I had never read a Joanna Shupe romance before I tried Baron, but I’m glad it was recommended to me. While it wasn’t a perfect read, I enjoyed it and look forward to checking out the next story in Ms. Shupe’s Knickerbocker Club series.
Railroad owner Will Sloane has political ambitions (a propos for this time of year, no?), but John Bennett, his partner on the ticket, is a cause for concern. It seems that Bennett has fallen under the sway of a spiritualist called Madam Zolikoff, whom Will immediately—and accurately—pegs as a fraud. So he sets out to get rid of her before she tarnishes their campaign.
Ava Jones dons a blond wig and speaks with a Russian accent to play la Zolikoff, but those are the least of the tricks she uses to convince her dupes clients. I liked the descriptions of the “special effects” used at that time, from ventriloquism to wires to phosphorus-soaked cloth. Ava struggles to support her younger brothers and sister, all of whom work as well – the grim realism of their lives stands in stark contrast to Will’s surroundings of gentlemen’s clubs and fine hotels – and as a result, she won’t let go of any source of income.
Irresistible force, you are about to meet the immovable object.
What I found most interesting about Will and Ava is that despite their obvious differences, they also have quite a few things in common. They have painful pasts they hide, they’re protective of younger siblings whom they’ve raised, and they’ve worked their way up in their respective careers. So they’re also extremely determined when it comes to getting what they need. You can see the fireworks in the making. They do clash – frequently and passionately – but each of them turns out to be what the other was looking for without their realizing it at all.
The story whips by at a great pace, the atmosphere of Gilded Age New York is authentic, the secondary characters shine, the sex scenes smolder, and the emotional moments are moving. I was mentally grading this as a DIK. Then came the end. I’ll try not to give away much, but anyone who doesn’t want spoilers of any kind should stop reading now.
Firstly, I liked Ava’s independence (down to a pistol in the carpetbag in which she keeps the tricks of her trade). She comes across as a strong heroine who takes care of herself and the people she cared about. Except at the end. There, she is rescued from three different sorts of threats by either Will, or the hero of the next book in the series, or both.
Secondly, for most of the story Will’s gradual thawing was a delight to read. Except at the end. If you’ve ever watched Sweet November, remember the part where Keanu Reeves’s character showers Charlize Theron’s character with flowers and song to show how much he’s changed? He’s no longer a cold, reserved stuffed shirt; he’s an emotionally open New Man thanks to the Power of Love. The corresponding scene in Baron isn’t quite so schmaltzy, thank goodness, but it felt equally out of character.
Finally, there was the matter of Ava’s profession, because she pretends to hear messages from people’s dead relatives. In this matter, I was on the grieving clients’ side, not Ava’s, so I would have preferred a conclusion where she showed more empathy and received more realistic treatment. Though that might not have been as happy an ending, so your mileage may vary.
In summary, Baron is a solid, engaging read with moments of witty voice – my favorite is Ava’s comment about how Will’s slumming might result in his being chased by an enraged mob armed with cocktail forks. And the teaser for the sequel, Mogul, ends on a great hook. I’m looking forward to it very much.