An interesting hero and a deeply conflicted heroine barely compensated for my frustration over secrets that were kept too long in Madeline Hunter’s latest. I almost gave up caring about the heroine, because it took so long for her to reveal what motivated her thoughts and actions.
A chance encounter in the middle of a country night brings Dante Duclairc, fleeing from his creditors, in contact with his brother’s former fiancée, Fleur Monley. After the betrothal ended, Fleur retired from public life. She devotes herself – and a large portion of her sizable inheritance – to Good Works. Lately she’s been drawing up plans for a mysterious Grand Project (that’s how the author refers to it, capital letters and all), but opposition from her stepfather puts that, as well as her personal autonomy, in jeopardy. Faced with the threat of being declared incompetent, a desperate Fleur makes a bold offer to Dante: a marriage in name only, whereby she will pay all his debts in return for his agreement to let her manage her money as she wishes, no questions asked. He’ll be free to continue sleeping his way through Society, because Fleur has no interest in that aspect of married life.
Well. Never tell a rake you’re impervious to seduction. In spite of his promise to her, Dante begins to feel an attraction to Fleur, as well as mounting curiosity about what she’s doing with her time and money – and with whom she’s spending both. For her part, in spite of her assurances to the contrary, Fleur learns that she’s more intrigued by the thought of physical intimacy with her husband. As they grow closer, both emotionally and physically, the fragile balance of their world grows more precarious. A physical assault forces the issues between them into the spotlight, where both Fleur and Dante must find the courage to be honest with each other, or risk losing everything.
For the first fifty or so pages, something niggled and gnawed at me, and I couldn’t quite figure it out, but I knew my reading experience was nowhere near as pleasant as I’d hoped it would be. Then it hit me: Hunter’s writing style had set up an unintentional barrier between me and her story. It was most evident in the dialogue, which I found stilted and artificially formal, with nary a contraction in sight. People just don’t talk in “I am”s and “you are”s all the time – and I doubt they did in the nineteenth century, either. Whatever happened to “I’m” or “you’re”?
Which brings up another point: The Sinner suffers from series-itis. It presumes knowledge of its predecessors, which detracts from its ability to stand alone. There are lots of references to prior heroes and heroines and the natures of their courtships and marriages, and their relationships to both Fleur and Dante. Moreover, this presumption reaches even to the time period in which the story takes place. I would have appreciated just a note at the beginning of the book, something along the lines of “Somewhere in the English countryside, 18-whenever”. Luckily for me, the copy I read had excerpts from the others in the series tucked away in the back, so I was able to place the story within at least ten years – I think. A major plot point hinges on technological advances of the era, but that doesn’t come up until well past the book’s midpoint.
Which brings up yet another point: the author held back for too long on Fleur’s secrets. There’s something to be said for withholding information from the reader – but only for a while, beyond which a writer treads a fine line between cultivating impatience and breeding indifference in her reader. Sure, let the characters keep secrets from each other, but don’t keep the reader in the dark for two-thirds of the book. For me, it was a near-run thing: I grew so exasperated that I honestly don’t know whether I’d have finished the book if I hadn’t been reading it for review.
In spite of all the above, there’s a nifty love story between these covers. Dante is a rake who really does rue his past, and he grows as a person, learning to develop a believable passion for only one woman. Fleur’s inner struggle is one that rang true for me; it’s not just some made-up, “oh, my heroine needs some nebulous conflict” sort of thing. She grapples with it all through the story, and when she finally conquers it -by sheer strength of will – you’ll cheer for her.
I was less enchanted with the exterior conflict; if I’d known sooner the enormity of Fleur’s stake in its successful resolution, I might have cared more. If you’ve read the other previous books in this quartet, you’ll probably get way more out of The Sinner than I did. I would definitely recommend that newcomers not begin with this book. It’s hardly the place to start.