Zebra, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-4201-4094-9
Historical Romance, 2017
About fifteen years ago, Callista Brooke learned that she would be married off by her loathsome father to a lecherous pig. Desperate, she turned to her best friend, George Gordon Richard Augustus Audley for help. And I’m giving you the hero’s full name because he is referred to as both Gordon and Richard in this story, and readers who are not paying close attention may be flummoxed the first time “Richard” shows up in the book. Anyway, Gordon was moved to try to help Callista escape, but they were soon caught and, well, to say that they weren’t allowed to even see one another again is a huge understatement. Both their fathers (Gordon’s hates him too) conspired to have Gordon shipped off to Australia on trumped up charges.
Still, things didn’t turn out too bad for the two of them. Gordon became a fixer-upper hero of all trades and today he has friends in high places. She married a much older man, who soon became a good friend, and when he died, she took his illegitimate children and her surrogate parents (former slaves – and of course they will show up; every heroine needs one or two devoted black fam members to show how accepting and democratic she is, after all) and moved to set up a well-received seamstress business in Washington.
Their paths meet again when Gordon is asked by a friend to do a favor for this friend’s friend: to locate and bring home an English lady who has been estranged from her family and is now setting up shop in Washington. With Napoleon filming his BBC autobiographical drama series in Alba, England is now sending the full force of her troops to America to show those bison-humpers whom the boss is, and this lady’s family wants her out of there and far away from the crossfire. Guess whom this lady is. Gordon soon finds her – just in the nick of time, as she’s about to be brutalized by some English soldiers – and now, they have to travel to Baltimore to rescue the rest of her family from the wartime drama taking place in the country.
Once a Rebel sounds exciting, doesn’t it? In many ways, it is pretty exciting indeed, as the author reminds me that she can still create some good atmosphere of incoming danger and suspense. The first chapter is basically back story, but the subsequent next few chapters are prime arse-on-edge-of-seat material. Callie seems feisty and tough in a good way – when she gets into trouble early on, it’s because she’s outnumbered and taken by surprise rather than because she’s stupid – and Gordon seems like a nice guy of a hero who can still break your neck if you are the bad guy. When they meet, they easily gravitate into working well together, all willing to communicate instead of spoiling for a fight with one another.
This pattern of easy camaraderie continues throughout the rest of the story, and I really like this. Both Gordon and Callie seem like partners on equal footing rather than savior and damsel in a clinch, and when the author wants to drum up danger and suspense, she does so in what seems like an effortless manner. There are many times when I find myself thinking that the author who wrote some of my favorite romance novels back in those old days is back.
Well, almost. This story is still marred by some of the same problems that marred the author’s more recent offerings. Information dumping offers too often in a too-obvious manner here, and often, secondary characters introduce themselves not merely by telling their names but also an entire paragraph of back story that nobody asked for. Some of the information dumping feels out of place too. For example, there is this scene where Gordon explains to Callie why, despite her best efforts to treat her former slaves as members of her family, a part of them will always remember that she was once their slave owner and remain somewhat wary of opening up entirely to her. Fair enough, and I actually have no objections to such a scene, except for the fact that it is Gordon, a British through and through, schooling this to Callie, a woman who has spent far more years that he has in the West Indies as well as America. How did he become so insightful? The scene would make more sense to me if it was another American who explains this concept to Callie. From what I have seen so far, nothing about Gordon suggests that he should have such an insight, unless I’m to assume that romance heroes are all-knowing, I guess.
The romance, incidentally, is also one of the most unrealistic aspects of the story. It all begins with instant lust, and worse, the lusting happens so soon after she is nearly assaulted. Instead of feeling terrified, she is instead drooling over how hot Gordon is. Instead of focusing on how to get everyone back to England alive or feeling the shock of how Callie would have endured a brutal fate if he was a few minutes too late, he instead drools over her see-through chemise and what not. It’s all downhill from here: lack of plausible conflict to keep the romance angst going (the conflict that is present is so silly and mundane, it’s not worth bringing up), lusting at all the weird moments, and more. I can certainly buy their friendship, but all that weirdly-timed lusting makes it hard for me to believe that the love is real. I wish the author had instead taken time to show me how the characters’ friendship eventually turn to love. All this “OMG! SUDDENLY HORNY NOW!” lusting feels like some half-hearted effort to make the story seem more “romantic”.
Also, the last few chapters that take place in England are just sugar poured over sugar. I know, the author loves to wrap everything up about her characters in one neat bow, so that by the last time, nobody has any more angst and everyone is way too happy to be real, but such saccharine closures end up not only robbing the main characters of their complexity, these closures turn them into belly beam-shooting Care Bears in an orgy with Barney the Purple Dinosaur while I flee for the clinic to beg for more insulin shots.
All things considered, Once a Rebel is a typical three oogie read. It has some strong, good qualities that make it worth a look, just as it has some cringe-inducing qualities that make me wince. Still, I’d like to think that there are signs here to suggest that the author may be getting her mojo back.