Libertine's Kiss
by Judith James, historical (2010)
HQN, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-373-77505-7

Judith James has to be doing something right. She is now published with HQN when she was previously published with small publishing houses, and she has also gathered a devoted following of readers who write indignant emails to me questioning my sanity for not recognizing the author as the greatest romance author that has ever existed. In fact, there are times when I wonder about my taste because when it comes to me and what seems like the rest of the romance reading community, Judith James ranks up there with Jo Beverley as authors with a rabid and amusingly haughty following whose appeal I just don't get. Sorry, but that's me.

I have to give Libertine's Kiss a try, of course, because I'm hoping that third time is the charm. Well, in a way, this is the best book the author has delivered so far in the sense that the atrocious head-hopping that plagued the last two books has been weeded out of this one. However, the same issues that made it hard for me to fully appreciate the author's previous books remain.

First, the story. This is an old-school epic story spanning long periods of time, set in the Restoration era. William de Vere is King Charles's aide and best friend while Elizabeth Walters's father served Oliver Cromwell. Like most heroines, Elizabeth doesn't display more political beliefs or convictions - she's in this story to endure a consecutive series of setbacks and problems, all contrived to ensure that William is her best choice for happiness even when she herself recognizes how unsuitable he is as husband material.

This story has them first meet when she takes him in when he is injured, and he repays her by "convincing" her to have sex with him when she foolishly barges into his room. Oh, it's not rape, because he knows that her body responds to his caresses and she gets an orgasm. Besides, she likes it in the end, so... viva la Vere. Fans of this author shouldn't be indignant though - the author is fond of using biological responses as a sign that a woman is secretly begging for it. He ditches her the morning after, she goes through some sobering experiences, he rogers every woman who can't climb up a tree fast enough, and they meet again, when he decides that he's bored and she'd amuse him even when a part of him acknowledges that she's been put through a lot of trouble for harboring and nursing him back to health once upon a time.

And that's my issue with this story: William is just not worth the effort Elizabeth has to put out to get him for her happily after that. He is a promiscuous pig who treats her the way a cat toys with a mouse, which only makes the disparate gulf between his lofty position and her position of weakness more apparent. When she catches him in a compromising situation late in the story, his reaction is to shrug the whole situation off because - let me check - ah yes, all women throw themselves at him anyway.

It's not that William is a conscious-free bastard. He has his moments of remorse, but here's the thing: he doesn't show them to Elizabeth. It is only in the last chapter that he finally opens up to her, but given that he is a charmer and a user of women, women whom he thinks lowly of for succumbing to his seduction, how is Elizabeth supposed to gauge his sincerity when he has been treating her with callous negligence or thoughtless cruelty up to that moment?

Elizabeth knows that he is not good for her. But she has very little common sense when it comes to William, even when there are better men around for her. I can't dislike her, honestly, as she is a pragmatic and sensible person when it comes to anything other than William. But she is too good for that man, and I think even the author knows it.

Therefore, I have a hard time buying the romance. The author is aware of William's less-than-exemplary virtues, as she correctly has Elizabeth harboring doubts about that man's love for her, but Ms James in the end doesn't succeed in translating that awareness into creating a believable romance. Some authors like Anne Stuart can pull this off, but Judith James can't, not in this story.

Oh, and I wish Ms James hadn't gone into detail about the man who inspired William, because it turns out that she had pretty much lifted huge chunks of the Earl of Rochester's life, transplanted it into William's life, put in some simplistic "he was blue in past, so that justifies his present behavior" psychology, and forced a happy ending to ensure that William is a more believable romance hero than the Earl in question. Poor William comes off as less original than he could have been.

Libertine's Kiss is almost a good book, but the author's failing to make the romance believable even as she repeats her bad habits - the hero of this book is a carbon copy of the hero of her previous book, as are some of the conflicts faced by the couple - keeps this book from making the higher grade. But there is enough unexpectedly mature character introspection on Elizabeth's part that convinces me that the author is heading in the right direction. I think I'd give the author another chance - when is the next book coming out?

Rating: 64

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