Leisure, $5.99, ISBN 0-8439-5372-1
Historical Erotica, 2004
Katherine Greyle decides to become an erotic romance author now. Borrowing her pseudonym from an actual porn star Jade Lee (go Google “Jade Lee” if you don’t believe me) is a sure sign that the newly-baptized Jade Lee, Author (Not Porn Star), means business. I’m sure that readers are surprised to realize that Devil’s Bargain is another “O Debauched Nobleman, Teach Me Pleasure” story. Adhering too closely to the Robin Schone codex, perhaps, where it ain’t sexy until it’s sexed up in an unsavory situation, this book is more depressing than it is erotic. In fact, this book is, if you ask me, far from erotic.
Our heroine Lynette Jameson is penniless after the death of her father and the parson’s daughter learns of a school where they can teach her how to get a husband. She attends this school and learns that it is a school with a difference – aside from being taught the usual feminine arts of being a trophy wife to a nobleman, she is also trained to service her husband. Women of this school – usually impoverished or low-class women seeking to better themselves – will marry older men looking for Stepford Wives and when these men die, the women will finally be free to live, drink, and be merry. This is the life Lynette hopes to have because she has no other option. The principal and our Stud Guru, Adrian Grant the Viscount Marlock, takes notice of his bright and sexually inexperienced student and the expected tutoring sex sessions ensue.
To give her credit, at first Jade Lee doesn’t try to be like Robin Schone, who cluelessly demonizes gay and religious men in her quest to give a good reason as to why her characters are having sex up to the wazoo. Ms Lee is frank about Marlock being nothing more than a pimp or the unsavory nature of the school and the circumstances Lynette is in. At first, Ms Lee doesn’t care if genteel readers are repelled by her blunt honesty regarding her characters. Marlock is appropriately debauched but his reasons to be drawn to Lynette are very well and often delicately but effectively drawn and the way he thaws and actually breaks apart whenever he realizes that he has to sell Lynette to one of his unsavory acquaintances – well, the emotions on his part feel real and credible. Lynette gives Marlock many good reasons to be attracted to her: she is innocent but she is not stupid. Both characters are well-done “devil” and “angel” archetypes without coming off as too over-the-top.
At first, that is.
It is very disappointing therefore that after the set-up of the book, it quickly tumbles into more conventional mires. Oh, Marlock isn’t that bad after all, boo-hoo, he just wants to pay off his debts as he was once in debtor’s prison, how sad! And Lynette just wants money to give her sister a Season and her brother a commission (of course, these siblings, especially the brother, cannot make an effort get the money on their own – maybe they are waiting in the wings to enrol in the school?). What happened to the marvelously dark and sinister set-up of this story? And don’t get me started about resolution to the happy ending which may work if the characters aren’t what they are.
Devil’s Bargain has the right idea and for a while it knows how to make its premise work. But then comes the cop-out psychoanalyzing/justifications of the characters’ actions. After that, a complete turnaround as this book chickens out and brings on the Catholic guilt. Forgive them, Heavenly Father, they are touching each other’s privates because the Devil made them do it, after all. The erotic scenes are too few and too far apart to provide any pleasant diversion to the painfully trite elements overpowering the story. The promise lingers long after the last page though and I can’t help wondering what kind of book I would get if Ms Lee hasn’t become possessed by the spirit of Robin Schone by page 140 into the book.