Once a Soldier
Once a Soldier is the first book in Mary Jo Putney’s new Rogues Redeemed series. This book begins with Major Lord Will Masterson regaining consciousness locked in a French cellar after being knocked out by the enemy. He and several other prisoners are scheduled to be hung the next morning as spies. After flinging a wine bottle against the wall in frustration, Will finds his background in engineering pays off when he discovers a way out. He and the other prisoners escape and, after agreeing to keep in touch with one another by way of writing to a bookstore in London, go on their way back to their units. I am sure that each of these prisoners will receive their individual stories in the books to come. Once a Soldier is Will’s story.
When Will’s wife and child died, he bought a commission in the army that was an escape from his grief and maybe even a secret wish for suicide by war. After experiencing so much death during his time on the continent, Will discovers he very much does want to live and a close brush with the hangman’s noose reiterates this wish. With Napoleon captured and languishing on Elba, the allied troops begin the process of assessing the damage caused by the war. Will is asked to look into the fate of the tiny kingdom of San Gabriel, a strategically important nation situated between Portugal and Spain. The French captured the king and his heir and the royals’ whereabouts are unknown. Will is tasked with escorting a group of San Gabriel’s enlisted soldiers home and assessing the damage to this country while he is there and offering what aid he can.
Athena Markham is English by birth, but lives in her adopted homeland of San Gabriel serving as a companion and advisor to Princess Sophia. With twenty-three year old Sophia too young to ascend the throne, her father and brother missing, and an elderly uncle who suffers from dementia acting as regent, Sophia needs help and her friend Athena has become the de facto leader of San Gabriel. Though Athena longs for another glimpse of her homeland, she has avoided England so as not to irritate her father. You see, Athena is illegitimate and her mother was a famous courtesan named Lady Delilah (although she was an aristocrat by birth). Athena receives a quarterly allowance from her father and, in return, no one is to learn of her connection to him. Out of sight, out of mind seems like the most prudent course and it is the one Athena follows. However, when Major Will Masterson arrives, ready to escort San Gabriel soldiers home, Athena begins to consider returning to England.
In the beginning, Will and Athena’s relationship is based on the idea that Will might court her for marriage, although Athena is not sure that marriage is the proper endgame for them. She understands the hardship a union between them would incur and is altruistically unwilling for Will to endure the cuts, snide remarks and backlash their marriage would generate. Will disagrees with her; he is coming from a position of privilege that protects him from societal censure and he doggedly pursues her.
It took me weeks to finish this book and I feel like the book finally died a death of one thousand cuts. None of the handicaps of this book were enough to kill it, but the sheer number of them overwhelmed me. Just the fact that the British government would send Will to assist an obscure kingdom at the end of the war did not ring true to me. Great Britain was pretty much drowning in its own debt from decades of war both on the Continent and in America as well as the overly lavish spending of the Prince Regent. I just didn’t see the country concerning itself with the rebuilding of a tiny, obscure kingdom right after Napoleon’s abdication. They wanted to configure Europe to guard against another Napoleon, but expending money…? I actually put the book down to go and research this because it seemed so improbable.
The writing was inelegant. We learn about Will and Athena from their own lips rather seeing who they are as they live their lives. There were coincidences that were a little too pat for realism, stilted conversation and a hero and heroine who were just too good to be true. I also grew weary of reading about Athena’s “Amazonian stature” as a reason she was perfect for Will.
If this were not Mary Jo Putney, my grade would probably be even lower than a C-. She kept this book from being a total stinker by writing a slightly more interesting secondary romance and by giving a vivid and interesting description of the mythical country of San Gabriel. The hero’s occupation as an engineer was also unique for historical romances of this era. The book picks up somewhat in the second half, but the slow tedious start in the beginning was too much for this reader to overcome.