Song for Sophia is a thoroughly entertaining and generally well-written romance which features a pair of engaging and unusual protagonists and a well- crafted “heroine-in-peril” plot.
Lady Anne-Sophronia Dunscombe is on the run from her violent and abusive father (there do seem to be rather a lot of those in historical romances these days!) and has disguised herself as a housemaid in the home of the eccentric and rumored-insane Wilhelm Montegue, Earl of Devon. He is immediately aware that his newest member of staff is no housemaid and is both intrigued by and attracted to her, determined to find out what could possibly have happened to a young woman of good breeding to have made her enter domestic service.
Historical Romances in which the lord of the manor becomes involved with a servant (even when the servant in question is actually an aristocrat in disguise) always require a certain stretching of one’s credulity, as in reality, the paths of those at the top of the social strata and those at the very bottom would hardly have crossed. But by the time the enigmatic earl and his new housemaid begin to interact, I was already so intrigued by them and drawn in by the mystery surrounding Sophia that I was prepared to accept the premise and keep reading.
Sophia literally stumbles across her new employer one evening while on a late walk in the garden, but has no idea of his identity. A few days and another accident-prone meeting serve to apprise both of them of the other’s position in the household, and master and servant very quickly fall into an irreverent banter and game of one-upmanship. That Sophia, supposedly trying to hide away incognito, should so quickly respond to Devon’s teasing does require rather a large suspension of disbelief, but the dialogue is witty, the sparks are flying and I’ve never before come across a flirtation conducted in quite the same manner, which made the whole thing so delightful that I was able to suspend my disbelief quite happily.
In fact, it quickly became clear that this was going to be one of those books which was going to require a number of similar suspensions, but which was captivating nonetheless because of the depth to the characterization, the way the romance developed and the quality of the story overall.
Another factor that contributes to the book’s success is the sense – which leaps off the page – of Wilhelm’s larger-than-life personality, his almost overwhelming self-confidence and the fact that he doesn’t give a damn what anybody thinks of him. In the first few chapters, Ms Densley draws a portrait of a truly fascinating man who, despite massive flaws, is incredibly attractive and utterly compelling.
Wilhelm is a tortured soul whose particular “gifts” were pounced upon and heavily used during the recent war in the Crimea, where he served as a spy and assassin. He’s a savant – a mathematical and musical genius with a photographic memory, which obviously made him an excellent choice as a courier and spymaster. In addition, he appears to suffer from OCD and PTSD, and he is prone to sudden “trances”, when he withdraws into himself and his world of music and numbers. He is widely rumored to be both insane and homosexual, but is utterly and genuinely dismissive of society’s opinion. His wartime occupations and the horrors he suffered are revealed slowly, which works well to increase the reader’s curiosity and to perpetuate the sense that there is much more to this man than meets the eye.
Sophia is also surrounded by a mystery which is only gradually revealed. Right at the beginning of the book, it’s made clear that she’s suffered physical violence and has been deeply affected by it. As her attraction to Wilhelm deepens, she finds it harder and harder to confess the truth to him because she does not want to place him in any danger. Her father is up to his neck in debt, but his lands are entailed and he is unable to liquidate them in order to pay off his creditors. He tries to force Sophia to marry one of his cronies, the plan being to get her pregnant as fast as possible and then claim the entailed lands through her son, although I’m not completely sure how this would have worked in terms of the legalities.
The romance between these two damaged individuals unfolds slowly and naturally as they come to know and gain a sincere appreciation of each other. Sophia, intelligent, tough, and compassionate, is completely accepting of Wilhelm’s eccentricities and comes to esteem him and value him as a person. For his part, Wilhelm has been so used to being regarded as a social pariah, that he is somewhat taken aback to discover that Sophia sees past the rumors and his oddness. But realizing that she sees beyond the gossip and what he terms his “illness” gives him the impetus to aspire towards making himself a better man for her. And he, in turn, shows Sophia tenderness and affection, offering her a happiness and freedom she’d never thought to have. In that way, theirs is very much a relationship of equals, and I thought it was very well-written; tender, sensual, and laced with humor.
The road to happiness is not travelled without a few bumps along the way, most of which are supplied by the machinations of Sophia’s father to force her to return to him and submit to his demands. He does not appear in person in the book until almost the end of it, but that works well, as his malevolence pervades the story, almost always in the background, but always there. This element of the story is well-executed at an almost breathless pace as Wilhelm hatches a plan to free Sophia once and for all, his Machiavellian dealings and maneuverings stretching far and wide as his scheme takes shape.
I said at the outset that this was one of those books where it was no hardship to embark on a slightly greater suspension of disbelief than one might normally find necessary in a romance novel. The storyline was very well conceived, the characterization excellent, and there was plenty of humour and sexual tension between the leads. But there were a couple of things I just couldn’t ignore which caused me to lower my overall grade.
Firstly, the book ‘proper’ ends on one hell of a cliffhanger. That’s not to say that Sophia and Wilhelm don’t get their HEA – of course they do, but we only learn that to be the case in the epilogue. I’ve always thought that a book should come to a satisfactory conclusion regardless of whether there is an epilogue or not, and because the final chapter ends with such a big question mark, I did feel rather let down and found the epilogue to be an anti-climax.
Then there was an odd quirk in Ms Densley’s writing style which I tried very hard not to notice, but which happened so often that in the end, it was impossible to ignore. Frequently, if felt as though she was starting a sentence part-way through; for example
“Years since he’d allowed himself the weakness of…” instead of “It had been years since he’d allowed himself the weakness of …” Or “Lovely, how he seemed content…” Instead of “It was lovely, how he seemed content…”
I know that starting a sentence without the first couple of words is not uncommon when one is speaking, but in print it looks rather odd and after a while, I found it quite intrusive. There was one page when it seemed like every sentence started in this way, and it was incredibly annoying!
There were a few Americanisms littered around (we don’t have faucets, we have taps, for example); and at times the author used completely the wrong word choice. For example:
”Today she’d been clearly outshined” when the correct usage is outshone.
And – in one of the love scenes, we’re told that Sophia “braised her teeth” over Wilhelm’s shoulder. As far as I know, braising is a way of cooking meat, which I’m sure isn’t want the author intended to convey!
Despite those things, however, I thoroughly enjoyed Song for Sophia. Ms Densley is clearly a very talented author and she has crafted a compelling, entertaining and emotionally satisfying story featuring a couple of very well drawn and engaging protagonists. I will definitely be on the lookout for more of her work although I strongly hope that her next endeavor might receive a more thorough proofreading before its release.