Zebra, $6.99, ISBN 0-8217-7787-4
Historical Romance, 2006
I don’t know if I’m just getting older and therefore becoming more dour or maybe it’s just that My Favorite Marquess is really that annoying, because the hero of this story truly tests my patience. He’s incredibly stupid and insufferably annoying. If there is anything guaranteed to make me want to turn into the Incredible Romance Novel Shredding Machine mode, it’s the combination of stupidity and jackassery in the main characters. A smart jackass can be fun, especially when the jackass is witty. A stupid jackass, on the other hand…
This is a deception story. Simply put, until the last few chapters, the heroine Violet Wingate Treacher remains – often unbelievably so – clueless to the fact that she is being played by the hero. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me try to explain the plot first. Violet inherits the Trembledown Manor from her late husband. She’s a typical widow, by the way, who has never experienced jollies in bed and who wasn’t treated very well by the husband. Nonetheless, Violet starts out having a point of view rather unique among Regency-era historical romance heroines: when the neighbor, Sebastian Cavenaugh, starts sending letters asking her to sell him the Manor, she realizes that the Manor can be the key to the realization of her own ambitions. She realizes that, as the spoiled and snobbish daughter of a wealthy tradesman who eventually married a nobleman in a purely practical manner, she really has no direction in life. Now, she thinks that perhaps she can rebuild the tumbledown manor and do something with it in order to give her life a sense of purpose. After rejecting Sebastian’s offer, she decides to travel to Cornwall to survey the Manor. She has never seen it or set foot on it before, you see.
The problem is, Sebastian won’t take no for an answer. You see, he is one of the ubiquitous Nobleman Spy people who needs the Manor to (a) facilitate a smuggling ring and (b) catch a spy that is trying to get Napoleon freed from Alba. Only in these romance novels, I tell you, that smugglers and spy-catchers are always one and the same. Sebastian has an alter-ego, the dreaded highwayman or smuggler or whatever Robert the Brute. So as Robert the Brute (where the only thing that distinguishes him from Sebastian the Brute is, apparently, a mask), he is having fun eluding the authorities one night when he happens to take for hostage/escape leeway the entourage of Violet and her traveling companions. Ho, this is his chance! He’ll scare Violet into selling the Manor to him! He does this by kidnapping her in full view of the others. What’s a little thing like a woman’s reputation when there is a spy to be caught, eh?
Sebastian is a very horrid person in my opinion. It is bad enough that he thinks nothing of ruining Violet completely like this, he also allows her to believe that they’ve had sex when she gets drunk and allows him some PG-rated liberties with her body. And then as Sebastian, he pulls this Sir Percy Blakeney act by showing up acting like a fop, only to then cast aspersions on her reputation after she was kidnapped by Robert the Brute. When Violet is terrified and is willing to sell the Manor to him at last, he decides to prolong the torture while simpering, gloating, and leering inside. As Robert, he seduces her. As Sebastian, he torments her. There is no need for him to prolong the duality of his pointless masquerade since Violet already wants to sell the Manor, but there you go. Because Violet doesn’t know that Sebastian and Robert are one and the same, she is pretty much played by that man while the stupid, stupid man decides that Violet is now a spy and therefore he has to keep up the charade. Only once he has slept with Violet and decides that he’d like to marry her does he drop the bombshell on Violet. How generous of him, I suppose.
Alexandra Bassett uses words like sneer, leer, gloat, and cackle with Sebastian even during his private thoughts. Now, Gargamel sneers when he has some smurfs in his cage. Skeletor gloats when he is sure that He-Man will fall into his trap. Daffy Duck cackles when he’s confident that he’ll outwit Bugs Bunny this time around. Why on earth is a romance hero gloating, sneering, leering, and cackling again? Then again, the use of those words is appropriate because Sebastian comes off like a schoolyard bully in this book. His emotional manipulation of a clueless Violet is reminiscent of someone who abuses his power over another person just because he can. It doesn’t help that Sebastian is really dumb. He suspects Violet of being a spy due to flimsy reasons. Oh dear, is England recruiting spies from the bottom of the barrel in the Dumb Factory now?
Violet is an interesting heroine because for the most part she is one of those rare heroines who isn’t afraid to want comforts, material or emotional, for herself because she thinks she deserves these comforts. She speaks her mind, has a cutting wit that she doesn’t hold back often, and she isn’t afraid to call a fool a fool. Unfortunately, she’s hopeless when she’s with Sebastian/Robert – then she becomes a harebrained romance heroine whose brainpower melts the moment the hero touches her. She is this close to making the hero pay when she realizes his deception and she makes some very devastatingly accurate pointed jabs at his stupidity and cruelty (which confirms that the author is well-aware of how wrong her hero often is). Unfortunately, before Violet is done with Sebastian, the bad guy shows up and Violet ends up having to be rescued. With this, she decides that Sebastian is right all along, he has the right to do what he did because there are spies everywhere, and this book gets a karate chop special from me.
It is most unfortunate that the heroine’s unfamiliarity with sexual experiences leaves her so vulnerable to the hero to the point that she confuses lust with love. It is disappointing that Alexandra Bassett chooses to take the easy way out by going the “he rescues her from danger so he’s alright now, see?” route when a long and satisfying groveling from Sebastian is in order. Seriously, even a romantic and heartfelt marriage proposal from Sebastian would have gone some way in redeeming him but that man nurses this sense of self-entitlement all the way to the end.
Apart from the sticking point of the hero deserving a few sticks of his own being beaten hard onto his head, the secondary characters are actually wonderful. They are stereotypical, yes, but Ms Bassett has a way with making them come off as funny in their interactions with Violet without coming off as forced. Honestly, I have no problems with Violet and ninety-nine percent of the cast in this story. I even adore the irritating cousin Henrietta “Hennie” Halsop. These secondary characters bring out the best in Violet. However, how can I recommend a book where every time the cackling, sneering, leering, gloating, and chuckling hero shows up, I start thinking of gruesome scenes of violent disembowelment? The rest of this book is pure gold that will appeal to readers looking for Regency romances with a touch of contemporary wit in the dialogues (kinda like Julia Quinn‘s books, really), but the hero often goes too far in his pointless manipulation and deception of the heroine. There are many things about Alexandra Bassett’s characterization and comedic style that I enjoy but I do wonder what the author must be thinking to knowingly make the hero so, so wrong only to then have the heroine insist at the end that he’s actually right all along. Shouldn’t there be a warning sticker on the cover, something like “Get this if you’re in the All Men Are Bitches phase and want to read something to reaffirm your mood!”?