A fight-laden main relationship and awkwardly handled attempts at trying to write about the difficulties of being a biracial person during the regency make for a poor start to Minerva Spencer’s brand-new Rebels of the Ton series. Notorious is, sadly, the worst Spencer I’ve read yet and a downfall for an author whose books usually fallen within DIK range for me.
Drusilla – Dru – Clare is an outsider to ton life, as are her other friends. Dru is not on the marriage mart at all; an heiress of common stock, she’s determined to remain a spinster follower of Mary Wollstonecraft, and is a feminist bluestocking with a sharp tongue who believes in equal rights besides. Unfortunately, she has a crush on one certain gentleman.
The object of said crush is rakish fellow outsider Jibril – Gabriel – Marlington, her best friend Eva’s stepbrother and the result of his mother’s abduction, sale into a harem and union with a former – and dead – sultan. This is detailed in Dangerous, and readers of this new series should know that the characters in the Rebels of the Ton series are all children of the principals in Spencer’s Outcasts series. Gabriel was expected to take over his father’s kingdom, but a coup made that impossible. Settled uncomfortably into English life – adored by his British family but only tolerated by most of the ton – Gabriel immediately notices Dru among the swans surrounding her, but it’s sparks and arguments all the way between them. He naturally can’t stand her nastiness toward him, which he interprets as revulsion at his background, and can’t stop himself from sniping at her at every occasion. But he’s got two actress mistresses and is courting a lovely society maiden; surely this brown wren of a girl isn’t special, no matter how hot sparring with her makes him.
Fate promptly intervenes, when a stranger comes upon Dru napping in a conservatory during a ball. He is Visel, Gabriel’s longtime hated rival, and believing her to be Eva, attempts to kiss and then manhandle Dru. Gabriel rides to the rescue, and a brawl ensues.
When the guests rush in, Dru is summarily ruined, and Gabriel is on a collision-course towards a duel with Visel. Dru and Gabriel enter into what seems to be a temporary betrothal in order to protect Dru’s reputation, but go through with the wedding in spite of their misgivings. They settle into a paper marriage, and Gabriel continues to gallivant and damage her reputation, even heading to Whites on their wedding night. But can they figure out how to make a true match of it?
Notorious, like Dru and Gabriel, is stuck in an uncomfortable union, which, in the book’s case, is between its old skool plot trappings and a new skool sense of feminism. This time, Spencer doesn’t quite pull off the balancing act, and too much plot development takes place inside of the characters’ heads.
If you’re looking for communication, this is not the couple you’ve been seeking. Gabriel and Dru fight, they jump to conclusions about one another, they have sex and then angst about the sex. Gabriel thinks Dru hates him and presumes him to be a barbarian due to his heritage; Dru is attracted to Gabriel but knows he’s been a cad with other women, shows no regard for her feelings, and is petrified to tell him about her years-long crush on him after trapping him in the marriage (this is even after they have had dynamite sex, which – whut?) Naturally, they’re both victims of self-loathing, but their lack of cross-communication everywhere but in the bedroom lasts far beyond the book’s midpoint and ultimately grates.
Gabriel is at his best when he’s with the children in his family. He is gruff, stilted and awkward around Dru, and it takes him having sex with her for him to find a little respect for her (as he says in the text, he only wears sheathes with “women he does not respect”). Instead, he spends pages paying higher regard to his two mistresses than the heroine – for a good reason, which I cannot spoil for you, but it will raise some eyebrows and make you root for their relationship instead of anything he has with Dru! His near-book-long preference for the company of his mistresses takes far too long to change, and he only seems to make the change because he likes condom-free sex with Dru.
And yet there are some wonderful passages about how Gabriel anglicized his name and had to learn an entirely new language in order to be accepted by the ton, and the resultant bitterness when he becomes an object of fascination and repulsion for them. But Gabriel’s struggle with his own identity is never solved, and Dru’s constant fetishization of him – everything from his “dark” looks to the “foreign flair” with which he writes – does not help Spencer’s case.
Dru’s self-defensive shrewishness does not make it easy on Gabriel though. While she longs for him, Gabriel treats her like an errant little sister until they manage to merge physically mid-book. Yet for the majority of the novel, she’s the one who has to change for him, from dressing differently to being kinder and all but forgetting her worship of Wollstonecraft. With Dru’s scandalized shock at the notions of committed threesomes and harems and housing the mistresses of her husband, one wonders if the Wollstonecraft she read was Phyllis Schlaffley-Wollstonecraft instead of free-love supporting Mary.
The end result is two people who are nigh on impossible to root for, who are pigheaded and foolish and willing to believe the worst of each other at the drop of a hat. Whenever they are sympathetic, it is a moment briefly held, and then only because they are not doing the homework of interpersonal communication. Spencer seems to know the relationship is weak, because she throws objects – specifically Gabriel’s cousin, whose gentlemanly exterior and kindness is a cover for something wicked – and secrets into their path nonstop to keep them from getting together. Because of the exterior conflict and total denial of their own interior issues, their characters have to change rapidly in the last fifty pages to force their coupling to make any sort of sense. I absolutely did not buy Gabriel’s sudden belief in the intelligence of women after the level of disrespect he levied against everyone but his mother and mistresses.
All else is cliché and Spencer indulging her worst tendency to wallow in same without her usual tendency to turn those clichés on their heads. There’s the usual plot beat where the wallflower, fashion-hating heroine decides to Dress Real Pretty For the Hero. There’s the evil rival who’s not That Bad because he must become the next book’s hero, the over involvement of the mistresses in Gabriel and Dru’s relationship (which causes a plot twist that’s too bohemian to be believed for the era). Spencer’s sex scenes are still as purple as ever, with their painful yet wildly erotic deflowerings and demi-virgins giving expert blowjobs (If your womb is “heavy and full” mid-intercourse, uterus-possessing people, please go to your gynecologist). There’s a who’s-the-daddy plot complicated by several awful revelations about what Gabriel’s hastiness has cost him. Way too much is on the table by the end of the novel, and it’s resolved with a deus ex kidnapping plot.
Notorious will ultimately be so for only one reason – as Spencer’s worst book.
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Lisa Fernandes is a writer, reviewer and recapper who lives somewhere on the East Coast. Formerly employed by Firefox.org and Next Projection, she also currently contributes to Women Write About Comics. Read her blog at http://thatbouviergirl.blogspot.com/, follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thatbouviergirl or contribute to her Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/MissyvsEvilDead or her Ko-Fi at ko-fi.com/missmelbouvier