Lord Sebastian's Secret
Another of the Gresham boys meets his bride in the third volume of Jane Ashford’s series, The Duke’s Sons – Lord Sebastian’s Secret.
When we first meet Lord Sebastian Gresham, he’s riding his horse, Whitefoot, to Stane Castle to meet his betrothed, Georgina. Sebastian, a horse lover by passion and a soldier by avocation, already daydreams of his lovely fiancée, though they’ve barely spent more than a few days together before his military service required their separation. For Sebastian, this critical just-pre-wedding trip will give him the chance to meet his potential in-laws and to decide if Georgiana is really the right woman for him. He finds her enchanting but the house lacking; the first person he meets is their harried guest, Anat Mitra, who runs away from the sudden tromping sound of an army of pugs giving him chase. Sebastian’s attempt at controlling the horde of animals leads to him standing there helplessly while two hump his boots. This is how Georgina first sees him after his long absence.
Things do not get less colorful from there. Georgina is embarrassed by but proud of her family – her bossy, scheming and mischievous young twin sisters, who want to escape to the excitement of London when Sebastian and Georgina marry; her blunt and business-minded dog breeding mother, Charlotte, who sells those humpy pugs to the local aristocracy and sizes up Sebastian in terms of his worth as breeding stock; and Alfred, her local history and mythology obsessed father, who goes so far as to cut his hair in the style of the long-dead Saxons who once inhabited the land and hates the Welsh for conquering his favorite historical king… whom he sincerely believes to have been reincarnated as himself. The family lives in isolation from society in general due to the secluded location of the castle, and it has lead to them following their own free spirits – a little too closely for Georgina’s comfort.
Unused to such informality, Sebastian does not feel at ease among them but he tries his best to get on with them in spite of the fact that he possesses what he believes to be an inferior intellect. He soon learns that Mitra and Georgina’s father are developing a way for people to apply the strictures of Anat’s meditation techniques to visit their past lives, which eventually threatens his union with Georgina. As the romance intensifies and Georgina comes closer to realizing something about Sebastian’s deepest fault, Sebastian must learn to let go of his pride, to ask for help –and to allow himself to be completely honest with his love.
To say this is the most unusual romance I’ve read for some time is to put things too mildly. I’m apt to label it ‘quirky’ flat-out and I admit its unusual premise and characters are what caused me to up its rating a hair. A number of flaws detract from the hope of my giving it a higher grade, but if you’re up for something quirky, then it might work for you.
The hero and heroine are appealing. Sebastian’s sternness and his lack of command over any creature that’s not his horse adds a funny layer of ridiculousness to the formal figure he cuts. His eventual secret affliction is revealed, it’s handled with dignity and threaded throughout the narrative. Georgina is both a relatable straight woman for the extremely colorful supporting characters that exist around her and a quite fierce little firebrand in a non-TSTL way that makes her engaging.
And oh, are these the most unusual lot you’ll see in many an age. I liked Georgina’s mother the best, with Anat being close second. After having seen more than my fair share of romances fail to craft a PoC supporting character as more than a cipher for its white characters, Anat, laconic and filled with dignity and originality, has ambitions and desires of his own and operates as an audience surrogate to commentate on the strangeness of the Stane family. Sadly, the narrative’s grasp of Hinduism is surface-level at best but having Anat transmogrify his religion with rituals of his own making manages to avoid things becoming cingeworthy. Georgina’s sisters are melodramatic, self-absorbed, innocent and well-meaning at turns – coming off as the most accurate portrayal of a couple of young teenagers I’ve read in a romance in a while. Even Sebastian’s valet, Sykes, has wants and needs of his own that have nothing to do with being Sebastian’s support (he happens to be a magnificent playwright).
The hero and heroine have an adorable relationship, yet that relationship undeniably suffers from the fact that they met and flirted for the first time off-page. Meeting our central couple after their first meeting isn’t a hugely insurmountable problem; many novels have, after all, started out with the principals having been friends before the romance starts. But starting the book after they’ve already had their first kiss, after their first dance, feels like depriving the audience a few of the building blocks necessary to enable us root for them. In addition, the book suffers from a surfeit of the heroine and hero being almost TOO agreeably happy with one another. Yet ultimately the silliness and the appealing quality of the characters kept me turning the pages, even when the two of them made love for the first time in the woods after the heroine had been immobilized by a tumble into a ravine (yes, really).
Yet even with its problems, Lord Sebastian’s Secret is charming and quirky enough to be something of a delight – warts and all.