Those of you who have been complaining of cookie cutter romances – run out and get Hope Tarr’s Vanquished. It may be set in England during the Victorian period, but it’s very far from the usual historical romance. This is a serious and sometimes gritty book with a most unusual hero and heroine.
Harry Stone was born to a prostitute mother and grew up in a brothel. He ran away after one of his mother’s customers raped him, but was saved from living in the streets by the crusading prime minister William Gladstone. Gladstone sent Harry to an orphanage where he made several friends and was able to develop his love of photography. After he left the orphanage, Harry changed his name to Hadrian St. Claire and opened a photography studio in London.
Hadrian works hard, but he’s not immune to temptation. One evening he went to a gambling hell and lost quite a bit of money. The man who runs the gambling hell sent a couple of goons to rough up Hadrian and even carve the money out of his very hide, but he managed to persuade them to give him a couple of days to raise the cash and now he is trying to think of a way out of this mess.
Just as things look their worst, Josiah Dandridge, MP comes to the studio and offers Hadrian a large sum of money – more than enough to pay his debts – if he will photograph Caledonia Rivers in a compromising postion. Callie Rivers, known as the Maid of Mayfair, is a suffragist and one of the most eloquent speakers in the movement. Dandridge hates Callie, he hates the ideas she espouses and he wants to ruin her and the suffrage movement. Hadrian has no animus toward Callie, but he needs the money so he agrees. Hadrian listens to Callie speak and afterward, tells her that he has a commission to do a series of portraits of her. Hadrian knows that to get the picture Dandridge wants, he will have to seduce Callie and sets out on that course.
Callie is an interesting character and one of my favorite types – the intelligent outsider. Callie is not an ideal beauty. She is tall and has a generous bust and hips at a time when Society decrees that the petite blonde is the ideal. Because she has such a low opinion of herself, Callie is gauche and awkward. At her debut, she stumbled when she danced, she tripped over her train in the presence of the Queen and was generally a gawk and a wallflower. Despite her clumsy ways, Callie did receive a proposal, but cried off and ran away to her aunt when she heard her fiance describe her in a very crude manner. Callie has thrown herself heart and soul into the cause of suffrage and is well respected. She is not a proponent of civil disobedience like the Pankhursts, instead she relies on persuasion.
When Callie meets Hadrian, not only is there a deep physical attraction between them, but through him she comes to realize that there are other social issues that are just as important, if not more so, than votes for women. There is a fascinating scene where she meets some women who work in a match factory and gets drawn into their strike for better pay and better working conditions. (Click here for Wikipedia’s description and accompanying photo on phossy jaw.)
Hadrian, who came up in the world from about as low as one can start, is a fascinating character, and one with great compassion for the people who live, work, and suffer in the East End of London. Despite his good heart, Hadrian was a bit of a user, who never really formed a deep attachment to anyone before Callie came along. He began with the intention of using her, but as he comes to know and love her, he is quite prepared to take the consequences of his earlier actions. As for Dandridge, he is evil, but not just for the sake of being evil. There’s a reason behind his desire to ruin Callie and it all comes together in the climax of the novel.
The love scenes in this book are sensual, and like the love scenes in Mary Balogh’s books, they serve to illustrate the growing relationship between Callie and Hadrian. But I must warn the Gentle Reader, there is a scene of anal sex. I’m not uncomfortable with Erotica, the act between Callie and Hadrian is consensual, but anal sex pushes one of my hot buttons and I thought it was just plain icky. There is also a disturbing – but well-written – scene when Hadrian remembers being raped by one of his mother’s customers.
While I loved the characters in this book, it was the rich background that made it something special. Too often in romances, the characters live and move in a total vacuum, but this book the characters really get out in the street and it gives the reader a wonderful sense of the time and place in which it is set.
Hadrian has two friends, and according the the author’s website they will be getting their own stories in the future. I will be at the store with bells on. This is the kind of rich, meaty romance I very much enjoy. Bravo Hope Tarr!