilities, though, and I think there’s an awareness to them that’s absent from the 19th century novels. Women of the Regency period were supposed to behave in certain ways, and Regency heroines created by contemporary authors tend to chafe at those restrictions. They also have sex out of wedlock in great detail (although invariably end up marrying the men they have sex with anyway).

My larger point is that, I was a reluctant reader of Regencies, but I’ve since come around. I think their appeal lies largely with the fact that these books tend to be comedies (if only in the Shakespearean sense) and they focus on the relationships between people without a lot of external conflict, usually (although these books—Kinsale’s in particular, for example—can also have a lot of swashbuckling heroics). They’re fantasies, also; they take place in a bygone era, or in a modern permutation of the bygone era. The books often have dukes and earls and lavish parties, and feature the upper crust of London society. It’s so far removed from modern life as to be appealing.

So, I toss it to you, readers of historical romance or others. What appeals (or doesn’t) to you about the sub-genre?

Books to the ceiling,
Books to the sky,
My pile of books is a mile high.
How I love them! How I need them!
I'll have a long beard by the time I read them.
--Arnold Lobel

From the moment I picked up your book until I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend reading it.
--Groucho Marx

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