Master of the Night
I’ll give props to Elizabeth Butler for tackling a sticky subject: the truth about slavery and attitudes toward it in the Border States just before the Civil War. The conflict at the center of the book is pretty strong, too: two people embarked on a Noble Cause who feel they must not fall in love with each other. But the writing is so pedestrian, the characterization so flat, that justice isn’t served to a potentially good story.
Caroline Barry is disgusted that her abusive stepfather Hadley Lingstrom’s keeping slaves in the attic of his house, and she’s determined to do something about it. Fate throws her into the path of the mysterious Master of the Night, a masked abolitionist who steals Hadley’s slaves and sets them off on their journey to freedom in Canada. She proves her worthiness to be included in a couple of escapes, but she’s curious to know who the Master is. Even with the mask, he’s certainly more appealing than her fumbling drunk of a fiancé, Hadley’s cousin Orval. But what about Hadley’s new business associate, the charming and debonair Wray Richmond – how does he fit in the picture, and why did Caroline let him kiss her?
Although he was raised on a plantation, Wray hates slavery with all his heart, and he’s using his steamboat business as a cover for helping escapees travel to freedom. He’s heard that Hadley Lingstrom’s the leader of a slave-capture and reselling ring, and he’ll do whatever it takes to bust it up. His work is too important for him to be distracted by falling in love with anyone, but there’s something about Caroline Barry that he can’t resist. He can’t afford to antagonize Orval or his uncle Hadley, but watching that oaf Orval manhandle Caroline is more than he can bear, and he can’t help himself. Soon he’s neck-deep in a plot to liberate the slaves, and falling in love at the same time.
Wray and Caroline are barely more than stick figures. She’s the headstrong, rebellious daughter, especially when seen in contrast to her spoiled little sister Daisy (that girl just made my palms itch, she was so irritating). Caroline’s concern for her mother – ill and worn down from years of living with Hadley’s abuse – adds a little to her character, but not enough to save her. She’s one of those women who won’t listen to common sense and who insist on forging ahead into danger despite repeated warnings and proof that what they’re doing is going to end badly. Wray is the “good” younger son with the noble intentions, especially when seen in contrast to his dissipated older half-brother John. John tossed away the family fortune, while Wray has built up his own business and is using it in a Good Cause.
As for the secondary characters, forget it. Hadley’s little better than Simon Legree; Orval is a drunken sot; John might as well wear a Snidely Whiplash disguise; and Daisy is a prototypical ditz. There’s a subplot with a significant ick factor: having failed to get a son on his wife, now dead, Hadley turns to the fifteen-year-old Daisy with a lecherous gleam in his eye. And the slaves and servants speak in borderline-offensive dialect, full if “I’s”es and “done been”s. Here’s a sample: ” ‘But Massa Lingstrom does. They’s his friends and he wants the rest o’ us to be good ‘samples to them…I’s proud a-bein’ house help and I plans to stay that way.'” All I could think of was Prissy in Gone With The Wind – and really, haven’t we moved beyond that?
There’s very little sexual tension between Caroline and Wray, and not even much plot tension throughout the book. Everything is flat, just flat. Even in scenes that should be filled with tension, the writing leeches any emotion or excitement out of the events. I had to read the second love scene twice to verify that they were actually making love. The writing is choppy. There’s not much rhythm to it. Lots of one- and two-sentence paragraphs with disjointed thoughts. It was hard to read. And don’t even get me started on the misplaced and missing commas. Punctuation errors kept sucking me out of the story, so that any potentially interesting scenes had the life sucked out of them.
Judicious editing (line and copy) could have saved Master of the Night; there’s a kernel of a really good story in there, set in an unusual time and place. But it’s self-published, and it shows. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve read several self-published authors and have enjoyed them immensely (Sherri Cobb South springs to mind). But unhappily this book falls into the same category as most self-pubbed efforts: Not Ready For Prime Time. And the price! For what it has to offer, the book is woefully overpriced. Think what else you could buy with fourteen bucks: two new romances, plus maybe even enough left over for a cup of coffee to sip on while you’re reading, or a bunch of terrific books at a UBS. Take my word for it: your money would be much better spent in that way.