The first twenty-five percent or so of Janna MacGregor’s début novel, The Bad Luck Bride, had me eagerly turning the pages, so thoroughly drawn was I into the story of a man who was so bent on revenge upon the former friend he held responsible for the death of his sister, that he would go to any lengths to completely ruin him, even going so far as to steal his fiancée. Unfortunately however, at around that point, the first of what turned out to be several rather flimsy misunderstandings made its appearance and although I was still interested to discover where the story was headed, my former enthusiasm had waned. There were also a number of issues – choppy writing, odd word choices – that took me out of the story on several occasions, as well as inconsistencies in the characterisation of both principals that were impossible to ignore and which have affected my final rating.
Alex Hallworth, Marquess of Pembrooke is distraught with grief over the suicide of his beloved sister, and is determined to exact rather more than a pound of flesh from the man he believes fathered the child she carried and was thus responsible for her final desperate act. When a friend prevents Alex issuing a challenge to Lord Paul Barstowe, he turns instead to a far more devious manner of engineering the man’s downfall. Knowing that Barstowe is deeply in debt as a result of his liking for high-stakes gaming, Alex secretly arranges for him to receive all the credit he asks for and then buys up all his debts, putting the other man completely at his mercy. The final humiliation is that Barstowe must break his betrothal to a wealthy heiress, Lady Claire Cavensham, the daughter of the late Duke of Langham, a young woman whose “bad luck” in having suffered three broken betrothals (for good reasons) has made her … if not quite a laughing stock, then someone who is frequently a subject of gossip among the ton.
Alex plans to marry the lady himself, but knows he’s got his work cut out for him given that Barstowe will be ex-fiancé number four. But, well, Alex is tall, dark, handsome and wickedly charming, so I’m not giving away any secrets when I say that he manages things to his satisfaction, although not without a hiccup or two along the way. Up to this point, I was fully engaged with the story, wondering when and how the cat was going to be let out of the bag and what angsty twists and turns would follow. But then, during a discussion just a couple of days before the wedding, when Alex jumps to a not completely unreasonable conclusion about Claire – a misunderstanding which is quickly corrected, I might add – she decides that he doesn’t trust her and that she can’t marry him. Having some inkling that she might try to bolt, Alex unfortunately compounds his mistake by laying a wager under a false name (sort of) which backs Claire into a corner and gives her no alternative but to go through with the wedding.
After the ceremony, the newly-weds travel to Alex’s estate, which is close to Claire’s old home. She’s aloof and off-hand with him for a few days, but it’s not long before Claire begins to soften towards her new husband and to enjoy the time spent in his company. It’s the same for Alex. Even as he was preparing to marry Claire as part of his revenge upon Barstowe, he couldn’t help but recognise that he was attracted to her and that he actually wanted to marry her for herself. They find themselves bonding over the care of the tenants and villagers, and Alex is delighted with the way his bride settles into her role as his marchioness and lady of the manor. Of course, it’s just a matter of time before the serpent is introduced into Eden in the form of Claire’s discovering the truth about Alex’s manipulations, and, quite naturally, wanting nothing more to do with him.
While I think The Bad Luck Bride has the makings of a good historical romance, the execution is messy and overall, the story lacks focus. There are too many different plot-threads thrown in and the motivations of the characters are not always clear. But as I said at the beginning, the biggest stumbling block(s) relate to the flimsiness of the devices used to create the conflict between the hero and heroine. We already have the fact that the truth of Alex’s machinations is hanging over his head like the Sword of Damocles, but the author has to throw in the misunderstanding I mentioned earlier, AND give Claire a tortured past which involved witnessing the deaths of her parents in tragic circumstances, plus three broken betrothals, all of which have made her believe she is under some sort of curse. Despite several attempts early on to have it seem as though Claire is dismissive of it, it’s clear she actually believes she’s cursed, and that was a stretch too far for me.
The characterisation is inconsistent, too. There’s no question that Alex is manipulative, and that he would of course show his most attractive, charming side to the woman he is wooing, but apart from at the very beginning, he never really gives off a ruthless or dangerous vibe. Sure, he’s the hero and not the villain, but there’s never any doubt that he’s honourable and protective and all the things readers expect of a romantic hero. One of the reasons I picked this book up for review was because I like a redeemed bad-boy and had hoped that that was to be Alex’s journey; but there’s absolutely no ‘edge’ to him and he’s fairly bland when it comes down to it. And Claire… well, among the things that attract Alex so strongly are her dignity and inner strength, yet for much of the book she doesn’t appear to possess either of those things. I couldn’t really connect with either character – never a good thing in a romance – and at times their behaviour made little to no sense.
With all that said, however, I do think that Janna MacGregor shows promise as an author of historical romance. She needs to smooth out her prose – the sex scenes in particular are very “He did this. Then he did that. Then she did this.” – and take a bit more care with some of her word choices and phrasing. The novel would also have benefitted from a firmer editorial hand to help weed out some of the extraneous plot developments and craft stronger and more plausible motivations for the characters. I’m certainly going to keep an eye out for more of Ms. MacGregor’s work – although I might wait until she’s got a few more books under her belt before I pick up another one in the hope that she’s been able to iron out the first time bugs. Anyone looking to try a new author might like to give The Bad Luck Bride a whirl, but should be advised that while it’s not the worst historical romance I’ve read this year, it’s not the best, either.
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