I have to admit that I loved being prompted to read a historical this month. Historicals and gothics were my first loves, but my reading habits have evolved over time, and I don’t read as many as I used to. And as frequent readers here well know, Caz is something of a historical maven, so between the two of us, we had a lovely time reading this month.

The Devil You Know by Sophia Holloway

The “historical” prompt in the TBR Challenge always used to be something of a busman’s holiday for yours truly, because in the past, I read historical romance almost exclusively.  But the scarcity of really good HR on offer over the past couple of years has seen a bit of a change in my reading habits, and I’ve turned more and more often to other sub-genres to find what I crave from romance novels.  Still, HR remains my first love and when looking through my Kindle for likely prospects, I decided on a relatively new release, Sophia Holloway’s The Devil You Know from 2017, which, while having a few flaws and treading a well-worn path, was nonetheless an enjoyable read from an author with a distinctive voice and a deft touch.

Kitty Elford, half-sister of Lord Bidford, is furious when her brother announces he’s basically sold her hand in marriage to a notorious rake because his – Bidford’s – betrothed refuses to set foot in the house until Kitty leaves it.  Kitty is given no choice in the matter, and reasons that marriage to George Anstruther, Earl of Ledbury, is preferable to remaining under her obnoxious, penny-pinching brother’s roof, so when the prospective groom arrives to make his offer, Kitty makes no bones about accepting.

“I do not consider myself a romantic, my lord.  I do not think that rakes reform, so I am unlikely to be shocked by your behaviour, however disappointing.”

Ledbury isn’t completely sure how he ended up conversing with Bidford and agreeing to offer for the man’s half-sister – having  been a little foxed at the time – but he needs an heir and the lady’s generous dowry is certainly not something to be sneezed at. He has to marry someone, so why not the Honourable Catherine Elford?  Being married won’t change anything much; he can continue to cut a swathe through the beds of the married ladies of the ton and “a sensible woman who would let him continue in his way of life without fuss” will be just the thing.

The bulk of the story deals with how these two complete strangers set about navigating the waters of their marriage, and it’s charming for the most part, watching Kitty and Ledbury forge the beginnings of a relationship.  After a disastrous wedding night (which is simply referred to – this is a ‘closed door’ romance) – for which Ledbury is brought to see he should take most of the blame, seeing as his bride is (or was) a complete innocent – Ledbury determines to try to do better, determining that if he’s to have that ‘comfortable’ marriage he’s envisaged, he should perhaps try to be friends with his new wife.  In order to do that, however, he’ll need to approach Kitty in a completely different manner to all the other women who have fallen under his spell and into his bed.

Kitty is indeed a sensible young woman, but is also well aware of how easy it would be to fall in love with for her handsome, charming husband, and of what a disaster it would be were she to let that happen.  She could only ever be a temporary diversion for him before he returns to his philandering ways, and she’s determined not to let him break her heart.  She’s quick-witted, poised, competent and possessed of considerable insight; she says what she thinks, often with comical results, but sometimes goes a little too far, especially when her instinct for self-protection kicks in, and steers her towards making the wrong assumptions.

The author does a terrific job of showing Kitty and Ledbury gradually falling for each other – even if, on his part, Ledbury has no idea that’s what’s going on.  They talk, they take long rides together and they’re both refreshingly honest with each other; Ledbury knows he can’t erase his past and Kitty knows it would be unfair of her to hold it against him, but he understands how society works and is at pains to ensure that Kitty is able to hold her head up as she takes her place as his countess.  Sometimes in stories like this one, the heroine can be too good to be true, but that’s not the case here, because while Ledbury can be self-centred and ill-tempered (and is very well aware of both those traits), Kitty has her faults, too.  Sometimes, her witticisms are barbed and too waspish and, in the later part of the book especially, she can be somewhat ‘holier-than-thou’.  But these faults just make both of them that bit more human and endearing.

The tone of the book is fairly light and breezy – dare I say that there’s an almost Heyeresque quality to it overall?  The dialogue sparkles, the characters are engaging and the author imbues the novel with a strong sense of time and place, but I found myself knocking grade-points off for a late-book plot-point that felt overly contrived and really out of place.  There’s also a scorned former mistress out to make trouble – she made quite a juicy villain, actually – and her machinations, together with Ledbury’s tendency to over-react at times would have been enough on their own to create the tension needed to keep moving the story forward.

The fact that there are no sex scenes in the book may be off-putting for some, but I honestly didn’t miss them, because Kitty and Ledbury have great chemistry and the heated moments they share (while fully clothed!) are nicely done and provide just the right sort of frisson to fit the story.  In short, The Devil You Know was an entertaining read in the vein of the Traditional Regency and I’d certainly recommend it.

~ Caz Owens

Grade: B                        Sensuality: Kisses

Buy it at: Amazon

The Silver Rose by Jane Feather

While forced marriage generally isn’t my thing, I do often like Jane Feather’s novels and I love that she has often chosen less commonly used settings for her tales. Her 1997 novel, The Silver Rose, takes place in England during the reign of Queen Anne. The spirit of the time, and the lingering shadows both of the English Civil War and Charles II’s sometimes raucous court echo through the story and give it a sense of time and place that made me feel as if I was sinking into another world.

We learn early on in the story that the once-Royalist Ravenspeare family and their neighbors, the Hawkesmoors, formerly sympathizers of Parliament, loathe one another with a murderous passion. Through a series of court intrigues, Queen Anne hits upon the idea of bringing harmony to their corner of England by commanding the marriage of Simon Hawkesmoor and Ariel Ravenspeare.

From the royal court, action shifts to the Ravenspeare home, where we learn that young Ariel lives with her three wild and depraved brothers. Because of her brothers’ infamy, her life is somewhat circumscribed but she learns that both her isolation and her relative freedom are about to come to an end with the arrival of Simon Hawkesmoor for their wedding.

Having been raised on tales of the awful Hawkesmoors, Ariel is unsurprisingly less than thrilled by the prospect of marriage into that family. Her battle-scarred groom doesn’t exactly make her swoon at first sight either. However, the stage is set for what will become a primarily entertaining romance.

Jane Feather takes what sounds like a familiar historical plot trope, especially for earlier historicals, and tinkers with the usual plot points just enough to give it a hint of a subversive twist. We get the familiar war hero groom and his significantly younger bride. However, this time around, the groom truly is a gentleman and a gentle man – and the bride is no clueless virgin.

And then there’s the other woman. Upon learning of his required marriage, Simon breaks things off with his childhood friend and sometimes mistress, Helene. In many stories, this would set the stage for Helene to morph into an evil slut. But here she never does. Instead, she’s confident, wise and likable. As a reader, I could see why Simon loved her. She’s more than just a mere foil for the heroine’s innocent beauty; she’s an interesting character in her own right and I do hope she gets an HEA of her own someday. My heart ached for her as  I realized what she lost.

While male leads in forced marriage scenarios often sweep onto the stage as conquering heroes and all-around alphaholes, Simon is quite the opposite. He comes across wise, strong and steady. He doesn’t swagger flamboyantly because he frankly doesn’t need to.  He achieves his aims without destroying others or showing off his dominance over the heroine. For the most part, I rather liked him.

Ariel is a little more difficult. She’s spent her entire life under the collective thumb of her debauched brothers, but that hasn’t killed her tendency toward being headstrong. Thankfully, it also hasn’t deadened her wits or business sense. She’s not wise in all the ways of the world, but she has taught herself to run a business.

However, a lifetime of exposure to only the worst of men hasn’t taught Ariel to appreciate a good and decent man. At one point, Simon’s former mistress expresses frustration over Ariel’s treatment of Simon and how Ariel doesn’t realize what a treasure she has. I had to appreciate the scene. In many books, this would have been a prelude to eeeevil antics by The Other Woman. However, in Feather’s hands, one cannot help but nod along with Helene because she really is right. In her naivete, Ariel simply cannot grasp her husband’s worth.

Understanding and responding to goodness is a process for Ariel throughout the story. Her character arc does show growth, but I did still sometimes find her and Simon’s love story a little hard to believe because the mutual distrust morphs into something positive and more permanent a little abruptly.

Overall, I greatly enjoyed The Silver Rose. The story has great atmosphere, and I loved seeing what the author did with once-tired old tropes. The relationship timing is a little off and some of the secondary characters just didn’t do it for me, but I still enjoyed reading this novel.

~Lynn Spencer

Grade:        B                     Sensuality: Warm

Buy it at: Amazon/Apple Books/Barnes & Noble/Kobo

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Queer romance, romantic suspense and historicals - romance, mysteries, fiction -  are my genres of choice these days, and when I haven't got my nose in a book, I’ve got my ears in one.  I’m a huge fan of audiobooks and am rarely to be found without my earbuds in.