Stealing the Rogue's Heart
One of the things that long-time readers of historical romance frequently discuss is the fact that the genre is awash in heroes and heroines from the aristocracy and that we’d really like to see more historicals featuring lower and middle class characters. I think anyone who has been around romancelandia for any length of time will be able to hazard a guess as to the reason for all-the-noblemen-all-the-time; in a nutshell – dukes sell and publishers are reluctant to take a chance on books that don’t feature at least one noble protagonist. Fortunately for those of us who like to take a break from the toffs, there are some writers who frequently write stories featuring “ordinary” men and women. Carla Kelly and Marguerite Kaye are two notable examples, and another such is Erica Monroe, whose Rookery Rogues books feature characters from the opposite end of the social scale.
Although Stealing the Rogue’s Heart is book four in the Rookery Rogues series, it can easily be read as a standalone. The couple whose story was told in book one, A Dangerous Invitation, make cameo appearances, but anyone new to the series could easily start here and not feel lost; in fact, I got the impression that Ms. Monroe has used the novella to introduce a new set of potential heroes and heroines as well as to tell the story of the romance between the sister of one of London’s most feared crime-lords and her childhood friend – who is, unfortunately, a member of a rival gang. (That isn’t a complaint, because now I know I’ve got more to look forward to in this well-written and unusual series.)
Mina Mason has had a privileged upbringing owing to the fact that her oldest brother, Joaquin (Quinn) is the leader of the Kings, one of the three gangs operating in East London. Her life has been a sheltered one; as the only female in the family, she has been sheltered from the nastier parts of her brother’s business, but, now aged nineteen, she is beginning to see that while the bars she lives behind might be gilded, she’s nonetheless living in a cage.
Once a week for the past four years, she has been allowed to spend a few of hours of a Friday evening at The Three Boars pub, where her childhood friend, Charlie Thatcher works as a barman. The Boars is considered to be the meeting house of the Chapman Street Gang, one of her brother’s main rivals, but Mina’s presence is tolerated; after all, she’s only a woman and doesn’t need to bother her pretty little head with men’s business. The attraction of the place for her is twofold; for one thing, Mina can just be herself, a woman with her own life rather than a princess locked in an ivory tower. And for another, she comes to see Charlie, the gangly boy grown into a handsome young man for whom she feels much more than mere friendship.
Charlie grew up in the Rookeries, and was just seven years old when he first met Mina Mason. He had been badly beaten by a mark for trying to steal from him and, battered and bloody, ended up on the steps of the King of Spades gambling hell where Mina saw him and sneaked out with some bread and cheese. She’d tended his wounds and made him laugh – and the two have been firm friends ever since. Not long after this, Charlie was saved from another vicious beating by members of the Chapman Street gang and inducted into their number – and Chapman’s is one of King’s main rivals. While Charlie and Mina haven’t exactly had to keep their friendship a secret, it’s not something they advertise, and, with Mina’s brother arranging to betroth her to a man old enough to be her father for the connections he can bring to the gang, it looks as though they will soon be parted forever.
One particular Friday night, however, things go badly awry when Mina is accosted by a drunken member of Chapman’s. Her bodyguard is preoccupied with one of the tavern wenches, and so it’s Charlie who comes to her aid, landing several punches before other members of the gang get involved and the whole thing turns into a full-scale brawl. Mina’s friend, Jane (who was formerly engaged to Mina’s other brother, Cyrus) helps to get her to safety, but that one unfortunate incident is set to destroy the already fragile truce that exists between the two gangs. And on a personal level, things aren’t looking good for Charlie, whose loyalties are now called into question because he stood up for a Mason against one of his own.
It’s a familiar set up that goes farther back than Romeo and Juliet and comes bang up to date in the current trend for contemporary “mafia/gang-culture” romances. The loyalties are fierce, the violence is not sugar-coated and Ms. Monroe’s descriptive prose really puts the reader slap-bang in the middle of the muddy streets and dank alleyways of the East End of London or sits them at the bar in the crowded, smoke-filled, gin-scented pub.
She packs a lot into this novella, but I never felt as though she’d tried to do too much. There’s plenty of action and suspense in the story, but at its heart is the relationship between Charlie and Mina, two people who have always been there for each other and who know they’re meant to be together. They’re engaging, likeable characters, although there are a couple of times when Mina comes across as desperately – and perhaps implausibly – naïve, and Charlie seems to underestimate the depth of the shitpile he’s fallen into, which doesn’t ring quite true for a chap who, let’s face it, commits crimes for a living. But overall, the characterisation is solid, the story is well-paced and the depth of feeling between Mina and Charlie is convincingly and vividly depicted.
If you haven’t read anything by Erica Monroe before and are feeling just a little bit tired of titled heroes, then Stealing the Rogue’s Heart would be the perfect introduction to the seamier, darker side of pre-Victorian London and this author’s world of ordinary men and women doing what they must to keep body and soul together. The earlier books in the series are also well worth reading, and I’m already looking forward to the next, which is due for release in the Summer.