Scandalous is the third book in Minerva Spencer’s series The Outcasts, and it takes as its hero Martín Etienne Bouchard, the beautiful , enigmatic and seductive privateer who was introduced in the previous book, Barbarous. Ms. Spencer’s sophisticated, precise prose continues to impress, as does her ability to tell a compelling story and create complex characters, but something about the principals and romance in Scandalous didn’t quite gel for me. The heroine is determined and independent of spirit in a way that feels perfectly right for the story and the period, but the hero, while he has a truly traumatising backstory, spends much of the novel behaving like an emotionally stunted adolescent. The author skilfully makes the reader aware that there are good reasons for Martín’s behaviour and actually manages (sometimes) to make him into a fairly sympathetic character – even before we find out the true extent of what he went through (which doesn’t happen until fairly near the end) – but there were still times I came perilously close to losing patience with him.
Martín Bouchard is a former slave who is now a wealthy privateer who has built himself a fearsome reputation as a cold, hard killer who was more concerned with his cravat than his life. Not surprisingly, Martín hates those who buy and sell slaves with a passion, so he has little sympathy for the crew of the Blue Bird, a Dutch Ship with a hold full of slaves, when he captures it off Africa’s Gold Coast.
The daughter of missionaries, Sarah Fisher was born in Africa – in the village of N’Goe – where she’s lived all her life. Her parents died after contracting a sickness that killed many in the village, and since their deaths some two years earlier, Sarah has acted as the village’s healer. When the slavers arrived in N’Goe and captured all its inhabitants, Sarah went with them, which is how she comes to be aboard the Blue Bird when it is attacked by the Golden Scythe, a British privateer, at the same time as the crew is on the verge of mutiny.
To try to avert the latter, Sarah and the ship’s captain Mies Graaf go aboard the Golden Scythe to parlay with its captain – who is the most beautiful man Sarah has ever seen. But Captain Bouchard is as intractable as he is handsome; he refuses to allow the Blue Bird to return to port to return its ‘cargo’ and has no patience with Graaf’s protests that the slaves were purchased without his consent or knowledge.
When the woman who accompanied Graaf enters the discussion, Martín finds himself liking her spirit as well as the way the snug breeches she’s wearing are clinging to her legs. He’s far more used to women throwing themselves at his feet than arguing with him and prefers it that way – although the way this particular woman refuses to back down certainly enlivens the discussion; she’s not especially attractive in the way Martín usually appreciates, but he’s nonetheless sufficiently interested to suggest he’ll show mercy to the crew of the Blue Bird if she’ll share his bed. But when what should have been a night of pleasure is interrupted and Martín finds himself looking down the barrel of his own pistol, he decides Sarah is more trouble than she’s worth and just wants to get her off his ship.
Roughly half the book is taken up with the journey to England, and the rest sees Sarah connecting with long-lost relatives and deciding what she wants to do with her life. Throughout the story, Sarah and Martín move towards each other and then away in a continual (and frustrating) dance, Martín clearly infatuated with Sarah and in deep denial about it, Sarah telling herself a man like Martín can’t possibly be interested in a woman like her. Martín hates the way Sarah seems able to see through his tough outer shell to the parts of himself he’s carefully hidden away and tries desperately to convince himself he wants nothing more than to be rid of her. He continually pushes Sarah away, treating her with disdain and wounding her with insults and rudeness. But Sarah keeps trying to reach him – certainly going beyond the point at which my patience would have snapped! – with kindness and compassion, until someone tells her that Martin doesn’t react well to either of those things and that she should instead treat him as badly as he has treated her if she really wants to get through his defences. After they arrive in England things between them don’t change much. Martín keeps trying to keep his distance, but gets all caveman when other men take an interest in Sarah; he keeps trying (and failing – little Martín refuses to perform with anyone except her) to assuage his lust elsewhere, and telling himself she’ll despise him if she finds out the truth about his past. He seems to prefer to wallow in his own fears of inadequacy than to see what’s under his nose and acknowledge the truth of Sarah’s feelings for him and his for her.
Minerva Spencer is a gifted storyteller and in Scandalous, has crafted a compelling and very readable tale featuring characters who, while not particularly likeable, are flawed and complex. But no matter how well characterised or how vibrantly written – and both those things are true here – a romance stands or falls upon how the hero and heroine interact, how strong the chemistry is between them and on readers being able to buy into their relationship – and I’m afraid that’s where the book falls down. The author does a good job of making it clear that Martín is a very damaged individual, but his poor behaviour towards Sarah goes on for too long, and by the time he finally does start to show a bit of maturity, it’s too little too late. (I actually felt as though he’d had an overnight personality transplant.) He spends most of the book denying his attraction to Sarah – an attraction I never quite understood – and actively avoiding her; and while Sarah is an admirable character to start with – strong, determined and courageous – as the story progressed, I couldn’t understand what she actually saw in Martín and what drove her to forgive him over and over again other than his looks and abilities between the sheets.
Scandalous is obviously going to be polarising as some readers will be completely turned off by Martín’s behaviour towards Sarah, while others will be prepared to cut him some slack given his traumatic background. It’s not a perfect novel by any means, but it stands out from the current – rather disappointing – crop of historical romances due to its superb prose, well-developed characters, and interesting and unusual plotline. I’d have rated it more highly had the romance been more convincing and the leads more appealing, but ultimately, it engaged me and held my attention for the duration, so I’m giving it a cautious recommendation.