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Well that was better than I thought it would be.

The previous Eloisa James I read was a frothy confection of a thing, airy comedy of no particular time period with a penchant for slapstick. This one is quite firmly set in a Regency that is more historically accurate than most romance versions, and provides more depth than I was expecting.

For one thing, this may be the romance novel most focused on its side cast I have seen. And they're interesting. The heroine has come from the country and imposed herself on a distant cousin because she saw a man at a ball and fell in love with him; the cousin's brother is in love with her. All very usual. However, we get a lot of time devoted to the marital feud between the cousin and her husband, which is both funny and genuinely nasty (I assume they get a book of their own later). The hero has a young illegitimate son he is raising, and does not tell the heroine who the mother is. At all. For the entire book. By which I include the ending. As in, we do not find out because it is not relevant and the heroine does not particularly care. I kind of wanted to applaud.

It was perhaps cruel of James to steal the heroine's father's bad poetry from Christopher Smart-- after all poor Smart was both a genuine madman and a genuine poet, and as Johnson said I had as lief pray with him as any man-- but she does admit to it right up front, and that the lines are much, much better when not taken out of context. If people were quoting Kit Smart to me out of context every single day at breakfast for twenty years, I might also depart precipitously at the first hint of better things in life; it is certainly one of the more convincing reasons for a heroine not to want to go home that I can recall.

So, except for a couple of scenes that touched my embarrassment squick, and maybe two moments where the hero lapsed into the sort of annoying alpha-male aggravation that I sometimes suspect is contractually required because it reads as so tacked-on-afterward, this was a well-rounded comedy of manners afraid neither to let its characters play jokes on themselves nor to make them complicated. I'll take it.
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I wanted to read a romance novel that did not cause me to wish to throw it across the room or beat my head against the wall.

And hey! That's exactly what I got!

This is not a great book, but it's better than it had to be. It's self-consciously a Cinderella story, a frothy bubbly confection of a thing in which the hero has literally been given the war-re-enacting uncle from Tristram Shandy as a cross to bear in life, along with an entire castle (yes, castle, I told you this was Cinderella, he's the Prince of-- consults book-- that part of Ruritania known as Warl-Marburg-Baalsfeld) full of Old Retainers of the eccentric sort, including of course illegitimate half-brother, elephant, and lion. And the heroine spends much of the book dressed up as her own stepsister and therefore has to bring her stepsister's three adored tiny dogs along with her everywhere, despite the fact that she is not at all a tiny dog person.

You know. That sort of book.

But it follows the time-honored rules of screwball; it is not a comedy of embarrassment, ever, it does not run out of plot halfway through and go digging around for a villain the way some romances like to, and the hero's original fiancée is a perfectly nice girl who does not get treated badly. For that matter, even the wicked stepmother is basically doing the best she can, although that does not make her a nice person.

And I have to like the hero, because his one goal in life is to run off to Tunisia and dig up Carthage in the correct academic manner so he knows it's done right. But he has to Marry For Money, of course, to feed his uncle and his lion...

If you're looking for correct period anything, this is not your book. This is a book which has kicked over the traces, admits cheerfully that it takes place in never-never-land, and grabbed anything from the entire eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it thought was shiny. Honestly I approve-- I think this is a sounder approach than trying to write a plausible historical while still using all the standard romance clichés, which happens a lot. It's not terrible on gender, though it is not spectacularly good. It is basically what it wants to be: a lot of fun.

I should try more of James now, though I freely admit I am running out of non-throwing-things romance novels. I have read all of Laura Kinsale and Lydia Joyce, the Jennifer Crusie I care about, the Julia Quinn that seemed survivable, and the Loretta Chase that does not make me want to scream. I need to track down the new Victoria Janssen. Does anyone have recommendations? Suzanne Brockmann maybe? Other ideas?


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March 2017

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