Prince of Swords
Some of the books I’ve read lately have made me wonder whether or not I might be suffering from a terminal case of “First as Favorites” syndrome. In fact, after reading Prince of Swords, I sat down with A Rose at Midnight, an earlier book by Anne Stuart, to make sure it was as wonderful as I had remembered.
It was, which only made me even less happy with Prince of Swords, which suffers from a hero so unrepentant and just plain bad that the only decent thing about him was his love for the heroine, admitted on the very last page of the book. This ne’er-do-well is the Earl of Glenshiel, Alistair MacAlpin, a catburglar who steals from the rich and gives to the poor – only the poor is himself, which he isn’t … anymore. Oh, I suppose the author thought to make him a bit more palatable in that he only steals from those who can afford it. And, once, he actually did a kind thing for one of his victims. But in general, he has no remorse, for himself, for others, and especially not for the heroine of this tome, impoverished noblewoman Jessamine Maitland, who gets him all hot and bothered with her intriguing eyes and innocence. Frankly, he expects to die and doesn’t care a whit about anybody or anything along the way.
Jessamine supports herself, her beautiful younger sister, and their mother, by reading Tarot cards for the gentry and for a particularly vicious Bow Street runner who will do anything to catch the “Cat.” She knows she must remain pure to retain her psychic skills. That’s all right with her – her goal is to marry off her sister to a rich man and retire to the country, away from the filth and poverty of Georgian London.
Of course these two are destined to meet, with blazing eyes, across a crowded room. Of course she gets caught up in his schemes unwittingly. Of course these two clash but are brought together by mad passion. The difference between this book and A Rose at Midnight, or between this book and any number of fine romances, is that Alistair remains (mostly) unrepentant throughout.
How he became such a rotter is hinted at, and there are minor, but very, very minor glimpses of humanity in his treatment of Jessamine. But he mostly is bad, very bad, and has no compunctions about it whatsoever. As for Jessamine, she fears what she feels, but never thinks too much about Alistair, about why he is the way he is, or anything beyond her plan to marry off her sister.
Almost every character in this story is hateful in some way or another. The gentry who now snub Jessamine and her family. The evil Bow Street runner. Jessamine’s ineffectual mother, who is never actually seen nor heard from, but who allows her eldest daughter to do God knows what to keep them fed, clothed, and housed. Even Jessamine is “hateful” to the extent that she refuses to listen to her sister, who doesn’t want to be married off to the highest bidder.
The relationship between her sister Fleur and the man of Fleur’s dreams was far more interesting to read than that of Jessamine and Alistair. At least Fleur does something about her hopes and dreams. Jessamine, on the other hand, allows herself to get yanked into Alistair’s life, knowing she will be ruined. And, if she is ruined, so will her sister be, and thus all her plans for the future.
As for Alistair, he is like a spoiled child, taking what he wants, the consequences be damned. He is not so unlike Nicholas Blackthorne from A Rose at Midnight except in one aspect – he has no honor, deeply hidden or otherwise. A hero without honor is not heroic to this reviewer. Of course, by the end of the book, some honor on Alistair’s part is revealed, but it came way too late to matter much to me.
Yes, the story itself is engaging, taut, and filled with suspense as the reader gets caught up in the burglaries and in how the “Cat” will be caught and then saved. The story does work in terms of plot. But since I couldn’t connect with the hero, I also found it difficult to connect with the heroine – how could I care about a woman who loved such an unlovable man? So, although the story works on an action level, it does not work on a romantic level – which is ultimately what counts in a romance.
Anne Stuart is talented enough to bring you along for an exciting adventure, scaling walls and jumping across some of London’s most exclusive roofs. But for those who want to read a romance with darkly tortured characters who you can care about, who are honorable despite what they say, find a copy of A Rose at Midnight and read that instead. Stuart’s latest will leave you frustrated and more than a little sad that such a fine author has produced a piece of work below her standards.