Lucy Parker has another winner on her hands with Battle Royal, the first book in her new Royal Insiders series and also her first novel published under the Avon Imprint. I’ve enjoyed all her books so far and have loved quite a few of them; they’re stylish and engaging and wonderfully romantic, featuring three-dimensional protagonists with chemistry that leaps off the page, strongly developed relationships, well-depicted settings and the sort of clever wit and humour that I adore.
Battle Royal is, I’m pleased to report, very much in the same vein. It’s a beautifully written grumpy/sunshine, enemies-to-lovers romance between rival bakers, packed with the vibrancy, fun, witty repartee and sexual tension that characterises her work, but there’s also a kind of gravitas here that sets it apart from her previous novels. I don’t mean that the book is heavy or gloomy – far from it – just that some of its underlying themes are weighty, and the bittersweet overtones they lend to the story add layers of complexity to the characters and the plot that take the novel to another level and make it feel like so much more than a contemporary romance or romantic comedy.
Four years earlier, Sylvie Fairchild was a contestant on Operation Cake and was doing fairly well. Her bright and breezy personality caught the attention of the viewing public and her tasty, imaginative bakes were getting good marks – despite the view of stern judge – and London’s premier baker – Dominic De Vere that her creations were mostly style over substance. She had reached the semi-final stage of the competition when disaster struck, and an unplanned cake explosion landed a ton of glitter in Dominic’s hair and catapulted a cake-smeared unicorn hoof into his forehead. Needless, to say, that was Sylvie’s last appearance on the show.
Since then however, she’s set up the Sugar Fair bakery/patisserie – which just happens to be on the same street and directly opposite to De Vere’s – and now, she’s been invited back to Operation Cake, but this time as one of the judges.
Favoured by the royal family and something of a British institution, Dominic De Vere is hugely talented, brilliant and dedicated, but where Sylvie’s work is all heart and her colourful decorative style reflects her sunshiny, open personality, Dominic’s coolly aloof perfectionism favours classical, minimalist elegance and neutral tones. As bakers – and individuals – their approaches and outlooks couldn’t be more different, something the producers of Operation Cake are clearly hoping will play well on television. An extra layer to Sylvie and Dominic’s rivalry is added when a royal wedding is announced – and they’re both determined to secure the contract to supply the wedding cake.
I loved so much about this book. It’s perhaps a little slow to start, but once it gets going it became impossible to put down as the complex, multi-layered story the author is telling begins to unfold. At the centre of it all is the opposites-attract romance between Sylvie and Dominic, which is simply gorgeous. Their chemistry and mutual attraction crackle with sexual tension from the get-go, but the way their relationship develops is an exquisite slow-burn, fuelled by longing looks, flirtatious banter and glancing touches. (Oh, the touches – *sigh*) Dominic is, at first glance, your classic stuffed-shirt hero, emotionally distant, icy-cool and brutally honest, but as we get to know him, we discover a genuinely caring man beneath the world-weary exterior, one who longs for connection but fears rejection. Sylvie is outgoing and vivacious and seems to be a complete contrast to Dominic, but it turns out they have more in common than either would have thought. Both have been profoundly affected by events in their pasts which continue to inform their choices, meaning they hold themselves apart – from people, from emotions… even from life. The depth of the affection that underpins their interactions as they learn about and support each other in slowly coming to terms with their pasts is both genuine and heartfelt.
One of the things I most liked about the relationship is that although Sylvie and Dominic are business rivals, there’s never any pettiness or sense that one is prepared to sabotage the other’s chances. It’s clear that while they may not see eye to eye aesthetically, they respect each other’s skills and capabilities, so that their (initially) begrudging co-operation on their research (for the wedding cake tender) never seems unlikely or out of character.
There’s a lot going on in this book, but Lucy Parker pulls her various story threads together extremely well and balances everything out both credibly and satisfactorily, never forgetting to keep Sylvie and Dominic’s romance at the forefront of the action. As well as the TV show and the rivalry over the wedding cake, there’s a storyline involving Dominic’s younger sister Pet who’s decided to work for him in hopes of developing a relationship with the brother she barely knows; there’s a sleaze-bag café owner who keeps stealing Sylvie’s ideas, and a charmingly poignant love story from the past that emerges as Sylvie and Dominic search for inspiration for the royal cake. I was pleased that the author chose to create a kind of AU royal family which bears little to no resemblance to the present incumbents, and the portions of the story that look at the toll taken by the weight of duty and living constantly in the media spotlight on even the strongest, most loving of relationships are thought-provoking. There’s also a lovely exploration of the concept of family – both biological and found – and how shared DNA is meaningless without affection, and a superbly developed secondary cast who all have important roles to play. Bubbly, loving Pet is delightful, Sylvie’s assistant Mabel – a woman of few words – is a terrifyingly no-nonsense hoot, and I really hope there’s a book coming for Sylvie’s long-term best friend and business partner, Jay. My only quibble overall is that there’s one overly dramatic plot-point near the end I could have done without (especially in such an already jam-packed story!)
That niggle apart, this book is an utter delight and one I’m happy to recommend without reservation. Sylvie and Dominic are perfect for one another and their romance is laden with affection, tenderness, and sexual tension as yummy as the patisserie. Touching and emotional yet whimsical and optimistic, Battle Royal captivated me from start to finish, and I’m sure fans of the author’s and of contemporary romance in general will love it.
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