I know all of Jo Beverley’s fans have been breathlessly waiting for Rothgar. I can’t think of another book in the last few years whose arrival has been so eagerly anticipated. But while I enjoyed many aspects of Devilish, I’ve got to confess that it left me just a little flat – even after two readings. One of the reasons I read romance is to have my emotions engaged, and that didn’t happen early enough for me in this story.
At her cousin Rosa’s wedding, Diana Westmount, Countess of Arradale, renews her acquaintance with Bey Malloren, the “dark” Marquis of Rothgar. The last time they met, she was shoving a pistol in his back in an effort to help Rosa (whose story is told in Secrets of the Night), and she hasn’t been able to forget him in the intervening year. Now Diana is more attracted to Bey than ever before, but it’s hopeless. Neither of them wishes to marry: Diana, because a husband would cost her her position as a countess in her own right, and Bey, because he has no desire to pass on his mother’s homicidal insanity. Each understands the other’s motives, but they’re both dissatisfied with the situation, Diana more so than Bey – or so it would seem.
Bey has the ear of young King George III, who is aghast at Diana’s intention to try to take her earldom’s seat in the House of Lords. The king orders Rothgar to accompany Diana to London, where George will find her a husband (a very traditional fellow, this king). Bey understands completely Diana’s need to remain independent, and he convinces her that she must act the helpless female and delay choosing a husband long enough to escape back to Yorkshire unwed. But on the way to town, there’s an attempt on Rothgar’s life by one of his political enemies, and Diana engages in some very unladylike behavior. If the king hears of her actions, he’ll never believe her cover story. And the attraction between Rothgar and the countess is growing stronger with every minute they spend together, weakening their resolve not to give in to love. The cost is too great, but their desire forces them to reconsider everything about themselves, and each other.
This romance was hinted at in Secrets of the Night, and some readers voiced their opinion then that Rothgar deserved a better heroine than Diana. Having read both books, I think that Diana deserved better than Bey. For all the buildup to this story, for all the attraction that I personally felt for Rothgar in the previous Malloren books, I just couldn’t warm up to the guy here. I understood him, I even felt for him, but I didn’t feel with him until late in the book, when it was almost too late. This may be due to the fact that the bulk of the first half of the story is told from Diana’s point of view, as well as both love scenes. Bey’s reflections after the fact didn’t erase my impression that he hardly worked up a bead of sweat in either encounter. I would have liked to listen to his voice more, and sooner.
On the positive side, the settings are well done, and Beverley demonstrates yet again her mastery of the manners, customs, and politics of the Georgian period. The characters ring true to their time and class; nobody acts like a modern-day person transported back in time. There’s some very good dialogue between Rothgar and Diana, even if I think it gets a little cryptic at times. I do wish the author had included an explanation of Bey’s name (short for Beowulf – his father was a scholar of Anglo-Saxon England). Readers new to the Mallorens, and there will be some, might be confused by this. Beverley also makes just a little too much use of single-sentence paragraphs, and this detracts somewhat from the narrative. Used sparingly, they can be a real attention-grabber, but overuse of them is jarring.
There’s a nice, and, touching, thread that revolves around automata, robotlike devices that were all the rage in the era. Bey is attracted to them because of their precision and dependability. Diana finds one in the attic of her house, a replica of a little boy that bears an uncanny resemblance to her at that age. It’s only when she sees the machine as an adult that she realizes it was her father’s subtle rebuke to her mother that he never got the son he wanted. It breaks her heart, and when she gives the automaton to Bey, he finds himself staring at it, wondering whether this will be the only “child” that they’ll ever share. It’s a strong allegory for some strong emotions. But again, this revelation came late.
I’m not telling anyone not to read this book. I think many people will really enjoy it, and I have every confidence that it’s going to be a huge success. I’m not even saying that the Marquis of Rothgar is naked; I am saying, though, that in spite of his magnificent clothes, complete with powder and patch, I found him just a little fabric-impoverished. Every reader her book, every book its reader – this wasn’t it for me.