by Tracy MacNish, historical (2006)
Zebra, $4.99, ISBN 0-8217-7953-2
Veiled Desires is similar in tone to Tracy MacNish's interesting if flawed debut Veiled Promises. However, this time around the conflicts flow more smoothly instead of the fake domino-like one-after-the-other manner in the previous book and the heroine, while as badly damaged as the heroine in the previous book, is more proactive and willing to do things to escape her current bleak situation. As a result, Veiled Desires is one very enjoyable read despite its overwhelming bleakness.
Our hero Rogan Mullan is the son of the hero and heroine from Veiled Promises. After Veiled Promises has ended, Camille and Patrick settled down in Barbados where Camile, creepily enough, is starting to show signs of being just like her psychotic mother Amelia even if I'm sure it is not Ms MacNish's intention for Camille to turn out like that. When Rogan gets news that he is the next of kin to inherit the title of the Duke of Eton, he and his sister Kieran set out to London to see what the fuss is all about. The two Mullan siblings end up at the household of their uncle Jeffrey Bradburn, the current Duke of Eton. Kieran conveniently ends up with chicken pox so spends most of her time cooped up in quarantine while Rogan meets Emeline Britton, Jeffrey's mistress.
Emeline is no better than a prostitute, given her circumstances. Forced into a sexual relationship with her stepfather Simon, who married her mother just to get to her, Emeline is won by Jeffrey in a card game with Simon. This is a plan on Simon's part, though - he wants Emeline set up in Jeffrey's household for a sinister reason that I'm sure the reader will guess correctly quickly enough. Emeline complies with this just as she has obeyed and did all kinds of sexual things with her stepfather all this while: if she aids Simon this one time, he'll finally release her mother from the madhouse that he has imprisoned her in. Rogan's arrival complicates matters because he is a very nice man who is willing to help her, only she is not sure that he can help her in her current situation. On his part, Rogan is still haunted by love and guilt stemming from the death of his beloved wife.
Apart from a few exceptions like Rogan, the men in this story are some of the most unpleasant pieces of excreta I've ever come across in a novel. Simon is vileness incarnate while Jeffrey is lucky Simon is there so he comes off like an angel in comparison. That's not to say he's not a piece of crap though, he is. The other women in the story are portrayed as selfish creatures who would hang a fellow woman out to dry because in this world where women are nothing more than toys to used and abused by men, they have to look out for themselves in order to survive. Tracy MacNish's London of the late 1700s is a bleak and desolate place.
However, I like the fact that while Emeline is a victim, she never allows herself to feel like one. She has suffered all kinds of degradation, finding strength to do what she does only to save her mother, but given the right impetus - like love - she will actually strike back at the ones who abuse her so badly. As I've noted in the review of her previous book, Ms MacNish takes the extra effort to delve into her characters' psyche and Emeline, impressively enough, manages to experience a voyage of self-discovery despite all the degradations she's received from the vile pieces of crap in her life - when she finally finds the strength to actively go out and save the ones she's come to love, she also finds out who she really is after years of having to play the roles of some monster's sex toy and pawn. Not that Emeline is a superwoman in this story - she has all kinds of vulnerabilities, it's just that there are always glimmers of strength inside her and her coming to her own seems a natural progression as a result. Naturally, Emeline still needs rescuing at the end of the day, sigh, but she does want to take control of her life and that counts for something, I suppose.
Rogan is a very nicely-written tortured nice guy. I always have a soft spot for such heroes - which is why that Daniel Day-Lewis movie The Boxer is always one of my favorite romantic movies ever - and I like how Ms MacNish has Rogan getting into pugilistic matches just to exorcise his inner demons. Is there anything more romantic than a bruised and bloody hero telling the heroine how much he'd do for her? No, don't tell me. I know, I need help. Anyway, Rogan has an unconventional past where he's more liberal than most when it comes to his significant other's background, and therefore, true to his nature, he doesn't care one bit or makes any judgments about Emeline's past. He's a nice guy but he is not entirely sunshine and happiness to the point of flatness.
Unlike in Veiled Promises, the abundance of sleaze in this story doesn't feel like the author is merely out to shock her readers into a catatonic state but instead serves as a backdrop to highlight how love can make Emeline and even Rogan whole as a result. Rogan, thankfully, doesn't have to choose between Emeline and his late wife as his only one true love, by the way. It also shows how far Emeline has come as a person.
The story is also very engrossing. Yes, some readers will be put off by the bleakness of the story but I find the story most enjoyable to read. While Simon is a one-dimensional monster, Jeffrey is a more interesting villain that manages to be vile without becoming a caricature. The author has a very engaging storytelling style that keeps the story moving at a good pace without faltering. While there isn't anything particularly novel in the twist and turn of this story, the book is very hard to put down. It compels me to keep reading, and I do. Ms MacNish also writes in a manner that can be graceful and even poetic without dipping into too much melodrama or sap, in my opinion.
I find Veiled Desires a very enjoyable and well-executed tale of healing and redemption. One can rightfully say that there is an exaggerated quality to the over-the-top bleakness and villainy in this story, but then again, all that unpleasantness serves only to magnify the strengths of the main characters, so I can hardly complain. If you are looking for a tortured heroine that doesn't let herself become a martyr to pointless crusades, a somewhat tortured but very noble hero who is a Prince Valiant and Prince Charming all rolled into one, and an enjoyable well-written romantic story, allow me to suggest this book. It's not to everyone's taste, I would think, but hey, if you can sit through all that sleaze in Tracy Grant's books and still love them at the end of the day or even better, if you can sit through Robin Schone's books and still go "Ooh, I like!", this baby (which is not an erotic romance like Robin Schone's books, let me make this clear) may just be the bitter and strong brandy that you will enjoy after a regular diet of sweet and wholesome romance novels.
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