I read a lot of romance novels so Romance Roundup is my chance to offer – hopefully – bite-sized reviews of the best, the worst, the middling and the put unadulterated catnip the genre has to offer. Note: As far as I know, there’s no such thing as a fantasy gambler union, but I’d still like to offer my services to them.
A Rogue By Any Other Name by Sarah MacLean: I honestly wish I’d liked this book more. On paper, it offers up a lot of tropes I’m a big fan of – childhood friendships turned romantic, witty repartee, a unique setting and good old fashioned revenge. Unfortunately, while there’s much to enjoy in the first book in Sarah MacLean’s Rules of Scoundrels series, the end result is less than the sum of its parts.
Michael, the Marquess of Bourne, is out for revenge. Having lost everything to a bad bet the decade previously, he has since built him up as one of the founding members of London’s top gaming hell but seeks the return of his homestead. Unfortunately, his inheritance has been tied to the dowry of Lady Penelope, a childhood friend who has spent years floundering in disappointing courtships after a broken engagement.
Much of the story’s problems lie with Michael, who is cold, borderline brutish and unnecessarily difficult. While he harbours much warmth for Penelope thanks to their childhood connections (which we are treated to through a series of letters), he’s been driven by revenge for so long that he no longer has any idea how to do anything else. While all of this is understandable on a thematic level, it doesn’t translate to a consistent or gripping characterisation on the page, and falls into a touch of the old school hero at times, particularly in the scene with him and Penelope’s first sexual encounter. There’s nothing wrong with an unlikeable hero – I enjoy a well-executed one – but the pay-off doesn’t work when it’s not earned.
Michael’s coldness thaws, as is expected, but pacing wise it’s too erratic to make any impact. There’s much wit and warmth in the story, and Penelope is a heroine deserving of a far stronger book, but no amount of great sex scenes can make up for the missteps that leave the overall story stumbling. MacLean is clearly a great talent and the casino setting offers possibly limitless potential for drama. A Rogue By Any Other Name is a promising start to the series but not quite a classic.
Radiance by Grace Draven: Fantasy in general is a bit of a no-go area for me; fantasy romance even more so. However, when a book as highly lauded by my friends as Radiance comes along, it demands attention.
Brishen, prince of the grey-skinned Kai, and human noblewoman Ildiko are both disposable members of their respective royal families – not important enough to warrant major attention but still useful tools for maintaining key political relationships. Their marriage is one of strategy, not convenience, yet they are both willing to make a go of it, even if they do find one another hideous.
The fantasy element of the story is really where Radiance stumbles. I’m not highly knowledgeable on the genre but found the foundations of the narrative to be pretty standard fare, with the expected political strife, courtly interactions and a touch of magic. It’s not badly executed, it’s too well constructed for that, it just feels very familiar. Nonetheless, it serves as a solid framework for the true star of the book – the romance.
Brishen and Ildiko’s relationship mirrors the friends-to-lovers pattern in many ways, with the pair choosing to get to know one another before consummating their marriage. Both are politically savvy, keen learners and thoroughly respectful of one another despite their differences. While they’re equally repulsed by one another’s appearances, they find the humour in the situation, making this one of the only romances I’ve ever read with “You’re so ugly” cracks crafting part of a sturdy and wittily executed relationship. The evolution of their relationship moves along organically and at a readable pace, with a number of culture-clash jokes shared between the two.
The central romance and its inherent appeal are enough to pull this book up as the genre-focused elements falter, although the final quarter or so offer much promise for the rest of the series. For my first dip into fantasy romance, Radiance proved to be a satisfying start.
Special Interests by Emma Barry: I like politics. I’ve been inordinately fascinated by American politics in particular for many years now, and I am that sad weirdo who amused herself during bouts of insomnia by watching MSNBC and CNN. Hey, we all need hobbies. Emma Barry’s The Easy Part series, a trilogy of contemporary romances set in the hustle and bustle of DC political life, seemed like the epitome of my personal catnip, but while I enjoyed Special Interests, I also found myself let down by the series’s first offering.
Union worker Millie Frank is desperate to return to normal life after becoming a minor celebrity due to her involvement in a robbery with a guy in a chicken suit. One evening, she bumps into Parker, a staff member of a top Senator, and sparks fly, but it isn’t until an on the job confrontation in his office that their relationship
really begins to blossom.
Special Interests is a breezy read but it’s also unnecessarily extended by erratic and forced tension between the central pair. The hot-cold, will-they-won’t-they bumps in the road are clunkily executed, desperate to create drama where there is none. The stress caused by their political positions and their differences in methodology are by far the most interesting part of the book, particularly in the contrasts between the beaten down but still inherently hopeful representative of the workers Millie and cynical ‘get the job done by any means’ Parker. The sparks truly fly in these scenes and Barry demonstrates real wit in these flirtatious interactions. Dirty talk by way of discussion of the Democratic Party’s splintering relationship with the unions is genuinely hot to me! But these moments are few and far between.
The book does a good job of capturing the 24/7 all-consuming life of a politico, from answering e-mails on your phone while walking to work to the beautiful apartments full of unopened boxes acting as a reminder that you’re never home long enough to relax. Politics is dirty and exhausting and often hopeless, even when it’s ostensibly fighting for the right thing, and Millie’s internal conflict over this makes for intriguing character development. The same applies to Parker’s guilt over the lack of time he spends with his family, particularly his Alzheimers suffering grandfather, the man who influenced him to go into politics.
Despite my many criticisms, I did enjoy Special Interests and will read the rest of the series, if only to sate my thirst for political romances. Barry just needs to sharpen her focus and rely less on forced tropes.