Brazen and the Beast
Brazen and the Beast is vintage Sarah MacLean. Which is, for me, a good thing. I was completely absorbed in the romance, which is perfectly paced and gets off to a good start, but unfortunately, not everything else is as good and the villains (except one, who features in the next book) are underdeveloped, underutilized, and not very villainous. These factors detract from this entertaining and romantic story featuring a non-traditional heroine you can’t help but like. Brazen and the Beast is an enjoyable and entertaining continuation of The Bareknuckle Bastards series, but like its predecessor, it failed to live up to my (admittedly high) expectations.
On the eve of her twenty-ninth birthday, Lady Henrietta Sedley is looking forward to The Year of Hattie. She’s traded her dreams of finding true love or marrying and having children, for a much different future altogether – a four point plan to captain her own fate. Business: Owning/running Sedley Shipping (despite her father’s plan for older brother August to inherit); Home (one of her own – although, she seems to have complete freedom to come and go from the one she currently inhabits); Fortune (presumably from said shipping business); Future (to live life on her own terms). Oh, and a fifth – Body. Before she can undertake The Year of Hattie, she’s made arrangements to remove one last possible obstacle to her plans – marriage – by ruining herself. Pleasurably. When Brazen and the Beast begins, Hattie is ready to depart for a rendezvous at a discreet and upscale bordello wherein she will lose her virginity and with it, the possibility of marriage. Her co-conspirator and driver for this adventure is her best friend Lady Eleanora Madewell (Nora). Unfortunately, the clandestine plan hits a snag when Hattie steps into the carriage and discovers a strange man, bound and unconscious, within.
They’d left the hitched – and most definitely empty – carriage in the dark rear drive of Sedley house not three quarters of an hour earlier, before hiking upstairs to exchange carriage-hitching dresses for attire more appropriate for their evening plans.
Hattie isn’t willing to let three months of planning for this night go to waste. After confirming he’s still alive (and that he’s beautiful), Hattie tells Nora to carry on – they’ll drop him off somewhere along the way. (As one does.)
After the last three Bareknuckle Bastard shipments of smuggled goods were ambushed, Beast (brother of Devil, Wicked and the Wallflower), is determined to find out who dares to challenge them. Expecting an ambush, he accompanied the shipment – but he isn’t sure how he wound up trussed in a luxurious carriage with a sweet smelling woman muttering to herself. He remembers hearing a shot and then a shout from one of his injured outriders, stepping outside the carriage to check on the boy, and then everything went black after he was hit from behind. Few would dare to cross Beast or his brother Devil, but he suspects Ewan, Duke of Marwick, is behind the attacks. If he is, then who is the woman holding him hostage in the carriage?
Hattie is annoyed – and curious. Clearly, her brother August and his ne’er do well valet have something to do with the beautiful man trussed up in the carriage, but since he won’t answer her questions – responding with hard questions of his own – they’re at a standstill. So Hattie gets her Year of Hattie off to an early start by kissing her surprised captive, cutting the knots at his hands and feet (with her convenient pocket knife), apologizing, and shoving him out of the carriage. After watching to see he lands more or less on his feet, she refocuses her attention on her coming appointment. Beast is less satisfied with the abrupt end to their acquaintance, and since Covent Garden (where Hattie is headed) is his territory, he promptly follows her to a surprisingly familiar address.
A fierce (and clever, sharp and sexy) re-negotiation of Hattie’s ‘Business; Home; Fortune; Future; Pleasure’ plan ensues after Beast runs his unwary quarry to ground; and although they eventually agree on a new plan, they part with very different interpretations of what they’ve mutually agreed to… and thus, Brazen and the Beast truly gets underway. Despite the absolutely ridiculous set up, I wanted to fall in love with it. Hattie and Beast have wonderful chemistry, their dialogue is sparkling and witty and sharp, and the sexual undercurrents and tension are terrifically well done. Beast has a difficult and unhappy backstory that ties into the overarching bastard storyline and it’s hard not to love him after learning about his origins. His quiet intensity and fierceness are a nice foil for Hattie’s bright light, and they’re great together. I also loved the cameos featuring Devil and Felicity (although I wish there were more of them), and the sub- plot involving Nora and an enforcer in the Barenuckle Bastards family. These things work. So what doesn’t and why isn’t this a DIK?
Hattie is (on paper) a magnificent heroine: unapologetically industrious, bright and clever, tall and voluptuous, fiercely independent, loyal, generous and confident – yet she’s still plagued with insecurities about her appearance and her appeal to the opposite sex. She’s relatable. But while MacLean mostly gives us that Hattie, she fails to deliver on the single most significant part of this characterization (and the one on which the entire story hinges): Hattie’s brilliance as a business woman. With the exception of one clever maneuver at the tail end of the book (and an earlier recitation of all the things Hattie did to prove herself to her father), Hattie never actually works or spends time at the shipping office or docks or demonstrates any aptitude for running a business during this story. She’s disappointed that her father plans to pass the business onto his only son, so she strikes a deal with her stupid brother and an underworld kingpin to circumvent him. Friends, I want to believe in these atypical feminist heroines. I do! But only in a delusional fantasy world can a woman believe these two deals equal a winning business strategy, or that spending most of the hours of your day flirting and arguing with a handsome, sexy underworld kingpin nicknamed Beast is proof you’re meant to take over the family business.
The resolution of the suspense plot (who has been hijacking the shipments) is also a mess. Right away MacLean establishes Hattie’s brother as a bad guy – and then does ABSOLUTELY nothing else with him. He (and his partner) are shunted to the periphery of the story when their relationship to the machiavellian Ewan, Duke of Marwick, is revealed. Ewan, meanwhile, is deranged by love for a character whose name I can’t reveal. Frankly, his appearances are bizarre and weird, and overly complicate this underwhelming plot. The romance works; the story – rooted in Hattie’s desire to run the family business and Beast’s desire for revenge – doesn’t.
If you’re a MacLean fan, you might be able to overlook the problems in this novel and enjoy it anyway. I did. I was entertained from start to finish, and I’m still invested in the overarching storyline. But if you aren’t, this one will be a hard sell. We still don’t know enough about Ewan or his lost love, and the suspense plot is weak. Brazen and the Beast is a solid, if problematic, second book in The Barenuckle Bastards series.