The Rogue's Conquest
I loved Enchanting the Earl, the first book in Lily Maxton’s series about the Townsend siblings, which I called a “sweetly sensual character-driven romance” between a reclusive war hero and the free-spirited young woman who shows him that he’s a man worthy of love and acceptance. I was impressed by the way the author balanced the various elements of her story and by the strong characterisation – which extended to the secondary cast as well as the principals – so I eagerly snapped up the next in the series, The Rogue’s Conquest, in the hopes of finding it to be an equally satisfying and enjoyable read.
As is shown by my grade, that wasn’t quite the case. I didn’t dislike the story, but I didn’t really warm to either of the leads and never felt there was a strong romantic connection between them. The pacing is off, too, with most of the emotional weight of the story coming well into the second half, and I suspect that wasn’t helped by the fact that the book is quite short – something between a long novella and a short novel. The protagonists and their relationship are not given time to properly develop, plus, when it’s time for the hero to admit his perspective has been completely wrong, he is able to shed the beliefs and ambitions he’s held for pretty much all his life in less time than it takes to blink the proverbial eye.
With their brother, the Earl of Arden, now happily married and residing with his wife at his remote castle in the highlands, his siblings Robert, Eleanor and Georgina, have removed to Edinburgh. As close relations of an earl, they move in good society but Eleanor isn’t very interested in that; she is more concerned with the societal habits of insects – specifically, beetles – than the societal habits of humans. She has written several papers on entomology which have been published by the Natural History Society and has been invited to give a lecture – but of course, the society does not allow women members and Eleanor had to present her work as that of a man – Cecil Townsend – rather than as herself.
Robert and Georgiana know how important Eleanor’s work is to her, and surprisingly, Georgiana encourages Eleanor to give her lecture in disguise; people see what they expect to see, and with Eleanor being tall for a woman, it should be quite easy for her to pass as Cecil with a few props and if she can alter her voice sufficiently.
Eleanor, who is reserved and somewhat awkward around people can’t believe she’s considering doing such a scandalous thing – if she’s ever discovered, she will be ruined and so, by extension, will Georgina – but with the encouragement of both siblings she gives the lecture with great success.
It’s afterwards that her problems begin, however. One of the attendees, a man named James MacGregor who looks more like a prizefighter than a scientist, somehow sees through Eleanor’s disguise when nobody else has, and offers her a deal. He won’t reveal she’s a woman if she will gain him an entrée to her circle and introduce him to Lady Sarah, the daughter of the Earl of Lark.
While big, brawny, good-looking and the owner of a fairly successful boxing saloon, James has an inferiority complex the size of Scotland. He’s the bastard son of the Duke of Sheffield, who has made it abundantly clear to James that he despises him and wants nothing to do with him, and yet James allows his father’s disdain to rule his life. He wants to meet Lady Sarah because he believes that if he can court her and marry her, then he will have shown the Duke that he isn’t a failure and is worth something after all. As Eleanor realises later in the book, James “was bending over backward to fit into a Society that didn’t want him, to prove himself to a man who’d abandoned him.” And he’s been doing it practically all his life.
Unwilling to risk exposure, Eleanor agrees to do as James asks, and over the ensuing days and weeks, she introduces him around and eventually makes him known to Lady Sarah. While not a gentlemen born and bred, James acquits himself well, and although their relationship might not have begun under the most auspicious of circumstances, Eleanor starts to think of James as a friend… and then as something more than a friend. He’s the one person who really sees beyond the socially awkward wallflower to the stubborn, dedicated woman Eleanor really is, and she comes out of her shell when she’s with him. But although Eleanor suspects that James has become fond of her, too, he’s still set on marrying another woman purely because he wants to gain the approval he can’t accept that his father is never going to give.
The book is well written and I enjoyed the snarky conversations between James and Eleanor, but ultimately, they’re fairly one-note characters, especially James, who is suffering from a severe case of tunnel vision. The premise also requires rather a large suspension of disbelief concerning Eleanor’s masquerade as Cecil – a wig, a pair of glasses, men’s clothing and bound breasts seems to be all it takes to be taken for a chap – and it’s also remarkably easy for James, a man who works for his living, to be accepted into the social circles in which the Townsends move.
Had The Rogue’s Conquest been longer, I am sure that Ms. Maxton could have smoothed out those wrinkles, spent time creating more fully-rounded personalities for her principals and then in developing a stronger, more emotionally satisfying romance between them. As it stands, the book is a bit of a missed opportunity. There’s some great material here when it comes to Eleanor’s desire to be taken seriously as a scientist and in James’ needing to learn what’s really important and what isn’t, but it all needed a longer page-count to be properly wrought together into a stronger, more cohesive whole.