His at Night is the first Sherry Thomas book I've read since Private Arrangements, a book I liked but didn't love. To my mind, this one's better, and certainly worth the anticipation and buzz it's receiving. The hero and heroine are both interesting, the conflict is compelling and intriguing, and the writing itself is fabulous. It's an all around win.
Everyone knows that Lord Vere is an idiot. A lovable, endearing idiot, but an idiot nonetheless. Ever since his unfortunate riding accident, his conversation has been nothing but silliness and nonsense, his actions nothing but ineptitude. What almost no one knows is that Lord Vere is a spy.
Elissande is a desperate woman living a miserable existence. Her uncle, Edmund Douglas, keeps her a virtual prisoner in her home, where she stays to protect her aunt - a laudanum addict who is completely terrorized by her husband.
But Edmund Douglas in under suspicion because of his shady activities as a diamond dealer, and Vere and Elissande are about to cross paths. Vere and his compatriots plan a thorough search of Douglas's study (in his country home) during one of his trips to London. Lady Kinglsey, his collaborator who has leased a home in the Douglas's neighborhood, has an unfortunate rat infestation, so she pleads with Elisande to move her entire house party to the Douglas home. Elissande is terrified to defy her uncle, but when she realizes how important some of her new houseguests are, she sees her chance; if she can marry one of them, she and her aunt might gain asylum from her uncle. Initially, she sets her cap for Lord Vere. He seems dashing, handsome, and sympathetic. When she realizes to her dismay that he is a complete moron, she shifts her ambitions to his younger brother, Freddie.
When Vere first meets Elissande, he is so captivated by her smile that he forgets to play his customary role. Elissande's smile is uncannily like that of his dream companion - a vision he has used throughout the years to console himself, and as a refuge from his taxing double life. A sharp reminder from Lady Kingsley jolts him back to reality; Vere begins to act like a lovable idiot again, and is somewhat disgusted to see that Elissande still smiles at him. Believing her to be a more than a little mercenary, he is appalled to see her shift her attentions to his brother Freddie. They seem to share a common interest in art. Elissande, who really will stop at nothing to save herself and her aunt, sets a trap for Freddie. Lord Vere intercepts her note, and is trapped himself. Marriage, it seems, is inevitable. But any real relationship between Vere and Elissande is an uphill climb. Though Vere can tell that she is in absolute terror of her uncle, he nonetheless resents the deceitful way she entrapped him. Though Vere has fooled even those closest to him, escaping Elissande's scrutiny is another matter, and of course, resisting her charms will prove harder than he imagined. Meanwhile, Vere learns more and more about Edmund Douglas, and what he learns is chilling. He and Elissande will have to thwart Douglas and come to terms with their feelings - and difficult pasts - before they can find happiness together.
His at Night is the kind of book you can really sink your teeth into. It's full of the best kind of conflict; you can't tell exactly how things will end up, or how Vere will be able to forgive Elissande. Every character is interesting- even the walk-ons. There's also a fun side plot with Freddie and a childhood love. (I may be wrong, but I believe Freddie was Gigi's "other man" in Private Arrangements. If so, he is much less insipid here).
Both main characters as certainly enjoyable as well. I have to admit to a soft spot for heroes who have to (or choose to) act like idiots. It may go all the way back to the first romance I read as a teenager, Jude Deveraux's The Raider (A Scarlet Pimpernel-esque tale about a dashing Revolutionary who dresses like a fop). It also reminded me pleasantly of Diane Farr's Once Upon a Christmas, a book I find hilarious. In this case, Vere's play-acting is funny, but it has an element of heartbreak to it as well. The scope of his double life is pretty all-encompassing, and it seems as if he'll actually have to sacrifice love in favor of king and country. Elissande may appear to outsiders to be something of a doormat, but Thomas clearly portrays the courage and perseverance that guide her choices.
We no longer have a best villain category in AAR's annual poll. This year, that's almost a shame. Doing away with the category made sense, because I'm sure I skipped it more often than not. Many romances have no villain at all, and those that exist tend to be mostly of the cartoonish variety. When it came time to vote, who could remember them? Edmund Douglas, however, is believably chilling and assuredly memorable. He's easily the best villain I've seen in some time.
But though I enjoyed the deft characterization, I believe Thomas's lyrical writing is really the star of the show. There are writers who can tell a great story, and writers who can tell a great story with beauty and artistry. Thomas is in the latter category, and her writing is, quite simply, a cut above. At times it almost verges on poetry.
So why does the book fall just short of a DIK? Lord Vere's treatment of Elissande after their marriage didn't quite work for me. He sometimes seems cruel, which struck me as unnecessary. He redeems himself in the end (naturally), but it happens a little late for my taste.
Overall, though, that's a small criticism for a book that is well worth reading. His at Night has an interesting plot, believable conflict and characters, and masterful writing. It doesn't really get much better than that. Thomas is squarely back on my radar.
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