Lady Rogue (Royal Rewards #3) by Theresa Romain

I’m a fairly new fan of Theresa Romain; I’ve only read a few of her earlier novels – but I liked them quite a bit. I decided to pick up Lady Rogue on a whim – I read the first book in the Royal Rewards series, Fortune Favors the Wicked, shortly after its release and enjoyed every bit of it, so when I saw she had another book in the series coming out, I decided to pick it up. Now, dear reader, if you know me at all, you know I abhor reading a series out of order. But I was: out of town, craving a great historical romance, and Ms. Romain is reliably good… so, here we are. And fortunately, the book works just fine on its own. Once again the author shines her spotlight on two principals struggling under the weight of their pasts. To her credit, Ms. Romain’s lead characters are nothing like the cookie cutter lords and ladies that clutter much of historical romance. Instead she writes about flawed and imperfect men and women trying – and sometimes failing – to find meaning in their lives. Her characters are dynamic, sympathetic figures you want to know more about. In that respect, Lady Rogue is a success. I wholeheartedly believed in the transformative power of love between her principal characters; unfortunately, the disjointed plot (plots) of the story leave something to be desired. Art forgery, theft, murder, blackmail, sexual abuse… Lady Rogue is an awkward mash-up of mystery and romance, and the author doesn’t quite pull it all off.

Lady Isabel Morrow tries to live her life above reproach. After the death of her husband, she quietly mourned his passing – silently dignified in her grief. Privately, she questioned everything about her life: her repressive childhood, her marriage to a virtual stranger, and what it might mean to finally be free to live life on her own terms. But as Lady Rogue begins, she’s further from finding those answers than she’s ever been. The surprise discovery that her dead husband Andrew, an art dealer, was also commissioning and selling art forgeries – stashing them in a secret room in the house, has left her struggling to reconcile the man she thought she knew with the stranger he was.

Shortly after discovering Andrew’s hidden cache of real and forged paintings (whose subject matter stirs up disquieting suspicions she desperately tries to quell), she learns the Duke of Ardmore plans to sell one of them to settle a gambling debt with a notorious and dangerous London crime-lord. Fearful of the scandal that might ensue should the new owner discover the painting is a copy – and what that might mean to the marriage prospects of Andrew’s young ward Lucy – Isabel decides to secretly switch the paintings. She reaches out to Callum Jenks, the police officer who investigated her husband’s death – and with whom she engaged in a passionate one-night affair (we’ll revisit this in a moment), for help. Despite her entreaties and explanations, he refuses.

Callum Jenks has found success as a Bow Street Runner, but the one man he wants – needs – to put away, Sir Frederick Chapple, is about to be released for lack of evidence. Callum knows Sir Frederick was the mastermind behind the theft at the Royal Mint (detailed in the first two books of the Royal Rewards series) – and is therefore ultimately responsible for the murder of his beloved brother Harry, a guard – but he can’t prove it. After an odd morning wherein he received a summons from Lady Isabel Morrow, and her even more surprising revelations and request for help (to break into the Duke of Ardmore’s house, steal a fake Botticelli and replace it with the original), he arrives at Newgate to Sir Frederick’s smug confidence in his own imminent release. Angry, disillusioned and questioning his life and purpose, he decides to help Lady Isabel after all.

Callum stirs up feelings Isabel never knew she could experience. Being with him again – working alongside him – reminds her of their passionate interlude, and how much she admires and likes him. He’s protective and careful with her, but he also looks at her as someone to be desired and admired – something Andrew never did. For his part, Callum was attracted to Isabel from the moment they first met. Memories of their one-night together plague him whenever they’re together and he can’t seem to stop wanting her… but the circumstances of their initial meeting, Isabel’s position in society and Callum’s work keep him from believing they can ever have a future together.

The slow burn affection and affair between Callum and Isabel is a highlight of the story. But perhaps you, like me, were surprised to discover they had already engaged in a one-night stand? Ms. Romain introduces this twist right from the outset (as if it’s no big deal although it’s completely uncharacteristic of her oh-so-proper heroine) – so it’s clear from the beginning that Callum and Isabel have history. It feels oddly out of sequence with the story as it unfolds – and since they both continue to lust after one another once they partner up to steal the painting, I kept asking myself what was really keeping them from being lovers.

Although I enjoyed the suspense plot involving Andrew and the forged artworks and the underlying sense of dread attached to the paintings left in his secret room, the resolution of both storylines feels forced and unsatisfying. Isabel and Callum plot and plan to make the switch at the Duke of Ardmore’s home (and I loved every scene they shared on the page) – but I struggled to accept Isabel as a thief plotting her next adventure, or to believe Callum would encourage or want a partner in crime. The story takes another twist following their late night caper and frankly, it felt like Ms. Romain was gilding the lily. The switch – as a means to reunite Callum and Isabel and introduce the spectre of Andrew’s death and its implications – is enough in and of itself. Meanwhile, Isabel visits acquaintances with Lucy and tries to match-make on her behalf. I kept wondering why Lucy even appears in the story – she pops up between chapters and Isabel’s visits with Callum, but then the author finally reveals the truth behind the hidden paintings whilst simultaneously introducing and resolving Lucy’s purpose in the novel…and reader? It’s awful and terrible and totally out of sync with the rest of this story.

Lady Rogue is most successful when it focuses on its principal characters. Their struggle – to live authentic lives that have meaning and purpose, and to follow their hearts’ desire despite the societal confines of the time – is poignant and deeply affecting. The mystery subplot, while interesting, is messy and overly complicated. There are sort of bad guys, bad guys and really bad guys… and honestly, that Andrew was a lying, thieving crook, was enough. I didn’t need the other tangents the story took, and ultimately they detracted from my pleasure in the romance.

The Henchmen of Zenda by K. J. Charles

Every time I start a K.J. Charles book I’m convinced it can’t possibly be as good as the one that preceded it, but happily, every time Ms. Charles proves me wrong. Told from an alternate point of view and substantially queerer (Ms. Charles’ words), The Henchmen of Zenda is loosely based on the classic The Prisoner of Zenda, and the author packs A LOT into its short page count. There are villains double crosses, kidnappings, sword fights, a princess, intrigues and doppelgangers, and a sexy May-December love affair. The story is complex and features a large cast of memorable secondary characters – and it demands all of your attention as you read it. But it’s worth your time and focus, friends. The Henchmen of Zenda is the wonderful, swashbuckling story you hoped for when you glimpsed that lovely cover, and I loved every single thing about it.

Jasper Detchard is a disgraced former soldier who’s lived a full life long before he’s hired by Michael Elphberg, Duke of Strelsau, half-brother to the soon-to-be King of Ruritania. Inured to the whims of men in powerful positions, he isn’t surprised when Michael invites (blackmails) him into joining the small group of henchmen he’s assembled to overthrow his half-brother and assume the throne. Smart, unrepentant about who and what he is (queer; a fearsome fighter available to the highest bidder), Jasper assumes the job will be fairly straightforward: kill the heir and install Michael on the throne. Only nothing is as it seems in Ruritania – including Michael’s plans. Jasper finds himself doubting everything and everyone involved in the scheme, and so do we.

Fortunately, Jasper, our jaded and sardonic narrator, understands things aren’t quite as they appear from the outset. Via his PoV we uncover the machinations and motivations behind Michael’s attempt to overthrow his brother – and we get to know the not-so merry and downright nasty (with few exceptions) group of co-conspirators with whom Jasper spends his days. Each of the henchmen is included because of a specific set of skills. In Jasper’s case, he’s famed for his bravery and talent with a blade; he quickly ascertains the special sinister skills of his fellow henchmen – until he meets (and falls for) Rupert of Hentzau. Handsome, confident, stylish and charming, it isn’t immediately clear why Michael includes him. But Jasper suspects he’s a spy – and despite his attraction to the henchman, he’s reluctant to trust him.

Suffice it to say, Jasper is smart to be cautious. No one and nothing are quite as they appear, and the story is full of twists and turns, double crosses and treachery. The Henchmen of Zenda is one of those stories that precludes a reviewer from sharing too much of the plot without spoiling it for the reader, but fortunately much of the pleasure in the book lies in Ms. Charles’s wonderful primary and secondary characters. Their motivations – and relationships with each other – enhance this clever story, and discussing them won’t spoil the novel.

Jasper is a terrific anti-hero. Clever, confident, and a brilliant fighter, he’s done every villainous thing you can think of and he’s unapologetically gay. When Michael blackmails him into joining his plot to kill the king, he’s frustrated but fairly ‘meh’ about the whole thing. His fellow henchmen are a largely unlikeable lot – but Jasper keeps them – and Michael – at arm’s length. He has a deliciously wry sense of humor, and it’s a nice to surprise to discover how reliable he is as a narrator of this tale of treachery and betrayal. Truly, Jasper’s PoV – and his relationships with his fellow henchmen, Michael, and Michael’s mistress – perfectly suits the story and is a highlight.

And then, just when Jasper begins to believe he understands Michael and his schemes, Rupert appears.

Rupert is gorgeous, suave and an accomplished flirt. He loves men and women – and when he meets Jasper, he can’t resist flirting with his taciturn companion. Jasper is supremely dry and Rupert is delightfully sly. I loved the interplay between the two men and the obvious contrasts between them, and the novel is never better than when they are together mock fighting/flirting. Rupert has his own agenda, but he guards it carefully… even as he and Jasper dance around their attraction. Rupert delights in teasing, but Jasper, once caught, is anything but submissive; he quickly turns the table on his young lover. Once the pair become intimate, Jasper’s experience and maturity adds a compelling intensity to their dynamic together – and watching them both come undone by their attraction to each other is supremely satisfying. Eventually, the pair are forced to confide in each other – but once they plot how to move forward, it’s refreshing how Ms. Charles treats them as equals. They each have a role but neither is the “protector” or the “savior.” They’re equals who respect – and like – one another enough to trust the other.

In addition to Jasper and Rupert, Ms. Charles populates the novel with a terrific and memorable group of secondary characters. Really, the story could be told by any one of them and be equally compelling. Michael is a mess – obsessed with overthrowing his brother, he’s the major villain of this story. But his henchmen, particularly his poisoner, are also nasty pieces of work. His half-brother, a drunken and spoiled despoiler of innocents is equally awful, and really, amongst this lot, there aren’t many characters you want to root for. Well, there is one – but to confess it would be to spoil the resolution of this mess. Michael’s mistress is another standout, and I loved how Ms. Charles uses her to illustrate Jasper’s tender side. He’s a loyal and loving friend – and reader, he’s one of her best characters to date.

While Think of England is still my favorite K.J. Charles book, The Henchmen of Zenda isn’t far off the top spot. Clever, complicated and supremely entertaining, it’s easily one of my favorite books of 2018. With an anti-hero you can’t help but root for, and a happy for now ending perfectly suited to the story and its principal pair, this queer twist on The Prisoner of Zenda transcends the original.

Best of 2017…so far

Truth.  I read a lot of romance novels and I’m not an organized person – or a disciplined list keeper.  Sigh.  So I’m grateful to Goodreads for forcing me to shelve books when I’m ready to review them so that I can easily locate titles months later.

Obviously, my favorite shelf is ‘Best books of 2017.’  It’s a highly edited selection with only my most favorites making the cut.  For organizational purposes, I maintain other, more narrowly specific shelves – Contemporary, Historical, Queer – but ‘Best’ is the mother of them all.  Anyway.  You’d think it would be easy to remember favorite books and I mostly do…but when you read a book in January and try to assemble the list in November, shelves are your friends.  After peeking at my list earlier today, I was reminded of some terrific novels.  And I was grateful (again) that I took the time to categorize them.

I’m not quite ready for a big reveal here on the site (yet) but I do have a couple of early thoughts.  Much like 2016, my favorite came late in the year & was a DELIGHTFUL surprise.  Last year I boldly (if I do say so myself) picked a queer, shifter book (Wolfsong, by TJ Klune) over the much loved The Hating Game by Sally Thorne, for my #1 pick.  This year my favorite novel is actually an audio book.  I loved the novel, but the narration is simply the cherry on top to this mucho marveloso story & it’s getting all the props.

Keep an eye out for my list – and maybe a few more I couldn’t resist including.  If you’re curious what I liked in 2016, you can check my picks out here:  The Best of 2016: Emily’s List