Thief of Shadows
Thief of Shadows is the fourth book in Ms. Hoyt’s Maiden Lane series. Three of the books, including this one, feature siblings who run the Home for Unfortunate Infants and Foundling Children in the London slum of St. Giles. The hero of this book, Winter Makepeace, is by day a grave, severe man soberly devoted to running the Home. At night, however, Winter dons a harlequin’s costume and patrols the roads and roofs of the slums, saving innocents from all matter of evil. One night, after freeing the pirate Mickey (hero of Scandalous Desires), Winter is fighting an angry mob for his life when he is suddenly rescued by Lady Isabel Beckinhall. Thief of Shadows is the tale of their decidedly implausible love.
Isabel is well-acquainted with Winter Makepeace but has no idea, even after she takes off every inch of his clothes (except for a thin black scarf covering the top half of his head) that he’s the Ghost of St. Giles. Winter is the dull, rather infuriating man who runs the Home of which she is a major Patroness. (She undresses him, after rescuing him and taking him back to her home, in order to tend to a bad wound he has on his leg.) Winter asks her not to unmask him and, after she’s ogled his hard, ridged muscled body and his “cock thick and long, even at rest, his bollocks heavy,” flirted with him, and had him reject her advances, she sews up his leg and lets him escape.
Three days later, as Winter attends to the children at the Home, Isabel appears with a proposition for Mr. Makepeace. Isabel and several other wealthy women have essentially taken on financial responsibility for the Home. Their coterie, the Lady’s Syndicate, has done great good for the home —their benevolence enabled the orphanage to move into a much larger, better built building — and the women plan to continue their improvements. In order to do so, however, they plan to raise money from others of their class. And there are those in the Syndicate — chiefly the very wealthy and very shallow Lady Penelope Chadwicke, the daughter of the Earl of Brightmore — who do not feel that Winter is up to the task of mingling with his betters. Lady Penelope and her supporters believe the Home would be better served by a far more refined manager. Not all in the Syndicate agree with Penelope however, and a compromise is worked out. Rather than fire Mr. Makepeace, one of the Syndicate will give Winter social etiquette lessons. Given that Isabel is both a widow and known far and wide for her “full understanding of polite society and its intricacies,” she is chosen to be Winter’s social tutor.
Winter declines her offer, rudely and emphatically, and walks out on Isabel. It is not until several days later, when she comes to tell him Penelope is actively interviewing others for his job, he agrees to put himself under her tutelage. The two begin to socialize together, but their outings keep being interrupted by Winter’s need to rush out and be the Ghost of St. Giles. Someone is snatching little girls off the streets and saving them is even more important to Winter than saving his place at the Home.
I couldn’t quite make sense of Winter. He decided, when quite young, to devote himself at all costs to caring for those to whom society pays no attention: The destitute, the abandoned, and the ones no one misses. When he made this vow, he decided to dedicate himself to this calling utterly. He decided he’d never marry, or given that he doesn’t believe in premarital sex, touch a woman. He can’t allow anything, not even life’s simplest joys, to distract him from his self-appointed role. Winter is not portrayed as a masochist, but rather as a noble virgin hero but, to me, he seemed a few steps up from pathologically depressed. When he falls for Isabel’s touch — and she works hard to make him give up his celibacy, even fellating him almost against his will — he feels he has failed profoundly. And while it’s true once he accepts his sexual self, he lets go of his self-flagellating guilt, for much of the book, he’s so self-critical it’s hard believe he’d ever be capable of happiness.
Isabel is a lovely woman and I enjoyed her much more than Winter. She — thanks to a far thinking older husband — is independently wealthy. She’s smart, and in general lives life on her own terms. If Winter tamps down all his feelings, Isabella revels in hers. She’s very attracted to Winter — especially once she figures out he and the Ghost are the same — and she goes after him with great passion. (I did feel somewhat discomfited by her actions — she knows he wants to stay pure and she, sure he’ll be happier if he knows joy in his life, ignores his wishes.) She’s good with people — I loved all her interactions with her staff and with the children she encounters — and she’s honest about her own foibles.
I enjoyed the child-snatching plot far more than I enjoyed the courtship between Isabel and Winter/Ghost of St. Giles. Ms. Hoyt does a great job of showing the tragic underbelly of early 18th century London. In Notorious Pleasures, the second book in the Maiden Lane series, Ms. Hoyt explored the devastation gin wrought on London’s poor. In this book, she turns her pen to the horrors of child labor and the extreme prejudice faced by Britain’s Jews. Ms. Hoyt has a great gift for dialogue and one can hear class differences in the cadences of her many characters. Her writing, throughout the book, is assured and pitch-perfectly rendered.
However, the love story between Isabel and Winter didn’t convince me. The two share fabulous — and fabulously written — sex, but I didn’t believe they’d ever be able to happily share a life. The mismatch that seems so obvious to them both at the start of Thief of Shadows still seemed obvious to me by the novel’s end. Their happy ending seemed as implausible as, well, a masked Georgian superhero.