Brenda Hiatt’s latest release, Innocent Passions, showcases her ability to weave a tale of romantic intrigue into a Regency setting that is far more than wallpaper. With a little more work on the characters and their interactions, this author’s work could ascend from pleasant distraction to true delight.
Miss Rowena Riverstone has just arrived in Town for her very first visit, where she is the guest of her best friend Pearl (from Rogue’s Honor) (now Lady Hardwyck). A bluestocking and a feminist, Rowena makes no secret of her political views, particularly the ones relating to class issues and social reform. What she does make a secret of is her identity as “MRR,” the mysterious editorialist whose passionate essays in the Political Register calling for land reform have stirred up plenty of controversy. Her dreams of coming to London included discussing such reforms with other Spencean sympathizers – not attending balls and entering Society. But in deference to her friendship with Pearl, she finds herself doing just that. To her delight, she finds herself socializing with Lester Richards himself, as well as with a handsome and intelligent yet frustratingly legalistic man named Noel Paxton. While opposed to his views, she finds herself drawn to Noel. With a man like him, marriage might not be the prison she once thought it. But can they overcome their differences?
Noel Paxton, or Puss In Boots (as he was known to other operatives during the War) is an agent with the Foreign Office, and is hot on the trail of a French spy known only as the Black Bishop, whom he believes is now in England. Having only recently learned that his previous theory – that the Black Bishop was one and the same with the Robin Hood-esque thief known as the Saint Of Seven Dials – was incorrect, he now feels strongly that the political writer MMR is the French spy. Noel takes on the identity of the Saint (with the help of the real Saint, whom the readers met in the previous two books), hoping that this masquerade will lead him to MRR/the Black Bishop. Meanwhile, he simultaneously pursues his search in Society, under the pretense that he means to hunt down the Saint.
In the course of his search, Noel meets the frumpy country mouse Rowena Riverstone, who possesses an impressive intellect and distinct reformist beliefs. When he notices her reading the Political Register and discovers that she hails from the same area from which MRR posts his correspondence to the paper, he suspects that she may in fact know the man’s identity, a suspicion which her flustered and defensive stance on the topic confirms. Under the pretense of a romantic interest in her, he hopes to draw the information out of her. However, he doesn’t count on the attraction between them, or the creeping suspicion that his own interest is all too real.
That’s a fairly extensive summary, but the plot is complex enough to warrant so much description. There’s a certain amount of intrigue woven in, and everyone has a secret – or perhaps several. This leads to a few misunderstandings, but given the nature of the plot, it seems only necessary. With the exception of the incident that mars the first would-be love scene – which involves more of Rowena and Noel lying to themselves than to each other – this wasn’t an issue for me, and I’m generally not tolerant of misunderstandings in romance novels. However, it’s something that those who despise this plot device should note.
Next to the well-crafted plot, the element that most stands out for me is the setting, which is a refreshing change from the wallpapery, mistake-ridden Regencies and Regency-era historicals I’ve read lately. Here, the setting crackles with reality, and nary a reference to Almack’s or tepid lemonade in sight. Ms. Hiatt clearly knows her stuff, and it shows. The class distinctions – including titles, for once – were flawless, which is a rather important quality in a book that discusses Regency class structure and its faults in depth. The politics, particularly the war-related details, were spot-on and natural, instead of feeling as if they’d been inserted from a How-to-Write-a-Regency primer. How refreshing to read a Regency-era novel that focuses on more than marrying a wealthy title and living happily ever after among the ton.
As for the characters themselves, I found the hero and heroine to be well-rounded and sympathetic. Rowena is passionate about the cause of social reform, and protective of her identity as the writer of political essays, which I found believable on two levels: she assumes, correctly, that her ideas would be taken less seriously were it known that they were penned by a woman, and also because she quite reasonably fears legal action, such as the imprisonment to which others, including her publisher, have already been subjected. She is otherwise forthright and intelligent, with a self-deprecating humor, and a certain endearing lack of self-confidence in social surroundings.
Meanwhile, Noel is an interesting and equally intelligent character who earns points for respecting and defending Rowena’s intellect. At the same time, he’s forced to pretend he’s something that he’s not: an agent pursuing the populist and sympathetic Saint of Seven Dials, which puts him into a difficult spot as he recognizes his growing attachment to Rowena, who defends the Saint. He does, however, lose points late in the novel for believing something about Rowena despite evidence to the contrary. To say more would constitute a spoiler, but it was irritating enough to be partly responsible for the minus in the grade.
The one character who seems most lacking in dimension is, not surprisingly, the villain. Every chance this guy gets to be evil, he takes it. There isn’t a thing that’s un-evil about him, and the explanation for his determination to bring anarchy to England’s social structure is fairly thin and somewhat nonsensical. The result is a cardboard cut-out, instead of the multi-dimensional villain that this story deserves.
Rowena and Noel were well-suited intellectually and had great sexual chemistry, but there was somewhat of a lack in their emotional bonding. Although they eventually knew each other well, despite their short acquaintance, they never fully “clicked” for me as a couple. It’s hard for me to define why, but I found the finale somewhat unsatisfying for this reason.
Nevertheless, there is much to enjoy about this book, and I do recommend it, despite certain reservations. I look forward to reading more of Ms. Hiatt’s work in the future.