Desert Isle Keeper
I don’t think it’s too much to state that Anne Stuart’s House of Rohan trilogy comes with high, high hopes. This author has given readers some of the darkest, cruellest, and most successfully redeemed heroes ever, and her historical novels seem to have an especially devoted following, possibly because they are now rarer than not. So with the double burden of expectations weighing on Ruthless, the first book in the trilogy, how did I find it?
I loved it.
The curtain rises on Paris, in the year of our Lord 1765. Francis Rohan, Comte de Giverney and Viscount Rohan, is holding yet another round of orgies, but despite notoriety, scads of money, and a bodacious female wriggling on his lap, he is bored, bored, bored. So when his friend tells him trouble is at the door, in the form of a drab mouse, how could he overlook the possibility of something different?
The something different is Elinor Harriman, a twenty-three-year-old long-nosed spinster with a sharp tongue and a sky-high sense of responsibility. She has come to Rohan’s chateau to fetch her poor pox-ridden mother, and reclaim the jewels her mother took. They need these assets, however paltry or flawed, they because Elinor, her younger sister, mother, and two family servants live in squalor, despite their aristocratic lineage, and Elinor carries the faint hope that her recently deceased father left them a pittance from the unentailed part of the estate. But while this pittance remains only a hope, they need those jewels. So fetch her mother she will, even if she has to meet the King of Hell himself.
My lord Rohan needles her, mocks her clothing, and just all-round gets her goat to the point where she gives back just as good as she gets. And this odd first encounter in a hell hole turns into a true meeting of the souls, but hidden under a good helping of antipathy, sorrow, humour, self-hatred, and duty. I’m going to pause in vocal homage to Anne Stuart, who describes all of the above in prose that is evilly deceptive in its simplicity. Make no mistake: This is brilliant, beautiful writing.
One of the most obvious, and best, examples is the characterization. Besides a small but sturdy supporting cast (including a nice secondary romance), we also have Elinor and Rohan. Both have suffered much, Elinor especially, yet neither approaches self-pity or martyrdom. Although Elinor has her insecurities, she is too smart and humorous to invite irritation; instead, I want to be her best friend. Rohan is slightly harder to understand, because his background is described so sparingly. Don’t get me wrong, I fell in love him at first read: His darkness (and he can be a real bastard) is tempered with true sorrow and a lightness that Elinor inadvertently and invariably invokes. The age difference of sixteen years suits them – actually, they both suit each other so well it’s a miracle they were ever apart. But I would have liked to know more about Rohan’s past, which would help me better understand his current blackness.
This is a criticism I fully acknowledge, along with infinitesimal things regarding pacing, a hint of cartoon in the villain, and the merest dash of some overly saccharine bits at the end that don’t quite fit the overall tone. But here’s the truth: When a story comes along that is this complex, heartbreaking, and sink-your-teeth-in-it succulent, it would be a sin not to recognize it in name as well as in fact. So, yes: A DIK for Ruthless. Believe me, it is worth its price and more.