Black Silk

by Judy Cuevas, 2002 enhanced reissue of 1991 release (reissue as Judith Ivory)
Historical Romance (Victorian Period)
Original release Jove, $4.99, ISBN #0-515-10609-7

Enhanced reissue June 2002, European Historical Romance (1858 England)
Avon, $6.99, 480 pages, ISBN #0060098538

Grade:A (reader DIK Review of original)
A- (AAR/DIK Review of reissue)Sensuality:Warm

Let me state that it is difficult to summarize Black Silk without doing it an injustice, because this book, this story, these characters and their interpersonal relations are so unusual, so remarkable, and so complex that the whole is near nigh irreducible. I mean, is it possible to admire the Mona Lisa a square inch at a time? Reading Black Silk is like going to a five-star restaurant for the first time. You fidget a little in your chair, admire the ambience and the elegant waiters doing their nightly ballet. The kitchen is taking its time. A little plate of nibbles arrives, compliment of the chef. You munch, you ooh and aah. It’s fabulous. But it’s only a little plate. You wonder a little anxiously whether the rest of what is to come can measure up. And then the appetizers arrive – and then the first course. You half-swoon. Then comes the entree and you can hardly comprehend how you came to be in such heaven. Then the dessert which ends your experience with a bang (well, almost literally in this case, if I may be pardoned for a little risqué pun). You cannot believe the evening is over since you wanted it to go on and on and on.

Pardon the gustatory analogy, which in this case is apt. Judy Cuevas is a master of sensual description. Her writing has flavor, succulence and substance. It has that indescribable something that can only be called literary “fat”, a quality that makes her particular confection of words deliciously tangible.

But her talent goes far beyond mere linguistic sumptuousness. Ms. Cuevas creates memorable characters. Graham Wessit, the hero of Black Silk, could probably be labeled a bad boy, a Victorian bad boy if you will. But unlike so many other romance novel bad boys who seem to copulate their way from one end of the country to the other and in doing so, generate nothing but good-willed envy from all men and trembling desire in all women, Graham has troubles. He is the defendant in a false paternity suit. His current mistress is thinking of divorcing her husband to marry him – a big scandalous deal in 1858. And on top of it, there is a popular newspaper serial that has its root material in the deeds, mistakes, and peccadilloes of his life, all exaggerated and ridiculed for the entertainment of the masses. Lest we forget, those were far more puritanical times. Even men paid for their transgressions.

Submit Channing-Downes is a virtuous widow, still in mourning, clothed in black – hence the title – for almost the entirety of the book. Her late, much older husband Henry had been Graham’s cousin and one-time guardian. Submit loved and still loves Henry. Graham despised and still despises Henry. From their vastly different experiences with Henry and their intertwined present predicament, (thanks to a nasty posthumous bequest from Henry to Graham) arises what surely must be the most intriguing triangle of human relations in romancedom.

Graham is indolent and indulgent, but as the story unfolds, we see his honesty, kindness, and sincerity. He is also vital, exciting, and young at heart. Submit is equally complex. She is intelligent, thoughtful, and serious. And it is Ms. Cuevas’ great accomplishment that this woman of true gravitas is also endowed with a subtle yet potent carnal allure. The two of them are a wonderful match because she needs his energy and vigor and he needs to be anchored by her rationality and cool-headedness.

The late Henry, of course, was one of a kind. Read and marvel. This book is perhaps not to everyone’s taste. I’ll admit, it took me a while to get hooked. Black Silk is not exactly a comfort read, and does not offer instant gratification, meaning, no kisses until half-way through, and no hero/heroine love scene until the last fifty pages or so. But those readers who stick with it will be richly, splendidly rewarded. And that is a promise.

Sherry Thomas

After reading romance for a few years now, I have realized that it is truly rare to find a book that so completely manages to fulfill all of its “duties.” Is the writing smart enough to assume the reader can comprehend subtleties, yet accessible enough to keep the reading pace fluid? Does the author know the difference between complexity, and soul-sucking angst that hits you over the head, over and over? And over? Does it allow for imperfect characters that are more than thinly veiled variations on the same old themes? While Black Silk is the reissue of a book originally published more than ten years ago, I found the plot interesting and fresh, and the characters – even the secondary ones, even the dead secondary ones – wonderfully complex.

Graham Wessit, Earl of Netham, is being named as the defendant in a paternity suit brought about in a most dramatic and convincing manner. The justice system in charge of his case is administering anything but justice, and society takes it as fact that Graham is – wink, wink, nudge, nudge – responsible for the young woman’s pregnancy. It is in the middle of this frustrating mêlée that he meets Submit Channing-Downes, the young widow of Graham’s guardian, Henry. Guess what? Submit is the rare heroine who truly loved her much-older husband and mourns the loss of the loving life they shared.

Graham, however, continues to despise the man as much as Submit misses him. In the course of delivering Henry’s rather interesting legacy to Graham, Submit becomes intrigued by the very handsome Graham, who is, in turn, annoyed and attracted by her. To complicate matters, Graham also has a mistress, Rosalyn, who is ready to scandalize society by divorcing her husband in order to marry Graham, although Rosalyn and Graham seem to claw at each other as much as they lust for each other.

As Graham sorts out the complications of the paternity suit and his deteriorating relationship with the melodramatic Rosalyn, Submit continues to deal with Henry’s natural (but not legitimate) son William and his contesting of Henry’s will. The first impressions Graham and Submit have of each other begin to give way to true, more permanent opinions, and luckily for the reader, we also get to know these well-rounded, fully-developed characters, although lots of internal goings-on might not be to everyone’s taste.

Thanks to Ms. Ivory’s skill at characterization, both Graham and Submit manage to transcend the larger brush strokes of their personalities. While Graham is the rakish hero whose lifestyle can easily and deservedly inspire bawdy fiction, he is also a good man who struggles with the difficulties of his privileged life. Where Submit is concerned, she is a conscientious, but not dull, heroine who can make the reader see her point when she comes to a decision that, knowing how the book must (hopefully) end, cannot possibly be the right one.

A downside of the book is that if you’re expecting luscious love scenes between Graham and Submit, you’ll have to wait a while to read them, as Graham is involved with Rosalyn for a great deal of the story.

With Black Silk as an example of her storytelling ability, it’s easy to see why Ms. Ivory has a devoted following, and I am glad to see that one of her earlier books will find its way to current and new fans. I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed Graham and Submit’s story, complexities and all.

— Claudia Terrones

Order Ivory’s June 2002 re-issue from Amazon Books
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