Sourcebooks Casablanca, $6.99, ISBN 978-1-4022-6603-4
Historical Romance, 2013
It doesn’t take much to see that the heroine of this story, the Lady Mercy Danforthe in the title, is inspired by the heroine of Jane Austen’s Emma. That way, whenever romance readers accuse the heroine of being an unfeminine and unlikable bossy twit, the author can hug her bast of Jane Austen and tweet back at those snotty sourpusses, “See, Jane Austen did that too, so where’s your likability checklist now, huh? Go drown in pink tutu and get lost.”
However, I hope people aren’t expecting a melodrama of manners when they open this book. Any similarity to the time period of early 19th century is mostly like a happy accident.
Lady Mercy Danforthe is now all grown up from her last appearance in the author’s Sydney Dovedale series. And by “grown up”, I mean she has grown breasts and can have sex even by today’s legal standards without making the reader fear that the FBI is going to break down the door soon and drag everybody to jail. She has the reputation for being manipulative and bossy, and it’s a reputation that she revels in – going as far as to don disguises to do what she feels is needed to be done. There is a “failure” that she doesn’t like to talk about, though. Five years ago, she and our hero Rafe Harley eloped in the heat of the moment, only to have the whole thing dissolved by her brother shortly after.
When the story opens, Rafe is left standing at the altar by Mercy’s maid, and Mercy feels that she should help fix up Rafe again so that he and Molly can get back together and make a go at marriage like she knows they are meant to do. Rafe resists, as he blames her for everything that is wrong with his life, including his latest aborted effort to walk down the aisle. (It’s her fault to take Molly to London, you see, as if Molly remained a provincial backward lady, she wouldn’t have big dreams that do not involve Rafe.) But the passion between them remains strong even five years later, and you know how hormonal randy fools can be sometimes. When the loins get going, everything goes.
Now, I am not usually a stickler for historical details being all accurate in my stories. That’s because I lack the background knowledge to nitpick the author’s work, heh, but seriously, while I may make fun of a gross error or two, usually a little boo-boo won’t put me off the story completely. Here, however, the author’s approach to historical accuracy – or the lack of it – is my biggest hindrance to enjoying the story.
This early 19th century England is a wonderfully democratic place where maids marry Earls and ladies marry farmers without anybody that matters batting an eye. Mercy having a criminally lax brother and Rafe having parents that were the poster couple for Democratic Fantasy England may explain a bit about their attitude, but still, it’s hard to buy what the author is selling here. You see, one of the main reasons why Rafe resent Mercy is because she believes that she ranks higher than him in the social hierarchy of things and has the gall to say so into his face. But the thing is, she’s right. She’s the sister of an Earl. He’s the illegitimate son of a nobleman. No matter how he dissects it, she’s right – she is his better when it comes to the way things are in those days. Therefore, one of the main conflicts in this story is the hero having it out for the heroine for something that should have been perfectly acceptable in that time.
See my problem here? It’s like a story set in the Viking days where the heroine hates the hero for raiding other lands and looting those places. The author is asking me to actively impose the values of today into her story, to judge the characters based on these values, when I’d prefer that she creates a story that is believable for the time period the story is set in and let me immerse myself into that story. I don’t want the story to conform entirely to my values to the point of it being totally unrealistic, but that is what the author is serving up here.
It doesn’t help that the only character that judges our good guys by the standards of that time is portrayed as an object of derision – her values are so antiquated and undemocratic. That, or pity. The poor dear, being against marriages of people from different stations in life, what kind of 19th century person is that!
And then, we have Mercy visiting Rafe in his house many times and spending a long time there each time, alone and unchaperoned, with nobody blinking an eye at the whole thing. There is Mercy who doesn’t mind making out and more with Rafe without thinking of what this can do to her reputation and social standing. Or Rafe seducing her without any intention of marrying her or thinking of the consequences if he is caught messing with the Earl’s unwed sister. People talk to one another like equals even when it’s between a farmer and an Earl.
This won’t be so awful if the author had gone completely magic fantasy England on me, creating a version of England populated by flying ponies and unicorns and what not, but she just has to have her characters bring up propriety and social norms of that time when it’s convenient, just as these characters dismiss or forget these things when it’s convenient at other moments. The author can’t have her cake and eat it too, if you ask me. She can’t be all wishy washy and go from “Screw the rules!” to “Hey, let’s talk about the rules because the characters need an excuse to prolong the coitus a bit more!” She should have gone all or nothing, as right now, she gives people enough rope to hang her for committing sacrilege to the sacred tropes blessed by Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen, the scribes of the English historical romance bible.
The best thing about this story is the author’s sense of humor, which is a nice mix of clever wit and ribaldry. However, her humor is on the undisciplined side – she’s like a stand-up comedian who also happens to be the person in the bar that is most impressed with her routine. The characters have a tendency to argue for too long over the same thing, going in circles chapter after chapter until they resemble loud bickering children that just won’t stop. Also, these characters don’t show clear character growth – they are the same people from start to end – and the whole battle of sexes thing is reduced into a dumb “women are sneaky and manipulative, but they are powerless to resist the mighty penis/men are all dumb brutes with only sex on their minds, but that’s okay, because women love penises (attached to their true loves, of course, because these women aren’t whores)” routine.
If that’s not disappointing enough, Rafe is unappealingly self-absorbed, doing things and wanting to stick it everywhere in Mercy without thinking of the consequences on her. Late in the story, he does a 180 and decides that she’s too good for him, so he dumps her – just like that, without even thinking for a second that he may just have ruined her even worse than he already had by doing so. But this is bad only if I hold him to the norms of the time that this story is supposed to be set in. If I think of the whole cast as the lunatics of Saved by the Bell, then he’s just an annoying puppy that just won’t stop humping everyone’s leg and bites when one tries to shoo him off.
Lady Mercy Danforthe Flirts with Scandal shows some promise, but until the author reins in the self-indulgent excesses in her writing, the promise is going to remain just that – a promise.