Desert Isle Keeper
This month we are reading Devilish, the much-awaited Rothgar book (on sale April 10th) from Jo Beverley. This is the fifth book in the Malloren series and gives us the love story of the Marquess of Rothgar (Beowulf Malloren) and Diana, Countess of Arrandale. Rothgar was first introduced in My Lady Notorious and has played a crucial role in each of the other Malloren books. Diana appeared in last year’s Secrets of the Night and it was obvious from the first meeting that Rothgar had met his match. Lady Diana inherits an earldom and makes the mistake of tweaking King George III by asking to be seated in the House of Lords. The King is horrified and dispatches Rothgar to bring her to London to meet eligible men at Court and pick a husband or the King will pick one for her. And so the fun begins!
Linda: Carol, one of the prized items at last year’s Celebrate Romance convention was Waiting for Rothgar 2000 buttons. I am happy to say that Rothgar was worth the wait.
Linda: Yes, she certainly did. Like you, I loved My Lady Notorious and Tempting Fortune; both of those heroes were just completely delicious. Cyn was aptly named and Bryght was everything one could want in a hero. I had problems with the third one – I just couldn’t buy Fort as a hero after books one and two.
Carol: I had the same problems you did with Fort as a hero in Something Wicked. He’s the only hero Beverley’s written whom I could not believe as a hero.
Linda: Yes, Beverley has created some wonderful heroes who need strong women to match them. Portia in Tempting Fortune just dithered too long before she accepted the wonderful Bryght. Both Portia, and Rosa from Secrets of the Night, were so put upon and needed a bit more spine. Until Devilish, my favorite heroine was Lady Chastity Ware in My Lady Notorious. Lady Diana in Devilish was a bright spot in Secrets of the Night and just a joy in Devilish. Beverley has managed to create the perfect mate for Rothgar, which is no small achievement.
Carol: In Secrets of The Night, a great to-do was made of the fact that Rosa commits adultery with Brand. However, Rosa is presented as such a good, unselfish person that her adultery to save the people on her husband’s estate from a religious cult makes the adultery seem heroic. I would rather have a flawed heroine, like Portia. Bryght loves her for those very flaws; she’s rash, impulsive and stubborn. However, none of the Malloren series heroines are as satisfactory as the heroes until we meet Lady Diana, Countess of Arrandale, a secondary character in Secrets of the Night and the heroine of Devilish.
Perhaps what I appreciate most about Devilish is that there are no easy outs. Although the other Malloren novels took risks by pushing at the boundaries of the romance genre, with Devilish, Beverley broke through to a whole new level of writing. Above all, she gives us a complex characterization of Rothgar. We’ve only had hints of him in prior books but she made him a multidimensional hero in his novel.
Linda: Yes, he is a wonderful full-blooded hero. In the first books we saw Rothgar’s strengths. We have come to know him as the head of his family, who will do anything to take care of them and insure their happiness. But, until Brand is married he has never really thought of happiness for himself. His mother’s madness has blighted his entire emotional life and watching him come to terms with it is very poignant.
Carol: I loved that moment of tenderness at Brand’s wedding when Rothgar’s head comes to rest on Brand’s head. He realizes that the last of his little birds has flown the nest and he’s alone. The conflict here is so real and believable. Rothgar is bedeviled with having seen his mother strangle his infant sister to death as a child. Her insanity convinces him that he must never have children. Diana, and his siblings, must convince him that to risk is to live; he will remain isolated the rest of his life if he can’t allow himself to risk marrying Diana.
Linda: Rothgar doesn’t punish Diana for loving him and tempting him to take risks. He also realizes that if he walks away, Diana is going to be left bereft They are halves of one whole and definitely need each other. The first love scene when he intends to only please her and tells her she can have anything she wants made me just love him. I never realized a foot massage could be so sexy! Rothgar fights loving Diana and puts walls between them emotionally, but when push comes to shove he is always there to help and encourage her. Diana is complex and believable as a heroine.
Carol: Beverley uses so many creative devices as well to deepen both Diana’s and Rothgar’s characterizations. For example, she has these automatons, early wind-up life-size dolls, and Rothgar is able to understand Diana’s childhood through the automaton she gives him. It is a male version of the child Diana that her father gave to her as a toy. This toy was a rebuke to both Diana and her mother for not presenting him with a son instead of a daughter. Rothgar understands Diana’s problem with this toy immediately as only a man with his own haunted childhood could. He knows that Diana leads as isolated and lonely an existence as he does, although people surround them both. Diana, in turn, comes to understand his compulsion for perfection in himself through his fascination with the automatons. This is really first class writing with no clichés whatsoever.
Linda: Beverley’s use of the automaton was brilliant. The shepherd boy revealed a part of Diana’s childhood and family atmosphere as well as showing us Rothgar’s depths. His contemplation of this mechanical “child” was poignant. In some ways the use of the automatons reminded me of Asaro’s use of the Artificial Intelligence, Zaki, in The Veiled Web. Both authors use a non-human device to reveal very human emotions.
Carol: Zaki seems to have emotions in The Veiled Web. You could chat and communicate with him, which made him seem more real. The automatons can only move jerkily and obviously can’t communicate in any way. The use of these non-human devices reflects the alienation and loneliness of the characters in both books.
Linda: This was one book that grabbed you on page one and didn’t let go until the end. Beverley has a real knack for creating heroes who are truly heroic. One of my favorite scenes in all of romance is the brothel scene with Portia and Bryght in Tempting Fortune. The twist that Beverley gave to the oft-used brothel auction device was wonderful. It was unique, and made you fall quickly in love with Bryght. His “strip” is just a delight. Beverley writes wonderfully sensual love scenes and her level of sexuality fits these characters beautifully. Rothgar is more complex emotionally than his brothers, but with his childhood this is not surprising. The Malloren men all know how to please a lady and Beverley lets us enjoy it too.
Carol: I agree that Bryght’s scene in the brothel was brilliant and very exciting from a sexual standpoint. And yet, it is all foreplay – there is no consummation. I can’t imagine any woman who wouldn’t fall in love with Bryght after this scene. Rothgar is a very different sort of hero than Bryght, but readers know this if they’ve been reading throughout the series.
Linda: I loved the use of actual history that Beverley weaves into her books. One of the villains is a known historical figure and she wove Rothgar into his life so well that one believes it could have happened that way. I also loved the glimpses of the young King George III and his wife; much different than when he was older.
Carol: Beverley does an enormous amount of historical research and her novels show it. I have never seen her make an error in her books. Just on those automatons alone she must have done a lot of work. I didn’t even know such things existed back in the 1700s. She also gives the reader delightful author’s notes at the end telling you what was real and what was fictional. Thus we learn that this one French diplomat is a real historical figure who cross-dressed, as needed, in his political ploys. No one knew what sex he/she really was.
Linda: Yes, I really enjoyed her notes at the end too. Beverley also does a good job of explaining Georgian terms within the context of the story. One other thing characterizes Beverley’s books – a delightful sense of humor. These people are funny, witty and their conversations are just a delight. These books are very literate.
Carol: I liked seeing that the Georgians were not focused on observing the proprieties, above all else, as Regency characters are. That’s probably why they could afford to laugh a little at life’s absurdities. They were also given to more hedonistic behavior yet their King was Mr. Family Man, intent on converting all of his subjects into nuclear families headed by the father as king of the family. The King is dangerous to Diana because he wants to mold her into his inflexible notion of womanly character and lifestyle. He has the power to confine her to an asylum if she doesn’t conform to his standards. Women’s rights were nonexistent.
Linda: Yes, it’s enjoyable reading a book set in Georgian times for a change; it is an interesting and colorful period. I love the men’s dress in the Georgian times. Picturing Rothgar in red silk, ruffles, lace and high heels with painted face and powdered wig – ooh la la! Plus he was all man beneath those tight pants and coats. But, I don’t think it was as much fun being a woman then. The descriptions of the stays, corsets, stomachers and even worse panniers and hoops make one glad for the invention of control top pantyhose. (g)
Carol: I loved reading about their costumes but I would personally hate wearing the clothes of either sex. Also, coating oneself in powder, paint and wigs is such an awful contrast with the way we live. I’ll take my sweatshirts and pants any day. Beverley has obviously done a lot of costume research; and you feel like you are there with her knack for details.
I also liked the way she dealt with birth control and menses. I know from reading her interview here at AAR that she was involved in the women’s reproductive health issues in the late 1970’s/early 1980’s, and I think this first-hand kind of knowledge shows.
Certainly birth control was primitive in this historical period, and the most you could count on was spacing out the pregnancies. The fears of losing your wife in childbirth were very real. Bryght tells Rothgar about being almost paralyzed when Portia gave birth; he was so terrified of losing her. He’s making the point to Rothgar that at least he is living a real life and Rothgar’s only hope for the future is to do the same with Diana.
Linda: This whole series gives one the feeling of reading about very real people. They are very human; not perfect. Even with all of his power and talents, Rothgar is very much a prisoner of his guilt. I’ve felt sorry for him since we first met him in My Lady Notorious. In MLN, Elf tells Chastity about the death of Rothgar’s sister by his mother’s hand. She also details the deaths of his father and stepmother from a fever Rothgar brought home from school. When they died, Rothgar, at age 19, became head of the family. This is a man who takes responsibility very seriously and feels guilty when things that were really beyond his control occur. He even blames himself for not saving his sister when he was only four years old.
Carol: The best part though is that there is real conflict, characterization, and detail, yet Devilish also works as a romance novel with a HEA. There are no Big Misunderstandings or love-lost-through-stupidity as we see in all too many other romances. At a couple of points, I waited for Beverley to take a route a lesser writer might have taken. For example, I wondered if she would turn this story into a partial mystery novel about Rothgar’s mother and slain sister that would resolve all conflicts easily.
Linda: Yes, Beverley gives new twists to the material. She avoids one other pitfall too. Many of these character driven books have lame or nonsensical plots that don’t bear analysis. The villains in these books, by contrast, are as real as the good guys.
The loathsome father in My Lady Notorious is one of the creepiest in romance and yet, so believable that he gave me the willies. It was painful to read some of the scenes with Chastity. In fact, it is because of the reality of these books that it became hard to buy Fort Ware – Chastity’s brother – as a hero in Something Wicked. He hits Chastity in My Lady Notorious and admits in Tempting Fortune that he would have bought Portia and raped her in the brothel scene. He had known her since she was a child and yet he would have used her rather than rescue her. This dimmed my enjoyment of Something Wicked a bit. In Devilish, however, he seems to have reluctantly accepted being part of Rothgar’s family.
Carol: Yes, Beverley made Fort such a convincing villain in the first two books that I couldn’t believe in him as the hero in the third one, either. This is why Something Wicked remains my least favorite of the five novels. However, not all readers believe Fort would have gone all the way with his villainy. I saw this discussed in depth on a romance discussion list. Even Beverley got involved in this discussion and explained Fort would not have gone ahead and raped Portia in Tempting Fortune. I told her she had convinced me that he would. However, her other readers were not having the problem I had in seeing Fort in a non-villainous light.
I’m almost in a state of shock finding the two of us in agreement against the rest of the reading world though, Linda. It’s a very unexpected alliance!
Linda: LOL Carol, it is a little scary to find us in total accord isn’t it?
Carol: What did you think of Rothgar’s masquerade ball? I thought the details of that party were the very best of any masked ball scene I’ve ever read. There was a reenactment, called a masque, of a piece of poetry done on the stage regarding the goddess Diana. Rothgar also uses Bach’s son to present the show, which is another tidbit from history. Then there’s a highly dramatic moment at the ball that brings all the plot threads involving both the French and English kings to a head.
George III was such a dunderhead though, that he had to have Rothgar as his chief adviser. Rothgar was a hundred times smarter and more able to see political intrigues developing than George III was. George actually caused most of the problems Rothgar was having with the French and there would have been no villainous plot without King George’s totally believable stupidity throughout. Rothgar should have been the CEO of the country, not George!
Linda: Yes, he was called Mad King George for a reason. He wasn’t all that bright before he went mad, either. I liked the Masquerade ball a lot and it brought the series to an end with a nice symmetry – the crucial denouement in My Lady Notorious also occurred at one of Rothgar’s masquerade balls – a nice touch. I thought Beverley made Devilish a book that could stand on its own. I would recommend reading the series in order, but if someone has heard the uproar about Rothgar and wants to start with this one, I think they would enjoy it a lot and would be inspired to read the others.
Carol: I agree that you can read them out of order. I read the second one before the first and didn’t have a problem. Ideally though, if you are able to read them in order, you will probably get the most out of the Malloren series. There are five novels and they are listed in order at the end for our readers’ convenience.
Linda So, Carol, to sum up we both wholeheartedly liked Devilish and I personally am putting it on the Keeper Shelf with My Lady Notorious and Tempting Fortune. Beverley pulled off the difficult job of capping a great series with a truly wonderful book and a believable HEA for this series.
Carol: I have all five novels carefully stored away on the Keeper Shelf. I wouldn’t dream of breaking up a set like this. A reader definitely wants all five books not just three of them. One might like to put huge gold stars on the first, second and fifth though.
Linda: In the notes at the end of the book Beverley hints that she is not done with the Mallorens yet – there is still Fort’s brother Victor – does this mean we will have to start wearing “Waiting for Victor 2001” buttons at this year’s Celebrate Romance 2000 in May? (g) I cannot imagine ever tiring of these wonderful characters.
Next month we are reading The Lover by a new author whose works are already collectible and much discussed on-line – Robin Schone.