HQN, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-373-77676-4
Historical Romance, 2012
The synopsis at the back cover of Kasey Michaels’s What an Earl Wants tells only one third of the whole picture. Yes, Gideon Redgrave, the Earl of Saltwood, and our heroine Jessica Linden fight for the custody of her half-brother Adam (Gideon is his legal guardian upon the death of Jessica’s father). The first chapter sets Jessica up as an unorthodox heroine – she is a seductress, a femme fatale who owns an illegal gambling house with a good read of men. That is just a big tease, as she turns out to be a more standard damsel in distress with no control over her own life.
What the packaging doesn’t tell me is that the brother-up-for-grabs thing is tossed aside after 62 pages for some amateur investigation into what seems like a systematic murdering of well-positioned noblemen who happen to be known members of the Hellfire Club. Both the fathers of Jessica and Gideon were involved in the club too, as was Jessica’s late husband, and they soon learn that the deaths of these men may be part of something far more sinister. And we all know what happens when they dig deep into the closet full of sordid secrets, right? Lots of unsavory details come to light, making this book easily one of the darkest stories from the author.
And it’s dark, mostly because the Hellfire Club members here are not heroic or dashing rakes at all. They are monsters, especially towards women, and I’m sure you can guess at the nature of the demons Jessica is carrying with her in this story. Still, the sordid elements of this story are offset nicely by some darkly humorous turn of events, giving this story a savvy self-aware noir type of feel.
Unfortunately, Gideon is the only character that can appreciate the darkly amusing turn of events he and Jessica often find themselves in. In many ways, he’s the only sane guy in the whole story – every other person here is either bent of carrying out his or her plan for vengeance, too busy playing the victim, or watching from the sidelines while waiting for the author to write the sequel books.
While the mystery part is intriguing enough to carry the story where I am concerned, the romance is comparatively less interesting. A big part of the problem is Jessica: she’s often so stupid and wrong that when she occasionally manages to come to an obvious conclusion, it is as if the skies had opened and the angels had come down to serenade us all with benediction. In fact, the true test of a reader’s patience is the first 60 pages of this story, when Jessica is constantly made a fool of by the hero as well as by her own ineptness and her inability to think before she acts. This darling is not only dim-witted, she can’t stand up to the hero at all, culminating in a creepy first love scene where she can’t bring herself to tell him no so she rationalizes that it’s okay if he wasn’t actually raping her.
There are other unpleasant aspects of Jessica: she is mired in disturbing self-loathing. While this is understandable, considering the events in her past, it also leads to some tedious scenes of her thinking the worst of the hero whenever he tries to be nice to her because she can’t imagine why anyone will want to do so. Jessica also has a huge bizarre sense of misplaced guilt that doesn’t make sense at all, and she spends the whole book reeling like a dazed goldfish because of this.
The romance, therefore, is actually a rescue fantasy, one in which Gideon waltzes in to make Jessica feel like a human being again with his love. Alas, love here on his part seems more like a fetish for female victims, as he decides that he’s in love with Jessica abruptly in the story without the author showing me why he can come to that conclusion. As for Jessica, well, she doesn’t know what she wants or what she is doing pretty much all the time here, so when she says that she’s in love with Gideon, it’s more like she has finally found the third male authority figure to meekly follow. Mind you, the author is fully aware of Jessica’s faults here, as she has the hero and other secondary characters remark on Jessica’s incredible ability to be always wrong or to always lose control of any situation. I can only hazard that Jessica is an, er, interesting experiment of sorts on the author’s part.
The victim-saved aspect of the romance aside, there is an appealing take home message in this story: as Gideon’s grandmother and several other women in this story demonstrate, women have little rights in the early 19th century, so often, they have to be coldly pragmatic to survive. Either you take control of your sexuality, and men will control you through sex. Nobody will help you when a man abuses you, so it’s up to you to free yourself, even if it means doing things that would be normally considered “not nice” (to put it mildly). And yet, the author severely undermines her own message by having Jessica, the biggest victim of all the women in this story, getting the conventional happy ending while the two women who are shown to stand up for themselves are portrayed as either haunted by guilt or on a fast track to Alcoholics Anonymous. It seems like author wanted to make her story somewhat feminist in nature but she also wanted to appeal to readers that prefer the more “romance friendly” men-above-women position, so she ended up trying to please both parties and delivering a message that was neither here nor there.
It’s a pity. What an Earl Wants is an interesting read at the end of the day, but that’s because of the sordid mystery that is the backbone of the story. The romance isn’t too interesting and the heroine needs a shrink and a life coach more than she needs a husband.