Once a Rebel
Mary Jo Putney’s series about redeemed rogues adds a second chapter in, Once a Rebel, a story featuring two childhood friends who manage to fall in love in spite of the titanic-sized obstacles between them.
Lord George Gordon Richard Augustus Audley – third son of the Marquess of Kingston – has been best friends with his next-door neighbor, the Honorable Catherine Callista “Callie” Brooke, since the two of them were young. They have always been each others’ refuge against lives filled with uncaring and abusive adults, and Callie always sought out Gordon (or as she calls him, ‘Richard’, which is the name I will refer to him by for the rest of the review) when her drunken father became abusive.
When Callie’s father threatens to force her into marrying an elderly planter from the West Indies, Richard proposes a daring plan – he and Callie will elope to Scotland and he will marry her for her protection. They are (innocently) sleeping together in a barn when they caught by their families before they can cross the border. Callie is forced into an unwanted marriage in order to spare Richard’s life from both of their fathers’ fury, and Richard sent off to a penal colony thanks to trumped up rape charges from both men. Callie is told he’s died, and blames herself for the tragedy.
Fifteen years later, Richard – who escaped transportation by virtue of being shipwrecked! – returned to England in secret and has made powerful friends. He’s turned into a clever spy and soldier of fortune in the process, the sort who runs special missions for the government. When the relatives of a widow by the name of Audley contact Richard’s colleague, Lord Kirkland, and offer a substantial sum to have her rescued from America and returned to England, Richard agrees to set sail even though the tensions between the two countries are high as war consumes the colonies. But once he comes face to face with Callie things aren’t as simple as he hoped they might be.
Callie survived her dull but kind and respectful planter husband’s death (and the rapacious and evil advances of her stepson Henry) by emigrating to Washington DC with her husband’s illegitimate, biracial children Molly and Trey, and their grandparents Sarah and Joshua, who work as servants in Callie’s home. She assumes the last name Audley, poses as a widow of means, and becomes a well-known seamstress who excels at producing ball gowns for the wives of politicians. Unfortunately her British roots mark her out at the enemy in Washington on both sides of the conflict, so she sends Sarah, Joshua and the children on to safety in Baltimore and tries to keep her home safe. It is instead burned to the ground by British soldiers and she’s in serious danger from them when Richard finds and rescues her.
Shocked but delighted to see each other, Richard and Callie return to their former friendship, now peppered with sexual curiosity, and agree to pose as husband and wife to make their travels easier. Callie enlists Richard in helping her get to Baltimore, but even more problems wait for her there. As their feelings grow deeper and their friendship more complicated, they’ll have many dangers to survive and many doubts to breach before they reach the end of the war.
There’s something very, very 1970s about Once a Rebel, which is both a bad and a good thing at different times. It’s got everything: Mistaken identity! Exotic travel! Hateful and violent relatives! Presumed death! Murder attempts! Gore! There is not a dull moment in the entire story, and that makes it well worthy of a read.
Callie and Richard’s relationship is really great, and absolutely feels like something that would evolve out of a close lifelong friendship. I liked a lot of their interaction, but the book does suffer a little from ‘we were just in a dangerous situation – wow you look great shirtless’ syndrome. It’s a minor dint, though; their romance carries the day. Callie is an intelligent, strong and smart heroine and Richard is a velvet hand encased in a steel gauntlet.
The books’ racial politics are a hair awkward, in that Callie at one point owned her stepchildren and their grandparents. It’s strenuously established that Callie wants to free her husband’s slaves and that she’s Not Like Those Other Mistresses, but the whole situation simply feels awkward. Molly and Trey are stereotypical naïfs who are changed by the war around them but have just enough meat on their bones to stand up on their own.
A lot of extraneous adventures happen to pad the novel out; Richard throws himself into to ocean to rescue a child and reunite her with her mother and the family is never seen again, for instance. Much more interesting are the scenes leading to the battle of Baltimore.
The writing is somewhat problematic. Putney makes the mistake of having Richard be known by at least three different monikers during the story; Callie calls him Richard (and is the only one to do so) but the narration calls him Gordon and others call him George. The only-Callie-calls-him-Richard part would have been enough and quite charming, but the George/Gordon dichotomy only adds confusion to the pile. Conversations come off as oddly stiff and theatrical, as if the characters are shouting lines at one another from across a stage. Perhaps it could’ve used another editing pass.
Once a Rebel doesn’t stand as one of Putney’s best pieces, but it’s not a disaster. It’s rousing and the romance is in fact breezily winning and engaging – but ultimately none of this is quite enough to earn the book a recommendation.