Desert Isle Keeper
Countess of Scandal
Sometimes when I’m reading a book, there’s not one major thing that makes the book stand out, but rather lots of little details that come together to create an amazing world. That’s exactly what happens in Countess of Scandal. This book has a rarely used and well-drawn setting, good characters, and so much more working in its favor. I absolutely loved reading this one!
As the story opens, childhood friends Eliza Blacknall and William Denton are about to be parted. Both from Protestant, Anglo-Irish families in Ireland, the two are about to go down very different paths. Eliza’s parents have arranged a match for her, and she will remain in Ireland. Though Protestant and from an aristocratic family, Eliza loves Ireland and its people and culture, and believes the country to have been treated unfairly. William, as a younger son, will join the army and, in doing so, joins an institution that Eliza sees as an oppressor of the land she loves.
The book then jumps forward seven years to the main plot, which takes place in Ireland slightly before and during the 1798 rebellion. Eliza, now Countess Mount Clare, is a widow and active with the United Irishmen in seeking freedom for Ireland. Though her family’s position protects her for now, her activities draw enough suspicion to cause whispers about her in Dublin society. Will, now Major Denton, has spent years posted to the West Indies, but has been called back to Ireland to take part in quelling the unrest in Ireland.
The two cross paths at a party where Eliza is chaperoning her younger sister and they spar almost immediately. Though they argue, one can tell that the old friendship and attraction between them remains, and it is clear that Will’s initial pursuit of Eliza is driven by his desire to protect her. Serving in the army, Will knows what has been happening in Ireland and he sees the danger in which Eliza’s activities place her. However, even as Eliza and Will disagree over the uprising, their attraction for one another causes them to begin a passionate affair. Their old fondness begins to deepen into something else altogether, and if you love stories of star-crossed lovers, you should enjoy this one.
When I first saw Eliza engaged in clandestine pamphlet writing and undercover work with the Irish, I’ll admit it raised a red flag for me and my first thought was, “Oh no! I like Eliza. Please don’t make her feisty!” And thankfully, she’s not. Though she engages in some of the favorite pastimes of the dreaded feisty heroine, Eliza does not shut off her brain while doing so. She has obviously had training in discretion at some point in the past, and she primarily works within her limits rather than stomping her feet or engaging in any curl-tossing. Kudos to the author for that.
In addition, one can see at points in the book that while Eliza believes strongly in her cause, she is somewhat naive about what a revolution in Ireland will entail. Given her sheltered, aristocratic upbringing, this shortcoming makes sense. Even more importantly, her reactions when her illusions come up against reality also make sense and are intelligently handled. Eliza changes and matures during this book, and I really liked her character, just as I did Will.
For the romance to work, Will and Eliza both have to change and find some common ground and, in some ways, Will’s transformation is the more difficult one. After all, he has seen a bit more of the world than Eliza and is a British officer with certain loyalties to his post. In addition, one can tell that while he does not condone cruelty to the Irish, he’s not going to go out and fight for a free Irish republic either. For this book to work, the author needs to not only have Will fall in love with Eliza, but also to reconcile Eliza’s loyalty to the Irish cause with Will’s loyalty to the British Army. These issues aren’t resolved overnight, but they are handled very well.
This is a fairly steamy romance, and one can track the progression of the relationship in part through the love scenes. The author does a good job of using these scenes to advance the story and to show the couple’s emotions. There is one scene in particular that takes place at a time when it seems as though Eliza and Will’s worlds are hopelessly at odds, and it is breathtakingly poignant. When they aren’t having passionate interludes, Will and Eliza are one of those seemingly rare couples who actually talk to each other. Because of that, they don’t need artificial contrivances to cause conflict, probably a good thing since there are enough outside forces at play in their world to test any two people.
As you may be able to tell from this review, Countess of Scandal has a strong sense of time and place. Laurel McKee, who also writes as Amanda McCabe, has used a wide variety of settings in her romances (and I hope she keeps it up) and this story of Ireland does justice to both the setting and the characters. From the hope of change in the early days of the uprising, to the fears of Anglo-Irish landowners faced with revolt, to the tragedies of the uprising itself, the story covers a wide range of emotions in very moving ways. There are a few anachronisms in there, including reference to a novel first published in 1859, but the author manages to make the time and place of this novel feel authentic. I loved the story told in this book, and I hope to see more from this author.