Avon, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-06-286746-9
Historical Romance, 2019
Good lord, what’s with the face of the woman on the cover?
Julie Anne Long’s Lady Derring Takes a Lover is the start of a new series called The Palace of Rogues. The Palace of Rogues is the other name for The Grand Palace on the Thames, a refurbished boarding house in one of the seediest sides of London, run by the widow of the late Count of Derring, Delilah Swanpoole, and the late count’s mistress Mrs Angelique Breedlove. The two women first meet at the office of the dead man’s solicitor to dispute the fact that there is pretty much nothing left for them, and they eventually strike up an unlikely friendship over their shared circumstances as women who are cast adrift in a world that gives them little power just because of their sex.
When Delilah learns that her late husband has left behind a rundown building at 11 Lovell Street, right by the dock where the brothels, pubs, and gambling dens are, the two women decide, hey, why not just try to make something of their own with this building. Hence The Grand Palace on the Thames is born. Only, the old name of The Palace of Rogues just won’t die, much to Delilah’s dismay.
When it comes to stories set in a hotel, which is a staple especially in noir, the innkeeper is almost always relegated to the role of the only sane member of the cast – an observer surrounded by a passel of far more colorful and quirky characters. Despite being the lady in the title, poor Delilah falls into the same trap: her role for the most part here is a glorified bystander even when she’s the heroine in a romance with one of the guests, Captain Tristan Hardy. The bulk of her character development takes place in the early chapters when she befriends Angelique and they decide to set up shop together. Everything is downhill once the boarding house is open for business, and the sequel baits move in.
Mind you, the romance is enjoyable. Delilah is an adorable heroine with a refreshing ability to keep cool when things go crazy around her, and she is one of those rare heroines who genuinely come off as smart, self aware, and pragmatic. I also like that she forms strong friendships with other women instead of being the only virtuous woman in a sea of whores, a common and even beloved ugh-worthy trope in the romance genre. As for Tristan, he is actually on an assignment to stop a smuggling ring, and he is a guest to ascertain whether the late count’s widow is involved in the messy business. Of course, he falls for her, et cetera. Tristan is hot, affable, has a charming and even dorky kind of awkward way with expressing his feelings with words, and is from the wrong side of the street – seriously, I don’t know how any woman isn’t melting away just at the very notion of such a man.
However, these characters aren’t too deep, mostly because their romance feels truncated and abrupt. A big reason for this is that Lady Derring Takes a Lover is more of a set up of a series kind of book than a standalone romance. The romance is fighting for space with Tristan’s mission and the spotlights on the assortment of guests moving in. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing in this instance, as the author has put together a fun romp featuring a colorful cast of characters, with humor that works most of the time. Also, the author puts her uncanny ability to effortlessly transition from bringing on the ha-ha’s to packing a scene with glorious feels to good use here, as there are some hard-hitting scenes here and there, such as Delilah and Angelique’s first honest conversation when they meet again after their first encounter in the solicitor’s office. Oh, and the intimate scenes between Delilah and Tristan are exquisite and even poetic. The acts themselves aren’t too explicit, but the author’s way with words to bring out the raw emotions underlying every act makes those scenes far more sensual than they would seem on paper.
Hence, the biggest problem with this one is that the romance feels watered down, and this is doubly frustrating because the ground works for a grand romance are already here: solid likable characters, well-established back stories, great chemistry, and lots of feels. I still have lots of fun where the rest of the story is concerned, though, so all things considered, I love this one a little bit more than my three-oogie rating may suggest. I have to be fair, though – this story tries to do too much at the end of the day, and the author ends up shortchanging her main characters and myself as a result.