Berkley Sensation, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-26568-0
Historical Romance, 2014
Juliana Gray claims that she gets her inspirations from old operas and plays written by people who have been dead for a few hundred years at least. How to School Your Scoundrel includes Giuseppi Verdi’s opera Don Carlo as its inspiration, with the hero Philip, Earl of Somerton, modeled after King Philip. All this is great – folks get to feel extra intelligent if they love the story, or they feel extra dunce-like if they don’t. Unfortunately for the author, all those plays and operas and symphonies and what not from those days usually make my eyes glaze over. Cross dressing folks – out of necessity due to the plot, not because of gender dysphoria or anything like that – seemed to be all the rage back then, and it’s all the rage in this book too.
The thing is, I can only wonder how ugly these women have to be if they can successfully pass themselves off as men just by breathing and wearing the right clothes. None of that elaborate make-up and prepping stuff that gender-bending folks do in real life – our heroine just dresses up and everyone takes her for a guy. And take off the menswear and voila, she’s a stunning and gorgeous woman. The fact that Luisa can even fool a spymaster extraordinaire without spending at least an hour fixing herself up or adjusting her voice has me scratching my head. Then again, this is also a story where Luisa disarms a supposedly very experienced assassin just with a few flicks of her limbs, apparently because her father taught her some kung-fu once upon a time, and this fact is brought up after she’s disarmed that fellow.
Oh yes, the story. Luisa, the last unmarried princess from Hootenanny-Schlongflapper-Hamburger – did I spell the kingdom name right? – is, if you may recall, sent by the Duke of Olympia – who’s basically the guy who knows everything and everyone, a super spy that out-spies every spy in the land – into hiding because the kingdom has been sacked by anarchists and the best way to help the princesses is to separate them, force them to disguise themselves as men, and throw them into middle-class “let’s get a job” situations. Hey, it makes sense… at least, the author says so. It’s her party, who am I to rain on her parade?
Fortunately, these ladies all take to padding their crotches like a fish to water, and they are also smug and flippant in the process. In other words, they have awesomeness radiating out of every pore of their body. Luisa is now the cocky Mr Markham, the secretary to Somerton. Somerton is a spy master who, from his behavior here, is bent on making people believe that he’s a rabid serial killer so that they won’t guess that he’s a spy. He glowers at people, yells at them, snarls when he’s run out of glower and scowls, and generally acts like Bruce Banner experiencing withdrawal symptoms.
Oh, he is married. He also has what seems like six hundred bastards all over the place, cavorts with married women and prostitutes even after he’s married, but you know what really galls him and makes him want to dry hump puppies to death? His wife, whom he basically bought from her parents even after he knows that she’s in love with someone else, may be seeing that fellow still behind Somerton’s back. That… strumpet! The nerve of that tart! How dare she violate her marriage vows? Never mind. In between shagging wives of other men and paying prostitutes for happy times, he decides to sic a supposedly experienced assassin to trail after the wife in search for evidence that she’s the unfaithful lying whore of the household. The assassin, his staff, and later, “Mr Markham” would tell him that the wife seems pretty innocent in all of this, but Somerton is sure that his wife is being unfaithful.
Is it just me who feels that Somerton may be projecting his guilt on his wife? Nah, I don’t think it’s that, actually – Somerton lacks self awareness to such an extent that I doubt he is even capable of telling apart the color of the pot from the kettle.
That’s basically the story: Somerton gets used to “Mr Markham” in his household after testing the fellow’s loyalty by releasing his pet assassin on that fellow (and getting to see Luisa demonstrate her kung-fu on that guy). He eventually asks his new BFF to spy on the wife. Oh, and there is the occasional reminder now and then that Luisa has some sisters out there and all is still not well in Schlongflapping-Hamburger-Hootenanny-Land. In the meantime, Somerton does the forced seduction thing on his wife only to realize, oops, the marriage really is dead on water after all. You’d think a man who wants to win back the wife would try buying expensive gifts and taking her to a romantic getaway, but I guess super geniuses are above such plebeian gestures. Because this is a romance story, he’s also sleeping with Luisa and gets married to her by the last page.
I’m not sure how the guy went from “my wife is a faithless whore” to “I pledge my overused dipstick to my darling Luisa”, but I’m also not sure how Somerton, supposedly smart, can’t see through Luisa’s disguise despite some blatant “I am not a guy” slip-ups here, or how this whole set up is supposed to help Luisa or how the author manages to finish writing the last word in this story without someone telling her, “You know, maybe it’s better if we ship some Molly in cute pink little packages along with each book so that the reader will totally get everything in this book!”
The sad thing about How to School Your Scoundrel here is that there is a potentially very interesting story here – between Somerton and his wife. While Somerton’s wife is no saint, there is an established relationship between her and Somerton that is rife with possibilities. Luisa is too ridiculous to be taken seriously, she comes off like a third wheel most of the time, and her romance with Somerton actually makes her look like Somerton’s consolation prize. Also, the story has way too many gimmicks designed to show off the author’s farcical side, and the end result is a tale that often forgoes emotional and character development for farcical turn of events that I find more bewildering than amusing. The problem here, I feel, is that the author is going for farce, but she at the same time doesn’t jump off the cliff and go all crazy with the farce. Farce is campy and over the top. The premise of the story is farcical in nature, but the language employed by the author isn’t farcical enough to convey her intentions clearly. Because the farcical gimmicks in this story are turned up rather than toned down, the sense of wrongness in this story is therefore amplified.
How to School Your Scoundrel is a pretty memorable book at the end of the day, but I’m afraid it’s not for the right reasons. It’s that kind of story that has me blinking rapidly as I turn the pages, until I reach the last page in a state of daze and can only mumble, “I like turtles!” for the next thirty minutes.