Having read Sweet Savage Love and The Flame and the Flower as well as a few of the other big 1970s/1980s historicals, I picked up Devil’s Desire with some trepidation. Would this be another purple-prosed, rapey tale of stupid misunderstandings or would it be as good as I had remembered it when I stumbled across it in a UBS back in college? Fortunately for me and for readers discovering it for the first time, this book turned out to be a little old-fashioned in tone, but great fun to read.
Anyone who has read enough historicals will recognize the plight of Elysia Demarice. She’s innocent, beautiful, and orphaned. Naturally, she doesn’t have much by way of family and what she does have is out to screw her over royally. Following the death of her parents, she now lives with an embittered aunt who treats her like Cinderella. Seriously. Elysia’s glorious redheaded beauty is hidden in rags and she spends her days doing heavy housework. I kept waiting for the mice and birds to sing, but no such luck.
Now on to our erstwhile hero. If Elysia shows us the roots of our modern put-upon Regency heroine, Alex, Lord Trevegne, is definitely an earlier version of the rakes that populate the current Regency historical garden. Nearly everyone who encounters him has heard of his wild reputation and they express concern over it. Though we don’t get endless details about his mistresses and wild goings-on, there is a villainous widow waiting in the wings and we get enough hints of his past for it to seem believable. Unlike many of the good-natured frat boy rakes of today, this hero has an edge of danger to him. Because of that, I could readily believe that he’d go out and tear up London until late in the evening and that men really would think twice about dueling with him. He is not always likable or cuddly and he is certainly not politically correct, but he manages to believably come back from being an utter jackass more times than I can count.
At any rate, the general plot of the story is this: Elysia’s demonspawn aunt has plotted to marry her off to someone truly disgusting. Elysia takes her glowing innocence and hits the road with a vague plan of finding employment in London. Not surprisingly, she doesn’t make it there. Upon taking shelter in an inn for the night, Elysia meets Alex. Through some more melodramatic plotting, the two wind up in a very scandalous situation that occurs shortly after page 100, and the book takes off noticably from there.
It’s all very over the top and the prose is a little violet-tinged, but Laurie McBain can tell a story. Even though some of the dramatic flourishes made me snicker every now and again, the promise of the storytelling kept me going through the early chapters of the book. The characters can be maddening and the setup that ultimately throws hero and heroine together is nothing short of insane, but I still couldn’t help reading. I also couldn’t help remembering that in my teens and early 20s, I ate this kind of stuff up without being nearly so cynical and jaded about it.
Though things remain a little purply around the edges, both the story and the romance really seem to hit their stride after the hero and heroine are brought together and the action shifts to Cornwall. Far from being wallpapery, the background hints of French traitors, smuggling, and war add greatly to the atmosphere of the story and it really is a fun read. Not only do Alex and Elysia get to know and trust one another (though not without Alex being truly nasty to her first), but readers really do get a picture of a very interesting world with an almost Gothic feel to it. Some aspects of the story, such as the various misunderstandings between hero and heroine, may feel a little cliched, but I thought the author handled them well and the pacing of the various revelations in the book worked for me.
Alex is quite the alpha hero and more domineering – even borderline disturbing – than most I’ve read recently, but he is not unfeeling when it comes to Elysia. I could have done without some of their bickering, punishing kisses(ick) and scenes of Alex ordering Elysia around, but their pairing worked in the end. I think this happened at least in part because Elysia does a little more than just toss her curls and stomp around. She starts off too close to feistiness and petulance, but in some of her later dialogue with Alex, she challenges him in more intelligent fashion, and I found their dialogue and the chemistry between the two reminiscent of an old movie. Think high drama a la Rhett and Scarlett. While it’s not the type of healthy romantic relationship I would want for myself, I could certainly enjoy reading about it and this was largely because it was well written.
The style of Devil’s Desire is rather different from most modern romances. The story relies more heavily on cliches and farfetched coincidences than many books today, and it does so without the least touch of irony about it. In addition, one will find more paragraphs of description and narrative. Even so, when the characters speak, the reader can almost hear them in one’s head. They may not be 100% historically accurate, but they do feel authentic, and that’s enough to bring the story to life.
If you’re curious to read one of the classic historicals, this would be a good one to pick up. Some of the big historicals of the 1970s are heavy on bodice ripping and stupid antics that might leave you wondering why the hell romance ever became so popular. However, it’s the books like this that help to explain it. Devil’s Desire has its eyeroll-inducing moments and you have to suspend disbelief for portions of the plot, but the writing flows smoothly and the fantastical scenes spring to life in a way that kept me turning pages. Though a little old-fashioned in feel for my tastes today, it’s still a solid read and it was fun to revisit.