The Soldier’s Bride

by April Kihlstrom, 2002, Regency Romance
Signet, $4.99, ISBN #0451205200
Third in the Magic Locket series, preceded by The Ambitious Baronet and The Widower’s Folly

There are some Regency Romances that are pleasant to read without being very exciting. This is one of them. Elisbeth Barlow and Lord Thomas Kepley are both very nice people. Kepley defies his family to marry Elisabeth, then goes off to war. When he is reported missing in action, the young lord’s family tries to make Elisabeth’s life miserable. They cut off funds and refuse to know her in society. The brave and sensible young woman is forced to stay in the country. She does without servants and even learns to sew dresses for a living, ably assisted by her formidable Aunt Margaret.

Twenty months later, Thomas miraculously reappears, apparently having cheated death in combat. But he refuses to explain just where he was or what happened to him. And he refuses to accept that Elisabeth’s baby boy is really his son. The central question of the story is, can two people who have become virtual strangers rekindle the true love they once had?

This is an interesting plot, but several factors work against it here. Thomas is such a pleasant, gentle young man that it is hard to believe he is the jealous type. His only grounds for suspicion is the absence of a family birthmark on his son’s head (think of Damien in The Omen) and the birthmark subplot grows more and more silly as the story continues. As for Elisbeth, she’s portrayed as such a quiet, wholesome homebody, patiently sewing by the fire for twenty months, that it’s hard to imagine anyone suspecting her of adultery. Both of these characters are nice, but neither one has much charisma or sexual allure. They don’t seem determined to resist each other, and neither one is fighting an overwhelming attraction, so it’s hard to get too excited about their physical reunion, which is described in subtle and low-key terms.

As if sensing that the plot badly needs a jolt of excitement, Kihlstrom soon introduces a crazed and vengeful French spy, one Jean Merlion. The war is over, but he has a personal grudge against Thomas. Reviewer complaint: why is it that in most Regencies the English spies are always sexy, great-looking aristocrats who fight nobly for king and country, while the French spies are always vulgar, scenery-chewing madmen who have to have a nasty personal grudge? Surely there were patriots on both sides of the Napoleonic wars. And surely there were French and British officers who admired each other. Just once I’d like to meet a sincere, patriotic French spy who loves his country and believes in the ideals of the French Revolution. Someone like handsome young Julien Sorel, the peasant hero of Stendhal’s French classic The Red and the Black could be a truly formidable villain – or even (gasp!) a hero. And is it altogether impossible to believe that some English people, even some aristocrats, may have identified with the progressive, democratic aims of the French Revolution? Regency readers are complex, intelligent people, and we deserve books that will raise these kinds of questions.

In any case, the crazed Jean Merlion soon manages to kidnap gentle Elisabeth, in spite of the fact that her husband suspects trouble and has been sticking close to her night and day. Elisbeth shows unexpected courage and determination in this section, despite the rather clumsy shipboard resolution.

The one aspect of this book that truly grabbed me was a romantic subplot between two secondary characters. Elisbeth’s Aunt Margaret is an absolutely delightful character. She has all the wit and feistiness that one expects from a Regency heroine, and she all but overshadows her quiet niece. In addition to helping Lisbeth run her household, Margaret is an accomplished healer and a determined philanthropist. She really deserves a book all to herself! But at least the man she finds in this book is a perfect match for her in every way.

The Soldier’s Bride is a quiet and sweet Regency that unfortunately suffers from some improbable subplots. It is also the final volume in Kihlstrom’s Magic Locket trilogy, all in all a series of books that can be categorized as “nice,” but nothing memorable.

–Larry Rogers

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