Harlequin Historical, $6.50, ISBN 978-0-373-29816-7
Historical Romance, 2015
Playing the Rake’s Game is such a missed opportunity. A cat and mouse’s game of a romance, with an actual seduction plot by the heroine, set in a sugar plantation in Barbados – that sounds like free Godiva’s chocolate up for grabs after enduring a diet of cold porridge for a month or so. Unfortunately, things don’t pan out the way I’ve hoped. The story of my life, and that’s not just a song by One Direction.
Ren Dryden walks away from his title to head out to Barbados. Oh, noblemen do that all the time in 1830s England, don’t you know. Having a title is like having a Rolls Royce, it’s just a status symbol, and nobody cares if you decide to dump that Rolls Royce by the road one fine day. So, back to Ren, you see, his family is crippled by debts. He can’t sell anything, naturally, as status must be preserved, so he instead heads off to play the manager of Sugarland, a sugar plantation he has inherited from a cousin. He owns 51% of the place, so he’s the boss, and he’s determined to make this endeavor work so that he can make shiploads of money and make everyone happy.
Emma Ward, our heroine, owns the other 49%. And this is where the story becomes fuzzy when it comes to her motivations, which is pretty much 51% of the plot if we want to play the percentage game here. She wants to protect herself and keep Sugarland free from pesky interference from other people, especially when those people come with penises attached. She reminds me of those silly little girls on Tumblr who claim to hate everything cis, white, and male on sight… until they finally get a boyfriend and their online personalities suddenly stop updating the Tumblr page, until the inevitable break-up happens, that is.
So, Emma. Here’s what I don’t understand. She owns 49% of the place. No matter how much mental gymnastics I try to do, 49% is still smaller than 51%, and short of murdering Ren in his sleep, I don’t see how she can effectively claim ownership of Sugarland. In this story, she tries to isolate and inflict petty little hardships on him, apparently in hope that she would drive him back to England. Here’s the thing: at the same time, the ranch is besieged by “accidents” and a neighbor is becoming increasingly insistent and even forceful in his pressing of attention on her in order to gain control of Sugarland. We are basically in “rancher lady needs help – evil land-grubbing villain is hovering” territory, just take off the cowboy hats and put everyone in Barbados instead of Texas. So, Emma’s decision to play games can’t take place at a worse moment, making her seem like an addled dingbat who can’t sort out her priorities.
Finally, when it’s clear that Ren is far more determined and capable than she gives him credit for, she decides to seduce him. Great, I approve. Seriously, I do. If you’ve been here long enough, you’d know I’m all about girl power like that, if only because I’m so tired of wilting damsels who just sit around with a sad face, waiting for heroes to come save them. Unfortunately, spreading her legs is the extent of her plan. Is she going to wrap him around her finger and hypnotize him into submission with the power of her bedazzling femininity? Is she going to manipulate him into taking out the enemies, or at least into complacent contentment so that he’d always let her be in charge?
No. Her plan is, basically, spread them and hope desperately that he doesn’t check the account books and realize that the plantation is not doing as well as she leads him to imagine. Yes, because any halfway sane business owner wouldn’t check the account books. She doesn’t even hide or doctor them, my goodness. Can you imagine what happens when he finally takes a look at the book? Yes, it’s time for the “Who’s the whore?” game, and frankly, I can’t blame Ren in this instance. Emma really screws things up for herself.
The sad thing is, she’s halfway there. She could have let him know that the plantation is down the drain and convince him to sell the place to her at a low price. (He won’t, but that’s not the point – she could have tried this instead of the dumb scheme she ends up concocting.) Otherwise, she could have gone all the way – seduce him and use him. Instead, Emma’s plan is just another sad display of what happens when we let the average dingbat heroine to believe that she is capable of making her own decision, and her seduction ends up turning her into a victim. And for what? I’ve no idea what she is thinking to do all this!
Maybe she’s just confused, stupid. I don’t know. But even if I do muster some patience to follow her incompetent failure of a Mata Hari act, I also have to sit through her constant parroting of “Shut up! I can take care of myself! Go away!” type of yammering when it’s pretty clear that she needs someone to come bail her out. The author wants me to believe that Emma is a capable manager of Sugarland, but what I end up seeing in this story is someone whose confidence in her abilities far outstrip her actual abilities.
Therefore, all the way to the last few chapters, I have a story where it’s basically the heroine being wrong all the way to the end, with the grand climax being her sobbing like a bobblehead as the hero and his buddy rush to her rescue. All the while she’s coming up with dumb plans that only sabotage herself while insisting that she’s far more capable than she actually is. Ren’s elevation from rake to hero is at the expense of the heroine, who becomes a hopeless idiot by the time the story comes to its conclusion – an idiot who is at the end of the day just so grateful that Ren loves her despite her flaws. I wish I can be as charitable as Ren.