Less Than a Gentleman
I find it pretty hard to resist a Revolutionary War romance, so when I saw that Kerrelyn Sparks was releasing one, I snapped it up. Imagine my surprise when I discovered it’s actually a sequel to her first book – which I also reviewed over a decade ago. I had remembered that one as being a little better than it actually was, and this one had some similar issues. Still, it’s entertaining at times.
Matthias Thomas finds himself in a situation that appears to be hopeless. He and his men have been captured by the British – who apparently plan to execute them. But he engineers a daring escape and manages to take his men along. He serves under Frances Marion in South Carolina. One of the other officers, Jamie Munro, asks if Matthias can locate his two daughters and his grandchildren, who are traveling north to find him.
Caroline Munro and her pregnant sister Virginia stop at a plantation home on the river because they are tired, hungry, and without resources. The Mistress of the plantation, Jane, asks whether Caroline is Agatha, a woman she invited to visit in the hopes that she will catch her son Matthias’s eye. Afraid to say no, Caroline says she’s Agatha, and she soon finds herself ensconced comfortably in a bed chamber. Of course, it happens to be Matthias’s bed chamber, and when he sneaks home for some food, he bursts in on her. Caroline is startled and afraid, and she bites Matthias while fighting him off (and tells him she is Agatha too). The next morning, Matthias pretends to be the butler at breakfast. He is afraid that Agatha/Caroline is a fortune hunter, and he has no desire to get married anyway. He manages to bust in on her the next night too, even though she’s in a different bedroom (don’t ask). He pretends to be Thomas Haversham (the name of the former butler), and he and Caroline begin a romance.
There are obvious conflicts. Both Matthias and Caroline are pretending to be people they are not. Both of them are also concerned about beginning any sort of relationship in the uncertain time of war. External conflicts also threaten the couple’s happiness. Mathias and his men have burned nearly all the bridges in an effort to restrict the movements of the British. A loyalist officer counters by seizing Matthias’s plantation – it’s along the river, and the British can ship their supplies by barge. The officer in charge has designs on Caroline, and repeatedly threatens Matthias’s family. Matthias also has issues with his half brother Jacob, a slave who shares Matthias’s father (who is currently in a British prison). The relationship between Matthias’s parents is strained, and Matthias resents his brother because of that. But Jacob has significant contributions he can make to the war effort, specifically through his unusual inventions.
So what works in this book? Of course, I was predisposed to like the setting, and Sparks does a pretty good job with that. The odd thing is that given the subject matter, I was expecting a rather weighty read, but this book is surprisingly light-hearted – humorous, even. Because the tone often verges on farcical, I almost had trouble believing the characters were in danger, even when they were placed in perilous situations. Mostly, I found this worked for me. There is a running joke with Caroline making unintentional and unflattering references to Matthias’s small…size. Shallow it might be, but I laughed. And if you are still in touch with your inner Nancy Drew lover, you’ll enjoy the secret passages in the plantation.
I also found that I enjoyed the relationship between Thomas and Jacob. Sparks uses this relationship to examine the more serious issues of slavery and freedom, family and duty. It’s well done, and adds a little gravitas to a generally light story.
But some things work less well. Matthias finds out fairly early on that Caroline is not Agatha, and Caroline is soon forced to come clean to Jane as well. But Thomas perpetuates his own deceit long past the time when he should have come clean. Even after he proposes to Caroline, he still won’t tell her the truth. Even though everyone else knows who he is and advises him to tell Caroline the truth. It gets to the point that it’s both tiresome and unbelievable, and it really takes some of the shine off the story.
The characterization is also on the shallow side, particularly where the villains are concerned. Eventually the actual Agatha shows up on the plantation, and she’s more caricature than character. The same can be said for the loyalist officer.
If you’re a diehard Revolutionary/Colonial fan, you may find this worthwhile anyway. I wouldn’t say I’m sorry I read it. While it’s not perfect, it’s fun at times and satisfied my need for an unusual setting that I enjoy. It’s not brilliant, but it’s not awful either.