Harlequin Historical, $5.99, ISBN 978-0-373-29598-2
Historical Romance, 2010
At 18, Polly Brandon is ready to see and experience the world. Okay, maybe not the world, but Oporto, Portugal. Prior to her first ever sea voyage, Polly studied and later taught briefly at a school for deportment, until circumstances saw her leaving the school to stay with her sister Nana. You may have read Nana’s story in Marrying the Captain. However, Polly eventually became restless with her life. When her sister Laura found love with a surgeon in The Surgeon’s Lady and she and her husband eventually moved to Oporto to manage a makeshift hospital, they invite Polly over to assist them. Polly could read to the kids, comfort the patients, that kind of thing. Polly decides to accept the invitation. Who knows, maybe she can find some semblance of direction or purpose in her life by doing so.
Lt Colonel Hugh Philippe Junot, our hero, is feeling restless too. He was recently promoted to his current rank, but he soon grew bored with all the pencil-pushing that comes with his new responsibilities. An encounter with a dying soldier sees him embarking on a new mission: with the blessings of his superior, he will observe and interview the marines in order to come up with an official report on improvements that can be implemented to improve the efficiency and living conditions of these men. As chance would have it, he and Polly find themselves on the ship headed for Oporto, and an unlikely bond takes root from that moment onward.
I have to warn you: this book isn’t an easy read as it doesn’t shy away from depicting the harsh realities of war at a time when Napoleon Bonaparte is throwing a big party and everyone is invited, but the second half or so of the book plunges deep into the heart of darkness, so to speak, that even I am taken aback by the sudden shift in tone and pacing of the story. The second half of the story is gripping, sometimes terrifying, and Ms Kelly does a good job here in showing me how sometimes there are many shades of gray in war.
However, I find myself thinking that I miss the quiet intimacy shared by Hugh and Polly – or Brandon, as he charmingly calls her – in the first half of the story. Part of the problem arises from the feeling of déjà vu that I get when I first encounter the characters in this story. Carla Kelly doesn’t recycle her characters to the extent that, say, Jayne Ann Krentz and Stephanie Laurens tend to do, but there are enough superficial similarities between Polly and her sisters as well as Hugh and the other sisters’ beau, so much so that when the more action-paced second half happens, the limited character development in that second half means that Polly and Hugh don’t truly manage to distinguish themselves from those other characters.
Like her sister Laura, Polly is a strong-willed woman who finds courage and determination in the face of adversity to become a more resilient and remarkable person. Polly also has some ugly duckling issues, but she is so easily adored and loved by everyone she encounters in this story, so much so that this baggage of hers seems tacked on for the sake of giving Polly something to sigh over. Hugh, like Oliver Worthy, is a good man who hides a serious and committed drive to serve the country and his fellow man underneath a calm and cheerful exterior. Like Oliver and Philemon, Hugh is a hero, not because he is the most virile and alpha male in the story but because he is just an ordinary person who displays remarkable courage and persistence when it comes to adversity. He doesn’t want to become a hero, it’s just him willingly doing what he does best that makes him one.
I adore Polly and Hugh, make no mistake, but I also feel that they share enough similarities to the characters in the previous books. When the story shifts into a more action-paced and bleak focus on Polly and Hugh becoming prisoners of the French, the characters don’t get much chance to distinguish themselves from those characters.
Therefore, as much as I enjoy reading Marrying the Royal Marine, a part of me feels like the main characters and their romance are watered-down versions of those in the previous two books revolving around the Brandon sisters. As a result, I like this book, but I like those two books more.