St Martin’s Press, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-250-19946-1
Historical Romance, 2018
Anna Bennett did something which ends up being an unnecessary hurdle for the reader to overcome in the first chapter of First Earl I See Tonight: our heroine Fiona Hartley receives a blackmail letter, which contains some dire information about her sister Lily that will ruin that lass (the information is never revealed to the reader at that point), and she immediately decides that (a) she must pay the blackmail ASAP and (b) she must never tell anyone, including Lily, about this. Fiona has initially only wanted to marry for love and to be an independent woman free to sketch people all day (she fancies herself an artist), without pausing to wonder where the money she will need to support herself comes from, but fortunately, we all know that a hero will come marry her and save her from ever having to prostitute herself for pencil and paper fund.
Anyway, back to Fiona’s grand plan, she has money, but she has a dowry, so all she has to do is to marry some unsuitable bloke, who will then surely let her use the dowry money to pay off the blackmailer, who will naturally take the money, say thank you politely, and will never bug her again. I find myself wondering why our heroine isn’t making any effort to check whether the damning stuff in the letter is true. Apparently it is more essential that Fiona writes to David Gray, the Earl of Ravenport who is in need of funds and therefore will surely give Fiona free rein to spend the dowry as she wishes, and basically tells him to marry her.
By that point, I don’t think we can fault any reader who cringe and make the sign of the cross before closing the book and throwing it into a tub of holy water.
However, it is only later when the author finally reveals the content of the letter that I feel a little more charitable towards Fiona. The letter does contain some damning information about Lily’s parentage, and it also comes with some evidence that makes Fiona’s apparent hasty judgment to trust and believe more reasonable. If only the author had included these bits of information in the opening chapter, the heroine won’t seem so much like a colossal idiot.
As it turns out, Fiona is still an idiot, just a massive one instead of a colossal train wreck.
Gray has recently been jilted by a woman who took one look at his decrepit home and fled. Sure, he needs money, but for some reason he isn’t keen when an heiress practically throws herself at him, because plot. So, he decides to invite her and her folks to his home, confident that they too will take one look at it and flee. Ah, but he hasn’t counted on Fiona having a severe hero complex that sees her throwing her future, reputation, everything to protect everyone and anyone…. without telling these everyone else what she is doing, of course. Remember, she is the most powerful woman in the world, it is up to her to save everyone else regardless of whether they want to be saved or they even know they are being saved.
While such demented megalomania is to be admired in some way, Fiona’s approach is so inept that it would be a mercy if someone would tie her up and gag her for good measure. The bulk of this story sees her fretting, second guessing herself, and flailing to save the world while botching things up. She still keeps the blackmail letter, for example, heaven knows why, and guess what? It goes missing. And so on and on, to the point that it’s obvious to the reader that Fiona will continue to fail upwards for the rest of this story. Oh, and eventually she goes from wanting to save Lily to saving Gray, lamenting in the end that her “sacrifice” (that’s what she calls it) has cost her everything but at least Gray will be okay. And then he marries her and, guess what, the world doesn’t end like she thought. Fiona is an idiot and she is also a menace, and she is the reason why there are people who insist that women stay in the kitchen all day long. Then again, Fiona will probably scald herself to death trying to save the kitchen help from some nefarious plot she had come up with in her head, who knows.
First Earl I See Tonight does have some nice scenes when there is a lull in Fiona’s rampant stupidity, when the hero and the heroine interact in ways that showcase the author’s ability to come up with scenes that are both funny and romantic. And then Fiona will say or do something dumb, and the magic is gone again.
This is one story that tests the reader’s ability to deal with a heroine who spends the bulk of the story staggering around looking for ways to keep failing in life. Know yourself, and proceed accordingly.