Signet, $6.99, ISBN 0-451-21788-8
Historical Romance, 2006
Asbestos underpants, check. War bunker, check. Oh, hello. Pardon me, I’m just getting ready to review a Jo Beverley book. From my experience, even if I give this author’s book a good grade, I’ll still be swamped nonetheless by very angry fans who are furious that I don’t believe that this author walks and writes on water. I suppose that me living countries away from these fans is the only thing that prevents me from looking out the window one night and seeing this huge straw effigy of Rothgar burning in my front lawn. Nonetheless, I must commend the author for having built such a loyal following of fans. They must be enjoying tremendously the story she is writing and at the end of the day, that should be the only thing that matters.
I am relieved nonetheless that I do not have to pan The Rogue’s Return today, although I’m still getting ready for an assault on my mailbox, heh. No, I don’t love the story, either, I’m afraid. I’m actually quite lukewarm to the story and the heroine is the primary reason for this. It’s quite a familiar theme of many of my reviews of this author’s books, really: heroine Nan Otterburn is too eager to seize any opportunity, even unreasonable ones, to play the martyr. The hero, Simon St Bride, on the other hand, is a decent foil to the obviously mentally unstable Nan – he’s nearly one-dimensionally perfect and is obviously a fanservice from the author to her readers, but I like the way he becomes protective of Nan.
The set-up of the story makes me laugh, by the way. In Canada, Simon St Bride is about to go back to England. But first, he has some loose ends to settle. He has been trying to catch Lancelot McArthur, the English Officer of Indian Affairs who has been embezzling funds from England that are meant for the natives that helped the country in the recent war. Oh, you know England. Always a country that cares deeply for the natives of the countries it takes the trouble to civilize, after all! How shameful that a man like Lancelot is seeking to pervert the noble doctrines of the Great British Empire. Lucky for the future of the world as we know it, England has noble gentlemen of valor and, of course, noble blood that will defend its doctrines against men like Lancelot! Even if these men call themselves the Company of Rogues, that is. I generally don’t think it is tasteful for a bunch of guys to give themselves a name like that without any hint of irony unless they are a traveling troupe of actors, but hey, whatever floats the boats of these noble heroes, I suppose. Although… sheesh. “We are the Company of Rogues!” – are these guys for real? What’s next? Villains announcing that they are the Legion of Doom? Heroines banding together to call themselves the Virginal Sisters of the Bleeding Cross?
If there should be a Virginal Sisters of the Bleeding Cross, though, heroine Nan will be the founding mother superior of the nunnery of hair suits. I have to stop myself from making the sign of the cross – and I am not even Christian, pardon my blasphemy – when the heroine announces that because everyone in her life has died, she is now certain that the hero will die too as a result of being a “wicked, deceitful sinner”. This is on page 71, by the way, so the usual suspects who will send me the usual emails insisting that I am making stuff up to blaspheme the author’s infallible sanctity can go reread that page before sending me those emails. Anyway, that scene I’ve mentioned is just an example of how poor Nan, clearly irrational and in need of some corrective therapy, will pretty much pull anything out of thin air to turn herself into a martyr. If you are allergic to these kinds of heroines who will do anything to attain their stigmata in a romance novel, maybe it’s wise to tread with caution where Nan is concerned.
Nan pretends to be Jane Otterburn and as Jane, she is the ward of Simon’s friend Isaiah. When Lancelot insinuates that the reclusive Jane may be having an incestuous affair with Isaiah, Simon challenges that man to a duel. Hearing about the duel, Isaiah decides that he should have fought in that duel instead of Simon – the gene for martyrdom truly exists, I tell you – so he decides to get his gun ready and… er, charge towards the duel site with guns blazing, I suppose. Alas, Isaiah is fiddling with the gun when he ends up shooting himself. Fatally. By this point, I am laughing so hard that tears nearly roll down my cheeks. Ooh, my goodness, Ms Beverley, what have I done to deserve such hilarious comedy? It’s not even my birthday yet!
What, Ms Beverley is not being funny? She’s serious? Oops, my bad.
Anyway, Isaiah insists that Simon, who has rushed to his side, marries Jane because Jane has no one else to take care of her now. Jane of course is not happy to “trap” Simon like that. Besides, she’s the illegitimate half-sister to the real Jane who died on the trip here so she’s now a Wicked Sinful Woman who deserves to burn in hell, et cetera, so how can she even believe that Simon will care for her? As for Simon, he is thinking of marrying for love, but alas, he is a responsible fellow so he will do as his trigger-happy kamikaze buddy tells him to.
As Jane boils and stews in the cauldron of guilt that she has happily set up and light up the fire to, Simon gets injured in the duel and there are plenty of opportunities for Jane to show everyone what a noble selfless healing super-duper woman she is when she’s not carrying the weight of liars, sinners, and harlots everywhere on her shoulders. Along the way, characters who will obviously get their books next or have starred in books in the past show up as blatant advertisements before going their merry way. On the bright side, Simon eventually falls for Jane and it’s a surprisingly tender rush into love for this man. He’s a realistic character in the sense that his attitude and prejudices are very much those of a nobleman of his time but he at the same time is never an unpleasant character because of these beliefs. But since he is perfect and eager to love while she is just eager to get crucified for a variety of sins, their relationship becomes a familiar play of he offering her the moon and trying to reason with her while Jane is only too eager to make her life a living hell as an atonement for all her sins real or imagined.
Once the characters reach England, the pace of this book picks up so much that it’s like walking out of a quiet room to find oneself right in the middle of the landing strip of a very busy airport. From that moment, the book feels really rushed as it hurtles to the inevitable denouement where Jane continues to pile more and more reasons to hate herself (if Simon loves her and keeps being married to her, he may lose everything!) until I am quite peeved that Simon shows up and produces some solutions to her. I am so hoping to see her running towards some cliff, wild-eyed and screaming that she is the new antichrist and she must die or the world will be doomed since she is convinced that she is evil incarnate, before jumping off to a spectacular finish that befits her status as a hysterical loonybin. Am I the only one laughing in disbelief as well as morbid amusement when it takes only five minutes of Simon reassuring her that nobody will know that she is Nan Otterburn for our heroine to quickly change her mind and squeal that she will be a nice and happy wife to Simon after all? Three hundred plus pages of incessant self-loathing and self-recriminations, magically erased by a brief reassurance from the man she loves! I wish men are really that talented in real life when it comes to erasing all our doubts and insecurities. We women will be a happier lot if that is the case. But that may mean that we would have to be in the same state of mind as Nan Otterburn and if that is the case, I would have happily asked for a sex change at once.
Maybe it’s just me being a cynical person who finds the heroine’s sober and dour self-flagellation simultaneously over-the-top ridiculous and comedic, but The Rogue’s Return keeps me entertained thoroughly as a story featuring a desperately stupid heroine who is trying really hard to find any excuse to fling herself over a cliff. Simon is a very patient man who will no doubt for the rest of his life with Nan coddle her and reassure her that he doesn’t hate her every other day, but at least he’s getting some jolly fine time with Nan in the sack. At least, that’s what Ms Beverley tells me and I will just suspend my disbelief at the notion of a wet sack like Nan being a firecracker in bed (“You came after a mere two minutes? Is it because of my white trash roots? You don’t have orgasms like you used to anymore and it is all my fault! I knew it! I am a disgusting troll unworthy of love! Leave me now! Find someone else to love! I’ll just remember our hot sex to warm myself as I freeze to death on the streets, alone and unloved like I deserve to be. LEAVE ME NOW!!!”) because, truly, I’d like to believe that people, even fictitious ones, have at least one useful trait.
If Jo Beverley wants to pass off over-the-top martyrs in need of a few head checks as virtuous heroines and she promises to make her stories as campy and laugh-out-loud funny as The Rogue’s Return, I’m on board the love train. Can we have for the next book a heroine who tries to hang herself only to bungle it up and is forced to flail around like a helpless suffocating chicken for ten minutes before the hero saves her? Or better still, a heroine who decides to burn a cottage with her inside so that the hero will never ever ruin his life by marrying her, only to accidentally end up burning the neighboring cottage instead? With a crippled and blind old lady still inside that cottage? I’d pay hardcover price to see the reaction of the hysterical heroine to that, I tell you, because it will be prime dark comedy at its finest!