For someone who started out their romance reading career with historicals, a prompt like “Tales of Old” is the perfect catnip. Lynn and Caz took this prompt in rather different directions, with Lynn heading way back into the past with a tale of ninth century Vikings carving out a living in what is now Scotland, while Caz headed for Victorian England. So, where do you like to travel for your Tales of Old?
Tempted by Her Viking Enemy by Terri Brisbin
The prompt Tales of Old made me think of medieval right off the bat. I hit my TBR piles eagerly – and ended up DNF-ing a few medievals, so after that experience, I just wanted an author whose books normally work for me. Terri Brisbin’s books usually hit the spot, and while not my favorite by her, Tempted by Her Viking Enemy actually did come close. Even though it’s the last book in the Sons of Sigurd series, it works quite well as a standalone. I had issues with some of the revelations in the suspense plot, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t entertained at times.
Set in ninth century Scotland, this story focuses mostly on the goings on in the household of Thorfinn, a Norseman whose late first wife was one of the local Scottish women. The author sets the stage quickly, and it’s apparent that all is not well in Thorfinn’s household. For reasons that remain unclear, he has remarried Kolga, a Viking widow who apparently has a fair amount of land and power in her own right. The marriage is clearly a cause for tension between Thorfinn and his adult daughter, Katla.
As the story opens, a man mysteriously shows up and issues a challenge. Following a fierce fight, the injured prisoner is placed in the dungeon but Thorfinn mystifies his men by insisting the captive be kept alive to face justice before the king. It is revealed that Thorfinn owes this man his life, but he keeps the details to himself.
Thorfinn sends his widowed daughter Katla to tend to the prisoner, and there she learns that Brandt is himself the son of a Viking leader, Sigurd. Brandt and his brothers were cast off as outlaws after their father was declared a traitor and the brothers have been working to unravel the plot that led to false charges against their father and a massacre at the wedding of one of the brothers.
The setting in this book is almost claustrophobic since most of it takes place in the dungeon where Brandt is kept. However, that works fairly well given the storyline, because both of the leads spend a great deal of the story working through issues internally. The setting provides the space needed to advance the emotional side of the story, and there’s just enough external action to keep the suspense plot moving.
In terms of emotion, we learn two big things about Brandt: (1) His drive to avenge his father and his family have provided motivation for him for so long that he hasn’t really considered life outside that goal and (2) he dearly loved his late wife. His experiences in Thorfinn’s household and his interactions with Katla cause him to actually think deeply, and his character arc as he considers the possibility of life beyond revenge is really quite hopeful. I also really liked that he can see the differences between Katla and his first wife and that he clearly appreciates both women for who they were and are.
Katla, on the other hand, had a much less positive first marriage, and after it ended, she came home to find her father much changed. She has been so focused on protecting herself and her younger sister and staying out of her father’s way that she has not had time to consider what has changed her home so much. However, as she and Brandt work together to find a way out of the dangers looming over them, she starts to think through what has been happening in her family.
The love story between Katla and Brandt is tender and lovely; I very much enjoyed that part of the story. However, the suspense plot is less successful. On the one hand, I figured out bits and pieces of what was happening fairly early in the story and I enjoyed seeing the puzzle pieces click into place. On the other, the ultimate resolution of the story frustrated me for two reasons. Firstly, the ultimate villain is over the top eeeevil and really doesn’t need to be in order for the story to work. Without giving too much away, I think it’s fair to say that the villain is motivated by a lust for power and status, something that could be made clear without all the extra details thrown in. After all, if you create an unsubtle character with absolutely no redeeming features, then it does make one wonder why anyone in their right mind would have had any reason to put up with them.
My other, much larger, issue with the suspense plot is that one character who behaved abusively toward others gets redeemed far too easily. There are explanations for this character’s behavior and they are shown trying to make amends. However, given the nature of what goes on in the story, there really could have been more of that. I enjoyed the romance in this book quite a bit, but the suspense plot wobbled a bit on the landing.
Grade: B- Sensuality: Warm
~ Lynn Spencer
Buy it at: Amazon or your local independent retailer
Mr. Warren’s Profession by Sebastian Nothwell
For the Tales of Old prompt, I went for the obvious and picked up an historical romance I’ve been meaning to read for ages. Mr. Warren’s Profession is set at the end of the nineteenth century and is as much about the difficulties of two people from very different ends of the social spectrum being together as it is about the problems inherent in a relationship between two men at that time. It’s well written – despite a few Americanisms – and obviously well-researched, the wealth of background detail carefully integrated into the story in order to create a wonderfully strong sense of time and place.
Aubrey Warren works as a clerk at a textile mill in Manchester. He’s very good at his job, extremely diligent and hard-working – and used to doing the work of two since the other office clerk is lazy and only has the job because of his family connections. But Aubrey is at least content – and doesn’t expect happiness. He’s come from nothing – he was brought up in the workhouse – to a responsible position that provides him with income enough to live decently, if not well, and has dreams of one day becoming an engineer. His quiet and unassuming life is suddenly blown apart by the appearance of Lindsey Althorp, the son of a baronet, who has won the mill in a card game, and who actually takes an interest in the place, much to Aubrey’s surprise.
Lindsey had no idea of becoming involved in the business of the mill, but that changes the moment he lays eyes on the beautiful, dark-eyed clerk sitting at a desk in the office and is immediately smitten. It’s a defining moment for Lindsey; for the first time in his life, he feels a true and strong desire for another person, and like a bolt from the blue, it crystallises the truth – that he is, and always has been, attracted to men. He’s well aware that’s something that must be hidden, but in the first flush of infatuation, in his overwhelming desire to see and spend time with Aubrey, Lindsey behaves less than discreetly – requesting several tours of the factory and anything else he can think of that will put him into Aubrey’s company.
While Aubrey is every bit as attracted to Lindsey as Lindsey is to him, he tries hard to distance himself, and it’s easy to understand why. He knows full well that Lindsey’s marked attention to him could have serious repercussions and knows how easy it would be for him to lose even the little he has should anyone suspect where his interest lies. The precariousness of his situation as someone of lower social standing, without family or other support system is well articulated and well-contrasted with Lindsey’s; a relationship with another man would be risky for both of them, but Lindsey has the ‘safety net’ of family, wealth and title that Aubrey does not. But Lindsey’s warmth, enthusiasm and sheer joy in their connection are hard to resist; it’s been a long time since he’s allowed himself to feel just about anything – and before long, Aubrey can’t find it in him to deny himself the happiness he longs for.
While Aubrey and Lindsey get together somewhat quickly, there’s still plenty of relationship development going on and there’s no denying the strength of the love and affection they find in each other. They’re from completely different worlds, but Lindsey is so wonderfully supportive of Aubrey and wants the world for him; and Aubrey, once he allows himself to love Lindsey, does so with his whole heart. As I said at the beginning, the historical context here is well-done, with full acknowledgement of the risks of pursuing a homosexual relationship at this time, and the class difference between the two principals just makes things even more difficult. Men of equal status spending time together in public would not have been looked at askance, but a baronet’s son and a lowly clerk? Very suspicious indeed.
So there are, of course, a lot of obstacles in the way of their HEA, from interfering and well-meaning (and not so well-meaning) friends, to a jealous and ill-intentioned colleague to a villainous blackmail plot. There’s loss and heartbreak, but the author pulls everything together with great skill to reach a very satisfying conclusion in which Aubrey and Lindsey get their well-deserved HEA (and the villain gets his equally deserved comeuppance!)
There’s a strongly characterised secondary cast and lots of fascinating historical detail, ranging from the Cleveland Street Scandal and the Post Office boys, to advances in engineering, the work of the mill and incipient worker’s rights, in such a way that it never feels didactic or info-dump-y. However, there were a few things that stretched my credulity a bit – for example, Lindsey’s father and sister realising he was an ‘invert’ before he did and his father’s plan to ‘protect’ him from that knowledge by not sending him off to Eton, and his sister’s habit of employing handsome, similarly inclined footmen so Lindsey could, er, sow his wild oats discreetly! Then there’s the ease and frequency with which the characters travel between London and Manchester by train, seemingly just to spend the day there (Google tells me it takes between two and two-and-a-half hours now, but it must have been more than that back then?) and not only that, but surely Aubrey couldn’t have afforded to travel between Manchester and London and Wiltshire (where Lindsey owns a house) so often.
In the end, however, those are fairly minor concerns, more ‘things I noticed’ than ‘things that spoiled the book for me’. Mr. Warren’s Profession is an enjoyable historical romance filled with interesting period detail, and Aubrey and Lindsey are a likeable couple who are easy to root for. I really enjoyed their growth as characters and as a couple, together with the story’s focus on their deepening emotional connection and how they surmount the obstacles on their path to happiness. If you’ve enjoyed books by KJ Charles and Joanna Chambers, I’d definitely suggest giving this one a try.
Grade: B+ Sensuality: Warm
~ Caz Owens