For many readers, when you utter the phrase “old school,” they tend to think of big sweeping historicals. The hated phrase “bodice ripper” often comes up as do the clinch covers of old. And that’s certainly one way of doing old school romance. Maybe it’s pandemic fatigue, but neither one of us was really up to that thread of old school romance. Instead we revisited the world of Regency trads by well-loved authors, where Caz found more success than Lynn this month.
Under the Wishing Star by Diane Farr
When I hear the phrase “old school,” I immediately think of big historicals from the 80s and 90s. I started a couple for this challenge, but quickly set them aside. Maybe it’s the pandemic anxiety or maybe I was choosing the wrong books, but after encountering a few overbearing heroes and problematic historical settings that I just didn’t have the energy to unpack this month, I decided that instead of old school historical, I’d go for an old school Regency trad.
I’d read a couple of Diane Farr’s books and liked her writing style, so I picked up Under the Wishing Star, a book that many readers I know have loved. While it started off well enough, the relationship dynamic started to annoy me midway through, so it ended up being only a slightly better than average read for me.
The book starts off with what feels like a Cinderella-style setup. Natalie Whittaker has cared for the family home for years. Due to a crazy entail, the home skipped over the elder son and goes to the youngest. The youngest son happens to be Natalie’s hateful half-brother who has just returned home with his pregnant wife, who is equally unpleasant. Reduced to poor relation status, Natalie’s home life is decidedly less than happy.
On a trip to the village, Natalie encounters a girl being bullied by a rather cold governess. She intervenes, and unknown to her, the child’s widowed father is watching. Malcolm Chase fires the governess and ends up hiring Natalie. Natalie adores the little girl, Sarah, and she is frankly not displeased at the idea of taking a job to tweak her unpleasant brother.
While children in romances can sometimes detract from the plot, Sarah does not. She has been through the trauma of losing her mother and as readers, we see how that effects her. However, the author writes her as a child, rather than as an overly wise or overly cutesy plot device, as I’ve seen happen more than once. She and Natalie have a great bond and I enjoyed their interactions throughout the story. I also appreciated that caring for Sarah brought Natalie and Malcolm together in a rather natural fashion. Their friendship over the shared time with Sarah quickly blossoms into something deeper, and at first I found it rather romantic even though Natalie’s continued protestations that she could not possibly be with Malcolm got old pretty quickly. However, as things moved along and we learn more about Malcolm, I couldn’t help being uneasy.
Given that the hero is a single father, readers go into this story knowing that he had a past relationship. However, the more we learn about Malcolm and his late wife, the more I had a hard time warming to him. From the text, it sounds like that first marriage was a practical aristocratic marriage on his side but that his wife envisioned more of a love match. Rather than feel sympathetic for the hero, as he describes his late wife’s desire for love to the heroine as manipulation, my heart ached for this woman who had been trapped in a loveless marriage. Was the first wife a perfect saint? Definitely not,but she was a human being. More importantly, the hero’s depiction of her didn’t exactly convince me of his worth as a partner either. It read too much like those guys who like to tell their dates all about how every ex they ever had was “psycho.”
And therein lies my major issue with this book. Stylistically, the writing is lovely and there are some scenes in this book that really work. For instance, the instant rapport and developing relationship between Natalie and Malcolm’s young daughter, Sara, is very sweet. And then there are Malcolm’s romantic gestures. The scene where he throws a party and just happens to have musicians on hand so he can dance with Natalie made me sigh. Still, because of how Malcolm described his first marriage, I couldn’t help having those little quivers of doubt at the back of my mind.
While Farr is undeniably a skilled writer, I ultimately could not warm up to this book. Under the Wishing Star has its moments of feeling like a sweet fairytale, but I had enough doubts about Malcolm and enough irritation with Natalie’s selfless doormat tendencies to come away from this book feeling a bit blah. The book has enough moments to be somewhat above average, but still not quite up to what I would recommend.
– Lynn Spencer
Grade: C+ Sensuality: Kisses
Buy it at: Amazon
Feather Castles by Patricia Veryan
Patricia Veryan wrote some thirty-five historical romances between 1978 and 2002, many of which were out of print for a long time but are now available digitally. (Note: ebook editions only appear to be available in the US.) Two of her best-known series are set in the eighteenth century and the other – which is also the longest one – in the nineteenth. I reviewed Some Brief Folly, book one in the Sanguinet series for a TBR prompt last year, and decided to pick up the next book, Feather Castles, for this year’s “Old School” round. It’s more of a romantic adventure yarn than pure romance, and is actually the first book in which the character who gives his name to the series – the villainous Claude Sanguinet – appears. The story took a little while to get going, and flagged a bit in the middle, but I enjoyed it on the whole, and there’s a neat twist near the end that I hadn’t expected but which lays ground for the rest of the series.
The book opens immediately following the Battle of Waterloo, and we find our heroine, Rachel Strand, accompanying her friend and mentor, Sister Maria Evangeline, to the battlefield to search for someone among the dead and wounded. When the ladies are accosted by a group of looters, they are saved by a wounded officer Rachel takes to be French (given that’s the language he speaks before collapsing) who comes to their aid just before Sister Maria Evangeline’s friend, Diccon, finds them and runs the ruffians off. Diccon and Sister Maria Evangeline want to get away as quickly as possible, but Rachel refuses to just leave their rescuer to die, so they bundle him into their carriage and later aboard ship, bound for England.
Meanwhile, on another part of the battlefield, Captain Sir Simon Buchanan (brother of Mia, heroine of Some Brief Folly) is dismayed to learn of the death of his friend, Tristram Leith, from an exploding shell. It’s with a heavy heart he carries the news of the death of Lord Leith’s only son and heir back to England.
Of course, the reader is able to put two and two together straight away, and work out that the courageous ‘French’ officer is Tristram Leith, but he is unaware of his identity for most of the book, his memory returning in fits and spurts, but not giving him a complete picture, or providing him with any clue as to his name or place of origin. He does work out that he’s English rather than French, and discovers he was a high-ranking officer (a Colonel) but his memory is like a jigsaw puzzle with lots of pieces missing. The first part of the story focuses on his recovery from his injuries, and the burgeoning romance between him and the lovely Rachel, but she is betrothed to the suave and powerful Claude Sangiunet, and when Tristram is sufficiently recovered, they part, he to journey to London, to Horse Guards to find out what he can about himself, she to her fiancé and wedding preparations.
Feather Castles gets off to a bit of a slow start and it took me a while to get into it, but once I did, I was pulled into the world the author has created. We’ve got an evil mastermind – who is scarily plausible and good at hiding in plain sight – plenty of adventure and long odds to be overcome, together with attractive leads and a group of secondary characters who are present as more than just sequel-bait; they have important parts to play within the story, and will, I suspect, crop up throughout the series. Tristram is a terrific hero, a military man whom the author actually shows being the sort of commanding, cool-under-fire presence his rank would suggest. Even when he doesn’t know who he is, his sterling qualities are obvious; he’s clearly a leader of men and Ms. Veryan shows those skills over and over again. We’re also introduced to the impulsive, brash Alan Devenish, a rather insubordinate young man who has obviously yet to come into his own, and whose impetuousness serves as a good contrast to Tristram’s calmer but no less determined approach.
Rachel is the sort of heroine who has perhaps gone out of fashion in recent years. She’s fairly passive in the first part of the story and doesn’t really start to question her actions or try to seek a way out until fairly late on in the book. Her family’s disgrace (her father had cheated at cards, which was a huge no-no at this time) means she and her siblings have been ostracised from society, and she saw an engagement to the wealthy, charming Claude as a way to make sure that her invalid sister Charity would be taken care of. She accepted Claude out of gratitude, and even though Sister Maria Evangeline makes it clear she believes Rachel is doing the wrong thing by agreeing to the match, Rachel refuses to consider an alternative; her focus is on Charity and Rachel is, to start with at least, wilfully blind to the signs that Claude isn’t the kindly altruist she believes him to be. But in this, she’s a woman of her time; so much of a woman’s ‘worth’ was bound up in family and reputation, and with no other way of keeping a roof over her head and paying for her sister’s treatment, Rachel took the only option open to her. Her situation certainly evokes sympathy, and I liked that she gradually came to admit to her mistake and to want to do something about it. On the downside however, the romance lacks a real spark; the absence of bedroom scenes isn’t an issue, but while I liked Tristram a lot, it wasn’t until near the very end that I started to believe Rachel was the woman for him.
Still, I think fans of traditional romances, or those looking for a Regency-era story full of intrigue, adventure and derring-do will enjoy Feather Castles. Patricia Veryan deserves to be more widely read; she’s frequently likened to Georgette Heyer, although I’m never sure that’s a completely apt comparison given Veryan wrote mostly romantic adventures as opposed to comedies of manners, but chances are if you like Heyer, you’ll like Veryan – and even if you don’t like Heyer, I suspect you could read it and be pleasantly surprised.
– Caz Owens
Grade: B Sensuality: Kisses