The Dark Viscount
After a much-too-long absence, Deborah Simmons returns with The Dark Viscount, a Regency-set tale with a gothic feel to it. I had very, very high hopes for this book since I count several of Simmons’ tales, especially The Devil Earl and The Last Rogue, some of best historical romances ever. Alas, a hero and heroine who spend almost the entire book glowering at each other and a potentially exciting but very rushed ending made this only a slightly above average read.
Kit Marchant and his sister Sydony had a very happy childhood growing up next to the Viscount Hawthorne’s family. Their kind, scholarly father gave them a good education and let them romp and play as much as they wanted to, and they took full advantage of it spending many happy hours with Bartholomew (Barto) Hawthorne, until he went away to Eton. When the Marchant siblings were in their early 20s, Mr. Marchant and Viscount Hawthorne were both killed in a carriage accident. Kit and Syd stayed on in their home until the lease payments got to be a bit too high. Happily for them, their great aunt, Elspeth Marchant left them her estate, Oakfield. Kit and Syd have great plans for Oakfield, until they actually see the place.
While not derelict, Oakfield is shabby and run down. The lands around it are fertile, but most of the tenants have left the farms, the house is shuttered and gloomy, and there are no servants in residence. When Kit and Syd try to hire some help, they find that residents of the town are afraid of Oakfield. Some don’t mind working in the house, but no one wants to work outside and they are especially fearful of the great maze and giant oak tree that dominate the back of the house. They also discover that Elspeth had gone a bit mad in her last years and tried to burn most of the books in the library.
Almost at the Marchant’s heels, Barto arrives at Oakfield. However, he is no longer their old companion. Barto is stiff, suspicious, and formal and this puts Syd off immediately. Barto has come to Oakfield in search of information about his father’s death, which is connected with with one of the books that was in Elspeth Marchant’s library, a book about the Druids. Barto’s father was a member of a Masonic Druid group and the scholarly Mr. Marchant would have been interested in anything regarding British history, but should a book have been the cause of a carriage accident? They also discover that Ambrose Mallory, the man who built Oakfield, was a Druid, not one like Barto’s father, but a real human-sacrificing Druid…and there are still people around who follow his ways.
This was another curate’s egg book – parts of it were excellent. The description of Oakfield and its maze was very well done and quite spooky. Kit was a wonderful, sensible man and quite a change from the usual wastrel brother who drinks/wenches/gambles away the family fortune while leaving his sister destitute. Barto and Syd were (separately) quite likable and intelligent. It’s when they get together that things go downhill.
Barto comes to Oakfield with a chip on his shoulder and a scowl on his face. He knows a little bit of information about his father’s death and seems to think the Marchants are keeping secrets from him. There is much musing about “can I trust her?” on his part, while Syd fumes and feels that Barto is too high in the instep. Syd is also conflicted about a time when she kissed Barto, back when they were kids, and she feels guilty/aroused about it for some reason or another. I never quite got a hold on exactly why she felt that way. As for sexual tension between them…..well it’s negated by their bad attitudes. Eventually they both realize that they love each other just in time for Syd to get abducted by a Druid who wants to practice augury with her entrails.
I can’t help but feel that if The Dark Viscount was longer, it would have been a lot better. I think with a few more chapters, Deborah Simmons could have gone into more depth as to why Barto comes to Oakfield trailing Bad Attitude (evidently he had unresolved Issues with his father and he is jealous of the carefree and loving relationship Kit and Syd had with their father). I also wish we could have had some flashbacks to when they were all children and seen the dynamics Syd had with Barto and her brother.
Despite my problems with it, I had a mostly good time while reading this book. Deborah Simmons is a very fine writer with a smooth and engaging style and I have missed her books. I’d like to see Kit Marchant get his own story. He is such a nice guy that I think he’d make a wonderful beta hero.