In Devil’s Bargain, Jade Lee (aka Kathy Greyle) explores the darker side of the Regency world beloved by so many readers, when her heroine, an impoverished parson’s daughter, enters the home of the scandalous Viscount Marlock for some rather unorthodox tutelage in the art of ensnaring a husband. Though submitting herself to Marlock’s tutelage certainly compromises Lynette Jameson, she will also be guaranteed the dubious opportunity to sell herself in marriage to a wealthy older peer, thus securing the future of her family and, perhaps, her own independence in years to come.
Lynette’s education is quite unlike anything most Regency readers have seen before. Instead of learning how to be proper, graceful, charming, and a good dancer, Lynette is taught how to dress, speak, and carry herself in a manner that will draw male attention. Marlock and his aunt teach her not only what will be expected of her in Society, but also how she will be expected to entertain her husband once they are wed. Needless to say, Lynette’s frank tutoring in the fine art of being a housewife-cum-courtesan makes her someone who will be considered beyond the pale by most titled families. However, the reputation of the Marlock women is famous among the men of London and Lynette can expect to marry a wealthy – if somewhat debauched – older man and gain security, if not social success.
Marlock is titled, but certainly not wealthy. In order to keep out of debtor’s prison, he went into business for himself and, together with his aunt, he trains the Marlock women and then arranges their marriages. While his methods have guaranteed him steady business among some of the wealthy and more lecherous men of the ton, they have also made him an outcast in the more proper realms of society. Though Marlock employs methods that are quite hands-on, to say the least, he prides himself on never falling in love with the girls he trains. He may speak to them of intimate matters and he may touch them in various ways, but he will always keep a distance between himself and his students.
From the very beginning, Lee does an excellent job of creating a very dark and tense mood in her story. Lynette’s innocence, openness, and innate intelligence are evoked quite well and Marlock’s almost sinister, corrupted nature initially stands in stark contrast. Following Lynette through the rituals of shopping for a London wardrobe and preparing to be launched into London society is interesting and also heartbreaking. Instead of dreaming of vouchers to Almack’s and giggling over young suitors with friends and family, Lynette learns what the term “marriage market” means in its most tawdry sense. The harshness of her social whirl is heartbreaking, and yet the scenes are often fraught with such sensual tension that one cannot stop reading.
The relationship between Lynette and Marlock initially sparks that same sort of tension. On the one hand, the thought of this lecher initiating the innocent Lynette is revolting, yet the chemistry between the two is such that one cannot help starting to hope that teacher and student develop an emotional tie. While I cannot say that I wholeheartedly liked the characters, their interaction is certainly intriguing. Readers who dislike Dukes of Slut or who need a lot of groveling in order to forgive a villainous “hero” may have problems with this tale, but others will likely find themselves drawn into this dark story.
Unfortunately, as the story moves toward its final chapters, the tension between Marlock and Lynette resolves itself in a way that many readers will find somewhat out-of-place given the earlier, darker atmosphere of the story. Even so, the background descriptions of this darker side of Regency London are interesting, and the tension both between Lynette and Marlock, as well as Lynette and the darker forces surrounding her is generally well-done. Ultimately, the relationship between the characters here is certainly unusual and the author’s vision of Regency society is far different from that in most historical novels set in the period. For that, I can certainly give it a qualified recommendation.