A Lily among Thorns
I had hoped to love this book. I thought Ms. Lerner’s debut, In for a Penny, was marvelous. I did not love this book…but I did really like it. And I thought the unusually beta hero was a wonderful character. Ultimately, my lack of love for this novel stems from my lack of love for its heroine.
Serena Ravenshaw is an archetype I rarely warm to: The hard bitten former famed courtesan. Serena was forced into sexual servitude by poverty and her beauty — no one hires a gorgeous nanny — but was able, years ago, to change her life. She bought her sex contract from the brothel owner who possessed her with money rather randomly given to her by a man she met only briefly, Solomon Hathaway. Serena is now both the owner of a successful inn and the Black Thorn, a woman with great power in the London underworld. (This irked me — I didn’t feel Ms. Lerner made that aspect of Serena’s character believable. She doesn’t come across as someone whom people would be terrified to cross. She isn’t a killer.) Serena is adamantly alone and sees emotional connection as a deadly weakness. She pours her whole self into her inn and its kitchen and staff, and spends her nights alone.
Solomon has been wallowing in numb misery ever since he learned his beloved identical twin Elijah died in the Napoleonic Wars. He’s cut himself off from his aristocratic family and spends his days working as a tailor in his uncle’s shop. He’s depressed, lonely, and stuck. He is roused out of his despair by a cry for help from his family. His sister is getting married and a family heirloom she wishes to wear at her wedding has been stolen. Simon goes to see the Black Thorn to ask for her help in recovering the gems. He and Serena are both shocked to meet again after so many years.
Many things about A Lily among Thorns are splendid. Ms. Lerner creates such vivid secondary characters that, at times, I was more engaged in those stories than in the love story between Serena and Solomon. One crucial character, Rene, enlivens every page on which he appears. The staff at the inn is also fantastic — the amusing back-story on the faux French chef is better than many other authors’ entire books! Ms. Lerner is a gifted author. Although she never gushes, she is a painterly writer. The words on her pages are easy to visualize and believe in. In scene after scene, I could almost see the contexts and expressions described in her prose.
I loved Solomon. He’s a beta hero who is strong because it’s the right thing to do, not because it’s manly. His heartbreak over his brother made me cry. He works on himself, trying to be better, in ways that aren’t sanctimonious or angelic. In a romance novel world replete with alpha, caveman heroes, he is a prince among men.
I didn’t like Serena. I don’t have any problem with heroines having a sexual past. And, given how horrific the lives of prostitutes were in 1800’s England, it makes sense that Serena would be emotionally scarred. But understanding a character doesn’t mean a reader has to like him or her. I found Serena to be too cold and too unhappy. I felt Solomon deserved better.
Still, A Lily among Thorns is one of the better historicals I’ve read lately. Ms. Lerner’s work is blessedly free from the clichés that abound in Regency romance. (Although Serena yet another is strikingly lovely, divinely curved beauty.) It’s not quite the tour de force that is In for a Penny, but it’s quite good. If you’re looking for a fine, affecting, historical romance, I highly recommend A Lily among Thorns.