Our books today comprise a quick and torrid little tour through Burke’s Peerage, highlighting – as if it needed highlighting – that the 21st century Regency Romance is every bit as obsessed with rank and privilege as the Regency era itself was. In ascending order of oomph, those ranks are: the barons, the viscounts, the earls, the marquesses, and then, one step down from royalty itself, the dukes – and to judge by the Romance new releases at your local bookstore, those ranks are filled with more bed-hopping and heart-sighing than the average Midwestern co-ed college dormitory. A monthly visit to my local Barnes & Noble invariably nets me at least two or three examples of the landed aristocracy in heat, and one of my recent forays was no exception:
Wedding Night with the Earl by Amelia Grey – In this instance, and no doubt purely by chance, the lowest rank is also the weakest contender. Amelia Grey is a first-rate Romance author with a particular talent for dialogue, but several elements of this book – the latest installment of “The Heirs’ Club of Scoundrels” series – fall a bit flat. The story is the clash of wills between hard-hearted Adam Greyhawke, suddenly thrust into his responsibilities as the new Earl of Greyhawke, and Katherine Wright, a wealthy heiress sidelined from high society by a childhood leg injury. Grey handles their sharp-edged banter just perfectly, but the deeper parts of both their motivations – his for not wanting to marry her and father children, hers for insisting on it – seem thinly and hastily constructed rather than things that would actually move two intelligent people. The way Adam eventually helps Katherine to deal with her injury leads a wonderful ballroom scene, but the charm of that alone wasn’t enough to save the book for me.
You Can’t Always Get the Marquess You Want by Alexandra Hawkins – As we move up the social register, we come to this latest novel in the “Masters of Seduction” series (after the utterly captivating A Duke But No Gentleman), the story of Mathias Rooke, Marquess of Fairlamb, nicknamed “Chance” because he’s often uncommonly lucky, and Lady Tempest, the daughter of the Marquess of Norgrave. The two feel a strong but problematic attraction to each other, which is immensely complicated by the fact that a strong-tempered and long-standing feud exists between their families. Alexandra Hawkins specializes in weaving layers upon layers into her sparkling stories – that’s a big part of what makes her so delightful to read – and the plot she’s devised here gives her the perfect opportunity to play to her strengths. Her one weakness as a writer – a tendency to muddle her second acts – is mitigated more than ever in this latest book, with its gripping opening and even-more-gripping climaxes. It might share a virtually identical cover design with Wedding Night with the Earl, but it’s a significantly stronger outing.
The Wicked Duke by Madeline Hunter – We reach the peak of our social climb with Madeline Hunter’s delectable new novel, the third in the “Wicked” trilogy (which started with last year’s very good His Wicked Reputation), this time centering on Lance Hemingford, the Duke of Aylesbury, known about Town (and to his long-suffering valet) as the Wicked Duke – not just because of his rakish ways, but also because he’s suspected of having had a hand in his brother’s death. To escape the prying censure of the Ton, he retreats to a quiet estate in the country, where he’s confronted by respectability in the form of marriage to Mariann Radley, the daughter of a parvenu knight with social aspirations and very little common sense. But as fans of Hunter’s books will see coming, there’s a great deal more to Mariann than what appears on the surface, and at first she’s less intrigued by the Wicked Duke’s considerable physical attractions than she is by the chance to snoop into what really happened between him and his brother. The resulting story is part comedy of manners and part star-crossed lovers, with a hint of a whodunit added in – a wonderfully enjoyable tale.
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