The Storybook Hero
It is a rare Regency Romance indeed that can tackle adult issues while still maintaining the usual light, spirited Regency tone. With only a few caveats, The Storybook Hero does just that, giving me another author to add to my glom list.
Octavia Hadley is penniless, and rather than foolishly turn her nose up at the only opportunity for survival that has been offered, she is on board a ship to Russia to take a position as governess for a young English girl. Octavia does not think she is particularly attractive and does not believe she will ever marry. She is more than a little nervous (and quite seasick) about the unknown future that awaits her, but accepts it, nevertheless, with commendable common sense. She is brave (but not foolhardy), smart, funny, and capable – while never being outlandishly feisty. In short, Octavia is someone who would make a great friend.
Alexander Sheffield, on the other hand, is a deplorable rake, a man who seems hell-bent on destruction; he is most definitely not the sexy, bored kind of rake that a good woman can easily reform (at least in fiction, anyway). Just about everyone in his family (including himself) think he was responsible for his brother’s death, and so he spends his time drinking, wenching, and gambling – and making sure everyone knows it . His uncle, the only family member who still believes in him, asks that Alexander travel to Russia to bring back a young cousin, a twelve year-old boy who has lost his mother and whose uncle will stop at nothing to steal his fortune. The family believes this trip will either be the making of Alexander, or will free them from having to deal with him anymore since he’ll continue his destructive lifestyle in far away Russia.
On the boat, Alexander nurses his seasickness with brandy. When he’s drunk and the ship is roiling, he encounters Octavia, and the sparks fly when he insults her and she delivers a telling blow right back at him. Once they leave the ship, each heads off in their own direction but thoughts of the other intrude. They run into one another unexpectedly when both adults have been forced to try to take their respective twelve year-old charges back to England. When the two females run into trouble, Alexander arrives in the nick of time to save the day, just like a storybook hero. Given the perilous circumstances – Napoleon’s army marching into Russia, the Russian army marching around, too – as well as the cold, the two decide to team up to try to get the children to safety. Since Octavia does not know Alexander’s history, she takes him at face value, and during the course of their travels together he is clever, brave, self-sacrificing, funny and capable. Despite the cold, hunger and danger, Alexander and Octavia manage to fall in love, both becoming better people as a result of their deepening relationship. (In Alexander’s case, honestly, it’s not too hard to improve. He was a cad.)
Their growing relationship depends on their mutual attraction, yes, but also on their respective strengths and shortcomings. Octavia is a no-nonsense, take-charge person, but she is also able to see when she cannot handle a situation by herself. Since he is accustomed to disappointing everyone around him, Alexander finds it wonderful that Octavia respects his ideas, opinions and leadership. All in all, it seems clear that each is the missing piece of the other, and the united couple is much better than their separate halves. Eventually, of course, he becomes the Storybook Hero of the title, even though at the book’s onset the title would be bestowed only in irony.
The only shortfalls of the book are the depiction of Alexander’s siblings. They are cookie cutter characters, and their reform happens much less realistically than Alexander’s does. The family also does something that seems a bit far-fetched, but to reveal more would be a spoiler.
The unusual setting, understated but effective use of historical details, and the realistic portrayals of the hero, heroine, and the children, make The Storybook Hero a deep Regency Romance, a phrase which is often an oxymoron. I found myself wishing that this were a full-length historical so I could spend more time with Alexander and Octavia.