My experience with the work of Sarah MacLean, one of the most notable names in historical romance (and NPR favourite), has been limited to one book, which I enjoyed but found a tad underwhelming. The foundations of a great read were there, but the finishing touches held it back from achieving true genre greatness in my eyes. Fortunately, The Rogue Not Taken, her latest novel and first in a series, builds upon those solid structures and offers an endlessly fun experience.
Sophie Talbot is the youngest daughter of a family that attracts scandal. The daughter of a coal miner turned society darling, she has always resented the suffocating machinations of the upper classes and shirks away from the devious gossip that surrounds her game siblings. Together they are the Soiled S’s: Beautiful, troublesome and with a ferocious ability to climb. After a night at a party and an incident involving her brother-in-law and a fish-pond makes headlines, she decides to escape the pressures of her life and, through a series of delightfully melodramatic circumstances, finds herself in the company of the Marquess of Eversley, a scandalous scoundrel with a reputation for ruin.
As expected with a story built around gossip headlines (a phenomenon with a long and sordid history long before the founding of TMZ), The Rogue Not Taken has plot-turns that are equal parts daring and daft, all in the best way possible. There’s cross-dressing, bullet-wounds, scandalous carriage journeys, public fights and sordid secrets that would make many a tabloid editor squeal. MacLean writes with enough of a wink and a nod to ensure readers that while there are moments of solemnness, this is a book entirely comfortable with embracing silliness. It’s this playful attitude that carries some of the more convoluted plot-points through, particularly the scenes involving the hero and his father, although these moments are also clearly secondary to the central conflict of the romance.
MacLean also draws various comparisons between her world and our system of celebrity gossip. Sophie’s family are looked upon with the same fascination and scorn as the Kardashians, while the catalyst for the story itself practically begs for comparisons with Solange and Jay-Z’s lift bust-up. It’s a story focused on the ways in which gossip functions, both as a societal tool and a trap for those who eschew the rules. Sophie is painfully aware that she is more likely to suffer for any indiscretions than a man in her position would, and makes note of this frequently to Eversley. He can proudly wear the banner of a man known for ‘ruining’ women for their betrotheds and suffer no ill will amongst his peers: Sophie will never have such luck.
The romance between Sophie and King (yes, that is his preferred name) fits comfortably into the Beatrice-Benedick mould of love-hater fiery banter that I so thoroughly enjoy. They’re the kind of romantic pairing who repeatedly insist that they dislike one another, even as their mutual attraction becomes painfully obvious. This may be a turn-off to some readers but I myself am a complete sucker for it, particularly when it involves stubborn heroines bored with the confines of their world. The book also offers a fresher take on the era, with less focus on London ballrooms and more time given to the North of England.
It won’t be hard to convince romance readers to pick up a Sarah MacLean novel, but The Rogue Not Taken also offers a potential starting point for genre novices. It’s a snappy page-turner with a suitably gripping balance of action, comedy, farce and romance, a real something-for-everyone read.