The Bourbon Kings
I have read a few of J. R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood books and found them entertaining, but did not have quite the same enthusiasm as many of the fans of that series. So, I was somewhat intrigued to see she was writing a contemporary romance based on southern characters. Being born and raised in Alabama, I am always interested in how people south of the Mason-Dixon line are portrayed in fiction. Let’s just say I was a little disappointed in this book. There were more ups and downs in this book than a roller coaster at Six Flags Over Georgia.
Lizzie King is the head horticulturist at the Charlemont, Kentucky estate of Easterly and has been for a number of years. Easterly has been in the Bradford family for generations since the first Charlemont Bradford created a bourbon whiskey finer than any other. The current generation of the Bradford bourbon dynasty is actually headed by patriarch William Balmaine who married into the Bradford family and is supposed to be holding the company for the Bradford heirs. He has four children: Edward, Tulane (“Lane”), Max and Gin. This is Lizzie and Lane’s story. Lizzie met Lane while working at the estate and they fell quickly and madly in love. Then Lane discovers that his prior girlfriend Chantal is pregnant with his child. His father (who is the ultimate in abusive parents) forces Lane to marry the society lady to protect the family honor. When Lane tries to explain the situation to Lizzie, she shuts him down and completely cuts him out of her life. The book begins two years later…
For two years, Lane has been hiding out on his college roommate’s couch in New Jersey and passing the time playing high stakes poker. When he gets a phone call from home telling him that his maid, nanny, cook and surrogate mother Miss Aurora has been hospitalized for a heart problem, he dutifully, but reluctantly, heads home. Unfortunately the timing could not be worse as this is right before the Charlemont Derby, the premier social event of the season. It is also a very busy time for the gardening crew at Easterly as they prepare for the annual Bradford family derby garden party. Lane knows he will be unable to avoid running into Lizzie. He will also have to face his wife whom he has not seen since the wedding, and his brother Edward who has become a hermit since he was kidnapped and tortured in South America. But wait…there is also his drug-addled mother, his abusive father and his promiscuous sister to contend with as well. Is it any wonder he has been living on a couch?
Despite Lane’s trepidation, it does not take long for the spark to re-ignite between himself and Lizzie, but Lizzie is understandably reticent. When Chantal is served divorce papers at Easterly, Lizzie begins to hope that there is still a chance for her and Lane to reforge their relationship. But Lane is barely home a day when a murder takes place on the grounds and it becomes evident very quickly that things are amiss with the Bradford finances and his father William is at the very heart of it.
Where to begin? I started the book and put it down for weeks because the author immediately hit upon one of my pet peeves as a southerner. “Y’all” is a PLURAL pronoun! It is a contraction of “you all” and always means more than one person. “All y’all” refers to an entire group rather than a subset of two or more individual people. However, the author continuously uses it as a singular pronoun. I read the forward to the book and it seems that J.R. Ward is a northern transplant to the south. I appreciate her wanting to set the book in her new homeland, but if one is not sure, then one should avoid using the term at all, in my very humble opinion.
Next, we have the stereotype of the Black Mammy who mothers the neglected rich, white children. Not only do we have this stereotype of an African American woman in service to their white “betters”, the author adds insult to injury when she makes Miss Aurora the Christian conscience of the Balmaine children complete with a gospel church and the aunt to pro athlete nephews. I think she hit almost every African-American stereotype in one fell swoop. Also, the father is an absolute patriarchy caricature. There is absolutely nothing redeeming about the man. I felt like the author tried to throw everything but the kitchen sink into the book and then sit back and see what stuck. The term wallpaper romance is frequently used as a criticism in historical novels, but this is the first time I have encountered something similar in a contemporary: A modern story that is structured as a throwback to an earlier era.
There were some bright spots in the story that saved the book for me from total failure. I liked both Lizzie and Lane and was rooting for their HEA, even though the romance was not as central as I would have liked. The eldest son Edward was also an intriguing character and the author sets up his situation very well for a future book. The mystery of the missing finances was intriguing through three-fourths of the book, but we are left with somewhat of a cliffhanger at the end. The villain was such an awful character, but the secret of what drove him to do what he did remained a secret at the end of the book and that may have been what saved the story for me. I wanted to find out what happened and why.
So even though this book was, for the most part, a hot mess, I care enough about the characters as J.R. Ward wrote them to find out what happens in the next installment of their stories. There was enough of a story hidden in between the Dynasty/Dallas meets Upstairs/Downstairs makeovers to make me interested enough to read the next book in the series if is written and published, but I hope the author cleans up and refines the next book before publication.