This was an interesting story which, although it had flaws, was nonetheless engaging and unusual enough to hold my attention. I admit, from looking at the title and the cover, I had thought I was probably in for a light, easy read which would perhaps be some sort of spin on the Cinderella story, or on some other fairy tale.
The latter did indeed prove to be the case, as our heroine, Lady Lucy Charming, daughter of the late Duke of Nottingham, is treated as an unpaid servant by her nasty step-mother and step-sisters. The story begins as Lucy encounters a young man she believes to be her neighbor’s gardener and accidentally knocks him down while she is trying to run away from a couple of thugs who are chasing her.
Although she says she doesn’t need any help, the gardener – who she has to admit is handsome enough to make her knees weak – insists on helping her to evade capture. It turns out that the men chasing her are employed by the government to track down enemies of the crown of which Lucy, a passionate advocate of social reform, is one.
Lucy’s late father had believed that a massive change in English society was the only way to prevent a revolution akin to the one that had taken place across the channel years earlier, and used his privileged position to work tirelessly to bring about that change. Following his supposed suicide, Lucy has continued to work with the reformers, even though she is well aware of the danger should she ever be caught helping members of the movement, or attending any of the many rallies and meetings that take place throughout the country.
We first encounter Nicholas St. Germain, Crown Prince of Santadorra (a fictional principality close to Spain and France) when he is just twelve years old and, with his mother and younger sister, fleeing the mob that has descended on the royal residence during a peasant uprising incited by revolutionaries from France. The king, his father, has sent them away into the mountains to escape, but before they can cross the border, the queen and Nick’s four-year-old sister are discovered and killed – and he is unable to help or save them.
As a result, the adult Nick carries a huge burden of guilt which manifests itself in a compulsion to help those in need, whether it be to rescue damsels in distress, or send the bulk of his quarterly allowance to a home for orphaned boys.
Both Lucy and Nick are laboring under misapprehensions as to the other’s true identity. Nick believes Lucy to be a scullery maid because of the way she dresses and she believes he’s a gardener. He discovers the truth before she does, however, and given the fact that his father is threatening to cut off his funds if he doesn’t find himself a wife soon, the fact that he’s very much smitten with Lucy – and because the daughter of a duke will be eminently acceptable as the wife of a Crown Prince – Nick determines to marry her.
She is, of course, the ideal candidate for the exercise of Nick’s protective instincts. She’s beautiful and in danger, so what’s a charming, handsome prince to do? Learning of her political activities, Nick determines that Lucy needs to be saved – not just from government thugs, but from herself, and, in order to get to spend more time with her, makes a wager. If she can convince him of the rightness of her cause, he will, upon accession to the throne of Santadorra, grant universal sufferage to all the men in the principality. If she is unable to convince him, she will have to marry him.
Lucy may well be similarly smitten, but discovering that her handsome gardener is in fact, a handsome prince produces a reaction opposite to the one that might have been expected. She’d have happily entertained the suit of the gardener, but she doesn’t want the life of privilege she would be accorded as a princess, and she doesn’t want to move out of the social orbit of her many like-minded friends and fellow reformers.
When the pair is caught in a heavy clinch by no less a person than Prinny himself, it seems that Nick is going to get his way after all. But Lucy is not so easily cornered and, much to Nick’s dismay, manages to wriggle out of a betrothal with him.
It’s at this point that the story started to become less convincing.
Lucy is in love with Nick, but refuses to consider a future with him because of her devotion to her cause. She isn’t willing to compromise one iota, and although Nick recognizes that her views have merit, because of his own fears and insecurities, he is unwilling to admit it. His driving concern is to keep her safe, and in order to do that, he is willing to take some drastic and unpalatable actions. Given his history, these actions are completely understandable, but they are at best misguided and at worst, unforgivable.
I enjoy a good adversarial romance, and one of the most unusual things about this book is the fact that the conflict between the hero and heroine doesn’t come from their own insecurities or from some sort of Big Misunderstanding. The thing that drives them apart is Lucy’s political affiliation, which isn’t something I’ve come across in a romance novel before and while I found it to be refreshingly uncommon, it’s also problematic. Lucy is very deeply committed to her cause – it’s her whole life – and as a result, I found it really difficult to imagine her and Nick being able to live happily ever after. Even though Lucy fully understood the fears which prompted Nick’s actions, and, by the end of the book, had accepted that her life would have to change, the fervor with which she had espoused her beliefs was such that I felt she’d always be harboring a small degree of resentment towards Nick for the way things turned out.
To sum up – I thought Princess Charming was a brave attempt to do something a little bit different…which didn’t quite work. The writing is fairly solid, Nick and Lucy are reasonably well-rounded and their actions fit their respective characters as established by the author. But by making Lucy such a passionate devotee of her cause, Ms Pattillo set the whole thing slightly off balance because it became impossible to imagine her putting her love for Nick above her love for social reform. Despite my reservations, I did enjoy the book, but the second half had a bittersweet feel about it which might not be for everyone.