Let’s start off with the good news: Brenda Joyce returns to historical romance with a big, meaty story of a scope rarely found these days. Now for the bad: The book is filled with far too many retro elements, including an 18 year-old terminally spunky heroine and a hero whose behavior towards her borders on the sadistic. This guy isn’t just alpha, he’s downright mean.
Devlin O’Neill is one of those heroes whose entire life centers around revenge. His target is an understandable one: The English nobleman who murdered his Irish patriot father when he was a boy. Now a successful ship’s captain who functions as something like England’s officially sanctioned pirate, his legendary exploits have gained him both fame and a fortune – a fortune he’s used to bring his formerly wealthy enemy almost to his knees. When he learns that Virginia Hughes, the niece of the evil nobleman, is on a ship bound for England from America, he sees an opportunity to put the final nail in the coffin of his nemesis.
Virginia is a picked-on tomboy stuck in a school by her uncle – Devil’s evil foe – after the death of her parents. But, while the loss of her parents is traumatic enough, life turns even more bleak for Virginia when she learns that the uncle she’s never met is selling the plantation to settle her father’s debts. Deciding that only a personal plea for mercy will stop the sale, Virginia sets out for England.
Before her ship is able to land in England, however, Devlin steps in and in true piratical fashion seizes the ship and takes Virginia hostage. Understandably terrified of her hard-eyed captor, Virginia is even more so when she eventually learns of his plans to ransom her – a ransom her uncle will by honor have to pay – that will effectively ruin financially the man he’s loathed since boyhood.
Considering my affection for several of this author’s historicals and the DIK status that Splendor holds for me, I really looked forward to reading this book. But, while I was more than caught up in the scope and breadth of this novel and Ms. Joyce’s compulsively readable prose, my enjoyment was tempered by many disappointments.
Most heinous of these is the “hero.” Selfish, ruthless, and, yes, sadistic, his willingness to sacrifice anyone and everything in pursuit of his revenge added up to a character who is nothing less and nothing more than an uber-alpha jerk. And, frankly, Virginia’s love for him – and just what she’s basing her feelings upon other than physical appearance is beyond me – seems incredibly masochistic. I thought we’d moved past this kind of stuff in romance and sad to see its return here.
Secondly, the author’s obsession with thinness bordered on the neurotic. We are told dozens of times how tiny and thin the heroine is. She is, for example, “a skinny little thing” who is “more child than woman,” not to mention a “pint sized hellion” who possesses a tiny face in which her eyes are “impossibly huge” and yada, yada, yada. Most creepy of all, however, is the moment when a sailor muses that she is “as small as a child of thirteen.” I’m someone not generally prone to eeewwing, but, well, eeeeww. And, of course, on the opposite end of the spectrum, the slut Devlin dallies with is “fat” with “pendulous breasts.” In case you don’t get it by now, thin is good, fat is bad!
Frankly, child-woman heroines are anything but a favorite of mine and Virginia is a classic example of the genre. Even worse, she never really moves beyond the limitations of her extreme youth and inexplicable fascination with ruthless Devin. The author seems to find her an interesting young woman, but, sad to say, I never really did,
So, with all these problems, why is this book still a slightly better than average read? There’s something about loosing yourself in the pages of a sweeping saga, even when all the elements therein are not completely satisfying. So, despite the fact that Virginia was sometimes a twit and Devlin was always a jerk, I found myself eagerly enough turning the 500+ pages of this novel. Abductions, tearful departures, over the top melodrama, hot sex – it’s all here, ladies, and it’s hard not to give in to the guilty pleasures this kind of story can provide.
The Prize is definitive proof that Brenda Joyce knows very well how to write a sweep-you away kind of story and, despite its problems, it succeeded in doing that fairly satisfactorily for me. But I can’t help thinking that if the heroine in the next one were less of a child-woman, the hero less of a pig, and the plot slightly less cliched, she just might have something, indeed.