Once He Loves
Once He Loves has nearly as many flaws as it has strong points, but the scale tips in favor of the book. Its premise reverses gender roles, which was a nice change of pace, and the hero and heroine were likable enough throughout the book. But there were some annoying features as well, such as the evil-for-evil’s-sake villain, and the ending, which managed to be both unexpected and predictable.
Briar Kenton is the daughter of a traitor to the throne of England, cast out of her home along with her sisters when their father died. After finding out the hard way that no one would help them, thanks to fear of taint by association, the sisters hid their identity and made use of their skills. Briar and Mary now travel as musicians of growing renown, while Jocelyn supports herself and her husband Odo (who apparently suffers from some extreme form of trauma-induced brain damage) as a cook. The road hasn’t been easy, but the one thing that keeps Briar going is the thought of revenge. She believes Lord Radulf killed her stepmother Anna out of jealousy, and that the grief was what turned her father to mutiny against the Crown. Rumor has it that Radulf is now enthralled by his wife Lily, and would do anything for her. In fact, his fidelity to her is legendary. So Briar plans to seduce Radulf, and use that fact to destroy Radulf’s marriage and happiness, as she feels he did to her father. Only then will she be avenged. And when she spies the dark knight in Lord Shelborne’s hall, and sees the way he looks at her, she knows he must be Radulf.
Ivo de Vessey is a disgraced knight with some serious family issues of his own, including a brother who hates his guts, and a sister whose death he feels he caused. When the beautiful songstress invites him to her bed, he goes willingly. When they awake, he realizes that he knows Briar – he served in her father’s court when she was very small, and now he feels that she belongs to him. He doesn’t tell her this – she seems upset enough as it is to find out he’s not Radulf – but he vows to watch over her as best he can, and help her resolve the mystery of her stepmother’s death.
From the premise alone, you can probably tell that the heroine has a tendency to be a bit TSTL. If you’re going to scheme and plan the downfall of a man, at least make sure you’ve got the right one – perhaps even ask his name – before you take him to your bed. At least, that’s my motto. Unfortunately that’s not Briar’s last clichéd, ill-advised act of the book: later, she falls for a classic when the villain plays upon her sympathies in order to get her alone. And is anyone else sick of historical heroines who spend inordinate amounts of time wondering why they’re suddenly weepy and sick to their stomachs all the time? Of course, there’s always some handy, experienced female around to ask how long it’s been since the heroine had her “flux,” which the heroine never notices has been missing, but can always pinpoint when her last one was when asked. If I lived in the Middle Ages, and had to go through what they went through to deal with their “flux,” I think I’d probably keep better track than that. But, I digress.
Aside from these overused plot devices, the heroine also has the charming tendency of running hot and cold on the hero, until even Ivo’s best friend points out what a shrew she is. I was forced to agree. Despite these admittedly annoying characteristics, I was a bit surprised to find I didn’t despise Briar. She wasn’t the strongest feature of the book, but in times of relative intelligence and good behavior, I could sympathize with her plight.
Comparatively, Ivo is a prize. He’s a likable guy, aside from the self-flagellation for something he is of course not responsible for, and it took me awhile before I noticed that something was awry with him: the reason that Briar goes back and forth as to whether she knows him well enough to trust him is that she doesn’t. She bares her secrets, but he tells her nothing. Literally, nothing. When Briar finally does press him for information about his family, he refuses to tell her. That’s where he really fell from my good graces. It’s the old “If I don’t tell her there’s danger, it can’t hurt her” theory, which makes as little sense here as it does in every other book I’ve read it in. Unlike Briar, Ivo makes up for his short-comings both by having a sympathetic backstory and by being a really nice guy. He’s always there for Briar, never doubts her, never leaps to any number of negative conclusions when he has plenty of opportunity. He simply believes the best of her and wants to help. Ivo goes a long way toward explaining why my grade for this book is a B-, instead of C, in fact.
His brother Miles unfortunately doesn’t. The villain of the piece, Miles is evil, because, well, he was born that way. And he hates Ivo because Ivo’s good. End of story. Actually, the author puts a bit more effort into explaining it than that, but in the end, there’s no more substance to Miles’ villainy than being bad.
The other secondary characters fare a bit better in characterization. Mary is extremely sympathetic as Briar’s younger, overprotected sister who’s just starting to resent still being considered a helpless child at age 17. Jocelyn is even more intriguing as the older sister who cares devotedly for her husband Odo, who is, for lack of a better term, a vegetable. Jocelyn clearly has some secrets, and her devotion to Odo is both tragic and touching, although the cause of his condition remains a mystery throughout the book, and is only partially explained by the end. On Ivo’s side, there’s only Sweyn, a Danish mercenary who’s basically likable, but who’s own conflict seems bizarrely melodramatic and without real cause. He’s another character who I liked better at the beginning, as a carefree soul who loves gambling and women and apparently tells bad jokes, but ends up agonizing over his feelings of unworthiness only to get over them in a flash when the time is right. Still he was another really nice guy, and I was happy to see him happy as well.
As for the ending of the book, it really occurs in two parts, one regarding the joint backstories, and the other regarding the future of the happy couple. The first, without going into detail, is unexpectedly depressing. I won’t say more than that, but I was distressed by the conclusion of a certain subplot, although I have to admit it was unexpected. The same can’t be said of the second, which was absolutely predictable in true Historical Romance-land fashion. I won’t give away any more than that, but I thought the book deserved better, or at least more.
Still, Once He Loves was an enjoyable read for the most part, and certainly makes me curious about Bennett’s other work, from which many of the characters obviously spring. It won’t make my Desert Island Keeper shelf by a long shot, but it was certainly a pleasant way to spend a few hours away from it all.