His Scandalous Kiss
His Scandalous Kiss is the third book in Sophie Barnes’ Secrets of Thorncliff Manor series and tells the story of a disfigured and masked war hero who is hiding in life’s shadows when he unexpectedly finds love after a chance meeting with a beautiful woman at a masquerade. Sound vaguely familiar? The story borrows heavily from the French novel Le Fantôme de l’Opéra, which will no doubt be familiar to many as the musical The Phantom of the Opera.
While technically you do not need to read the previous two books in the series, there are plot themes and characters introduced in them that are referenced in this book, and without some prior knowledge, the reader starting here may feel a bit lost. As with many series written today, these are labeled and considered stand-alone books, but in this case, they rely too heavily on each other to be truly independent stories.
Our phantom is Richard Heartly who was captured, imprisoned and brutally tortured by the French leaving him severely disfigured on one side of his face. Believed dead for the past five years, he is actually alive and in hiding, not wanting anyone to see his devastating scars. He lives completely alone – speaking only to his father and brother – while he plots revenge on the comrade he blames for his imprisonment during the war. He sleeps all day, stays awake all night, plays the violin and strategizes retribution.
Our soprano and heroine, Lady Mary Bourneville, is a wallflower and happily confirmed spinster with no plans to marry and who is secretly supporting her wastrel of a half-brother. She attends a house party at Thorncliff Manor, where Richard has secretly and temporarily relocated during renovations to his family’s estate. Mary and Richard meet at a masquerade ball when he ventures out for the first time in years, behind the satefy of a mask and instantly bond over their love of books and appreciation of music. They share a waltz – Mary’s first – and feel strongly drawn to each other. This is a sweet beginning to their relationship, but their instant strong feelings are hard to believe considering their brief interaction and that neither knows the other’s identity. Mary even suddenly considers marriage to the masked stranger although she has previously been adamant about remaining unwed.
Lady Mary then begins to actively pursue Richard. She secretly sends him a note inviting him to a midnight assignation and even writes that she might be open to marrying him. This is pretty forward behavior for a woman in the twenty-first century, much less for a genteel lady in the early nineteenth! I am not an absolute stickler for historical accuracy, but I do think having characters behave in ways that are completely inappropriate for the time period causes the reader to disengage from the story. It is never a good sign when a reader starts to roll their eyes in disbelief over a character’s actions, and I rolled my eyes quite a few times at Mary’s actions.
After the masquerade, Richard and Lady Mary begin to meet secretly at night. This is where Ms. Barnes begins to really incorporate themes from The Phantom of the Opera and where the story starts to drag and fall apart. Richard is, of course, wearing a mask but also has the requisite phantom cloak. Mary is, of course, an extremely talented soprano and performs for Richard during their interludes which often take place in the secret caves underneath Thorncliff Manor. There is, of course, a river flowing through the caves, a boat to ride upon said river and even an ornately decorated mysterious parlor. Seriously. I was waiting for a gigantic chandelier to fall or the appearance of a monkey music box.
Up to this point we have two main plot devices – Mary’s secret and Richard’s revenge – and then a third is added to the mix when a mysterious notebook from a secret group, The Cardinals, is found in the caves. The story of this secret group is found in the prior two books, and I assume it was added to His Scandalous Kiss to create a common theme shared throughout the series. The problem is that it feels awkward and unnecessary. The additional mystery dilutes Mary and Richard’s stories never allowing their characters to be fully developed. They feel lifeless and flat.
I think the biggest loss in His Scandalous Kiss is that Richard’s character is not thoroughly explored. The concept of a war hero who suffered an unimaginable tragedy that isolated him for five long years had the potential to create a memorable noble and angsty romance hero, but instead, Richard feels like a loner wearing a mask who falls in love with the first woman he talks with after five years of seclusion. The complicated revenge that he spent years plotting is resolved too easily and with very little emotion. The reaction of Richard’s friends and family to his reappearance after believing him dead for five years is almost comical in its simplicity. It’s as if he has just taken a trip for a few months rather than essentially coming back from the dead. Richard is also suddenly and totally comfortable removing his mask and allowing everyone to see his scarred face although until recently he had not even let his own brother see him. These quick resolutions might have been believable if Richard’s isolation had been months rather than years. But he spent FIVE YEARS in isolation focusing on his revenge, allowing no one to see him and perpetuating the belief that he is dead.
The bottom line is that I was never able to invest in or relate to this story. The characters are not developed enough to evoke my emotions, Mary and Richard’s love is not believable, and there is little chemistry between them. I was disengaged and started entertaining myself by hunting for The Phantom of the Opera hidden Easter eggs. Honestly, spotting the similarities in the stories was the most excitement I found while reading this book. There is a lot of wasted potential in His Scandalous Kiss and the result is, unfortunately, a forgettable book.