In Gayle Callen’s Return of the Viscount, the villain perpetrates a series of potentiality fatal attacks against the heroine, hoping to kill her and make it look like an accident. And frankly, as a reader, there were moments when I hoped the villain would succeed.
Our heroine, Cecilia Mallory, is usually not quite TSTL – although she does have her moments. Raised in India until her early teens, she returned to England with her mother and younger brother, while her father – an officer and an earl – remained behind. As the prologue begins, Cecilia’s father has just been killed in action. Cecilia responds to the condolence letter sent by Sergeant Blackthorne, one of her father’s friends and fellow soldiers, and the two begin a correspondence. Cecilia’s eighteen-year-old brother, Oliver, inherited the earldom upon their father’s death, and Cecilia confides in Blackthorne her worries about Oliver. She also tells him of her need to access her inheritance money, deprived of her by a guardian until she is twenty-five or married (although she must already be of age). After a few letters, Cecilia has the bright idea to marry Blackthorne by proxy. She’ll have access to her funds, and she won’t need to bother managing an actual this-side-of-the-planet husband.
Blackthorne agrees, apparently because he feels a debt of guilt toward the late earl – and also because he never intended to get married, so marrying someone he has never met… also counts? Honestly, I’m not quite sure, and I don’t think Cecilia ever is, either. He willingly refuses a dowry or any claim to her money, and presumably her lawyers have a way to ensure this, since 1843 is a good twenty-seven years before the first Married Women’s Property Act. Whatever their reasons for the marriage, both make assumptions about their spouse. Blackthorne assumes that Cecilia is hideous and unable to get another man. Cecilia assumes that Blackthorne is as old as her father and likely to die soon, too. But she doesn’t ask him his age, because that might show some common sense, and that’s not how Cecilia operates.
Between the beginning of the prologue and the start of Chapter One, two years pass. In that time, Cecilia and Blackthorne marry by proxy, and Cecilia takes complete control of her brother’s estates. And then Blackthorn turns up on Cecilia’s doorstep unannounced. Both Cecilia and her husband are shocked by the other’s appearance. Blackthorne is not ancient and decrepit, but handsome and only about ten years older than Cecilia. Cecilia herself is a classical paragon of beauty, right down to the long blonde hair. Oh, and also, Blackthorne is a viscount.
Admittedly, Cecilia does not know the title of her own story, so she could not have found out about it that way. But she did have access to the marriage papers, before she sent them to her legal team. And, she admits sheepishly, she must not have read them very carefully. That’s right, she contracted a marriage with a compete stranger – out of desperation but entirely by her own agency – and then didn’t read the marriage papers well enough to notice that her own soon-to-be-husband was a peer. I have never seen an English marriage contract from the 1840s, but I suspect that the names of the parties concerned are probably on the front page. And, even if they are relegated to a tiny footnote on the bottom of page thirty-eight, I really cannot excuse Cecilia’s oversight. She is supposedly intelligent, a lover of books and learning who had willingly commandeered the management of an earldom and vast estate. She should be smart enough to read her own marriage documents.
There isn’t much to our hero, Blackthorne; he seems to have been recently removed from his Standard Issue Romance Hero box, and he still smells a bit like the factory plastic. He has a temporary limp from a war wound, but no conflicted feelings about war and he can’t wait to get back to the fighting. He has an estate, but he never goes there and his younger brother is doing a bang-up job running the place. He’s attracted to Cecilia, but understanding of her innocence.(An innocence so severe, she doesn’t seem to recognize the feeling when she is attracted to her husband, and I was honestly surprised she knew where babies come from.) Perhaps the only vaguely intriguing thing about the man is that he enlisted in the army rather than purchasing a commission when he ran away to join-up, at the age of eighteen. His motivation was that he didn’t want men to follow his orders with his knowing what they had gone through – although this also led to his making less money, and one of his reasons for running away from home was a belief that there were better ways than fortune-hunting to keep the family solvent.
The contrast between Blackthorne and Oliver is an interesting one. Blackthorne is portrayed at the epitome of responsibly manhood, while Oliver is a callow, annoying youth. Cecilia happily took over the running of the estate from Oliver, almost as soon as he inherited it, although he left university expressly to be the earl. He has no real passion for the estate, while Cecilia does, and he seems to have ceded power willingly. Now, without any responsibilities other than drinking and entertaining his friends, he is a spoiled brat. Cecilia bemoans this, and the other characters also dislike Oliver’s abandonment of his estate… which is pretty much exactly what Blackthorne did with his lands. Blackthorne left home as a teenager, because his father wanted him to marry a girl for her money (as is Blackthorne family tradition). His father died six months later, and Blackthorne never returned. The running of his estate fell to his younger brother, Allen, who at the time of their father’s death could not have been older than seventeen. Blackthorne still has not been back since. So, poor Allen has spent more than a decade running an estate not his, possibly in the hope that his brother’s title would pass to him or to his future son, since Blackthorne always swore that he would never marry. When Blackthorne does return to England, without stopping at his estate or informing his family of his marriage, Allen proves himself to be a saint. He does not resent his absent brother, and he has discovered his own passion – the law – in running the Blackthorne estate. (Later, our hero, still planing to return to India, has the audacity to worry that Allen won’t be able to run the Blackthorne estate and a new law firm simultaneously.) Indeed, the title Return of the Viscount seems in this context utterly ridiculous, and would be much better used for a Regency Star Wars fanfic.
Also, there’s some plot about attempts on Cecilia’s life. The culprit is never too much of a mystery, although Blackthorne and Cecilia miss every clue. There are three attempts on Cecilia’s life, and they go downhill in terms of cunning and potential. The last plan consists of simply digging a big hole in the woods and letting Cecilia tumble in. To the villain’s credit, Cecilia falls right in and can’t get out. She knows that someone is trying to kill her, she agrees with Blackthorne that she should avoid being alone, and she still goes walking by herself in the woods. She’s lucky the villain didn’t think of using a gun.
After a brief period in which Cecilia wonders if her new husband could be plotting against her, both Blackthorne and Cecilia decide that the villain must be Oliver. He doesn’t really have a motive; Cecilia’s money will come to him, when she dies, and she is bossy, but she also takes care of his estate for him, and Oliver doesn’t need the money. He will come of age in less than a year, and his sister will have no power over him. Still, Cecilia and her husband remain firm in their belief, although Cecilia spends a lot of time wringing her hands and hoping that her brother isn’t the one trying to kill her. Because the real villain never occurs to them, Cecilia and Blackthorne never have a very good list of suspects. (Did that young man get drunk and try to force himself on a serving wench? Clearly, he is capable of premeditated murder due to Cecilia kicking him out of her brother’s house… even though that happened after the first attempt on her life.)
The true villain is finally revealed in a hyperbolic showdown that employs all of the cliches known to fiction. All of them, including a secret baby and a villainous monologue explaining the hows and whys, because there is no other way that Cecilia and Blackthorne would get it. After confessing everything (including a rather weak motive), the villain dies accidentally, like the evil queen in Disney’s Snow White, saving any of the “good” characters the moral quandary of killing or bringing to justice said villain. (Actually, the motivation for the villain’s earlier murder makes even less sense than the attempts against Cecilia, since telling Cecilia about [plot point] could very well have hastened [villain’s end-goal].)
Really, the whole book can be summed up in that final scene – cliches and a lack of sense. I think there might have been a romance in there somewhere, since this is a romance novel, but there was a distinct lack of chemistry between Cecilia and Blackthorne, and I kept being distracted by the foolish decisions of both hero and heroine.
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