Posted in: AztecLady Reviews, reviews
Tags:anthology, Courtney Milan, Historical romance, Mary Balogh, Nicola Cornick, Short stories
After reading and enjoying Courtney Milan’s work, I have been keeping my eye out for a copy of this anthology, which contains her print debut, the novella “This Wicked Gift.” I am very, very happy to report that it didn’t disappoint—to the contrary, I enjoyed it soooo much!
But hold on, let me get this review back on track.
‘Tis the Season for Falling in Love…
“A Handful of Gold”
Not only is Julian Dare dashing and wealthy, but he’s the heir to an earldom. So what do you get a man who has everything? Innocent and comely Verity Ewing plans on giving Julian her heart—the most precious gift of all.
“The Season for Suitors”
After some close encounters with rakes in which she was nearly compromised, heires Clara Davenport realizes that she needs some expert advice. And who better for the job than Sebastian Fleet, the most notorious rake in town? But the tutelage doesn’t go quite as planned, as both Sebastian and Clara find it difficult to remain objective when it comes to lessons of the heart!
“This Wicked Gift”
Lavinia Spencer has been saving her hard-earned pennies to provide her family with Christmas dinner. Days before the holiday, her brother is swindled, leaving them owing more than they can ever repay. Until a mysterious benefactor offers to settle the debt. Innocent Lavinia is stunned by what the dashing William White wants in return. Will she exchange a wicked gift for her family’s future?
Starting in reverse order:
I love “This Wicked Gift.” Not only is Ms Milan’s writing just lovely, the heroine’s resourcefulness and…well, to borrow a term from DA’s bloggers, her agency, are such a wonderful surprise. Yes, she’s innocent and sheltered—keep in mind these are all historical novellas, this one set in 1822—but she’s no wilting miss.
First, Lavinia the one holding the family afloat—her mother is dead and her father is bedridden, her brother James too young still to help at the lending library the family owns. So she works the business, tends to her father and keeps house, all while trying to also keep James out of trouble. As we see pretty early on, she’s not as successful at the last—James is taken in by a con artist, which results in a promissory note for more money that the business makes in a year (or more, I think…not sure about British currency then or now).
Oh noes! Disaster! Ruin!
Enter our hero, William, stage right, ready to selflessly rescue our heroine… Except, there is no selflessness there. William is a dashing stranger alright, but he’s no duke in disguise. He’s a clerk at a business office, under the thumb of the rather Scrooge-ish Lord Blakely. His prospects are not what anyone could call brilliant, and past injustices have embittered his heart. So when he does act in this matter, there is very much an ulterior motive at play.
In the months since he first acquired a subscription to the lending library, William has come to covet what he sees so often: the innocent and lovely Lavinia. Only, because of said not-so-rosy prospects and rather dark past, he doesn’t delude himself that he would ever have her. It’s not that she’s on a pedestal; it’s that he wants much better for her than what he could ever provide.
All that nobility doesn’t preclude him from wanting just a little taste of heaven, and wouldn’t you know it, the opportunity presents itself at just the right moment. William wouldn’t be human if he didn’t at least consider it, would he? And oh, he does, he certainly does.
It’s here where Ms Milan completely turns the trope on its ear, in the most wonderful way possible—and in doing so, Lavinia provides William with the tool to flip the bird to the old marquess…figuratively speaking of course. *ahem*
Anyway, this lovely story is a wonderful debut, and an accurate forecast of Ms Milan’s subsequent work.
“This Wicked Gift” gets a 9.5 out of 10.
Next up is Nicola Cornick’s “The Season for Suitors”—and a confession. I have at least three of Ms Cornicks’ stories in the humongous TBR mountain range, yet this is the first I’ve ever read. Mind you, it’s a wonderful way to be introduced to a new-to-me author, and it guarantees it won’t be the last of her books I read.
In this novella, our very determined heroine has already shown her mettle once: at some point in the past (a previous story, perhaps?) Clara had already proposed marriage to the ever elusive and certainly dissipated Duke of Fleet—with predictable results. So time has passed and both Clara and Sebastian have gone on with their lives. Their mutual attraction is as strong as ever, but circumstances being what they are (she’s proud enough and has humiliated to him enough, thanks so much; he’s a rake and is haunted by his past *cue violins*) they are determined to keep the status quo.
Except that Clara, being both an heiress and an attractive young woman of good birth, has to face all the other rakes of society and the fortune hunters. It’s true that she’s not a young debutante any longer, but that doesn’t in any way diminish the pressure for her to marry. What’s a woman to do? Apparently, call on the most dissipated man of her acquaintance to educate her on the ways and tricks of rakes. With any luck, this will enable to evade such stratagems, so that if she ever marries it would be because she chooses to do so—and, just as importantly, to whom.
Sebastian, on the other hand, is not too keen on this plan. First, he is attracted to Clara. Second, he has some affection for her. Third, his self-control is only so good, after all!
…which is why he finds himself actually spending more time in Clara’s company than is wise, from either of their points of view, with very charming results.
Add in some well meaning (and just a tad interfering) servants, and you have a lovely romance with one of the most unexpected and…well, lovely and funny, consummation scenes ever. (No, really, it is—but saying anything more would spill the beans and rob you of the experience of reading it for yourselves, so…)
“The Season for Suitors” gets a full 9 out of 10.
Finally, we get to Mary Balogh’s “A Handful of Gold”—and the one that made me want to tear my hair out.
Mind you, I’m fond of many of Ms Balogh’s work—to wit, my review of Slightly Dangeorus. And, while I’ve yet to review Lord Carew’s Bride, it’s a favorite with one of the most wonderfully unusual heroes ever. So I honestly and sincerely expected to enjoy this novella. More to the point, I wanted to.
Alas, we never get all that we want.
Mind you, it’s not necessarily badly written, though there is very little novel about it. Our dashing hero is the utterly dissipated (nigh alcoholic, actually) Julian Dare. The lovely, virginal heroine, the well-bred but miserably poor Verity Ewing.
He’s looking for a last hooray before bending to family pressure and marrying an insipid lady that or honorable the other. She’s supporting her ineffectual mother and sick sister by playing at being a demimondaine. Things follow a predictable course, money changes hands, virtue is lost, heroine feels the scene and hero finds himself desperately seeking Susan erm Blanche—no! Verity.
All this, mockery aside, is competently written—can’t expect less from a writer of Ms Balogh’s experience and caliber. No, it’s not the lack of novelty or surprise that got to me.
What made me see red is a thoroughly sanctimonious and modern speech Julian gives Verity at the very end:
“What we did was wrong. It should not be done outside wedlock. But worse sins can be forgiven, I believe.” (and so on and so forth—pg 131 in my copy)
The man is a rake. In case it’s escaped everyone’s notice, rake is regency historicals for manwhore. He’s been sleeping his way around the ton and the demimonde for years—but all of a sudden sex outside of marriage is a frigging sin? This is the power of the magic vagina?
For the love of fuck, talk about a cold shower.
Sorry, no can accept.
“A Handful of Gold” fails completely for me—and I can’t be objective enough to grade it. After all, the bit that almost got the book out the window (through no fault of Ms Cornick or Ms Milan, I hasten to add!) occurs some three pages from the end of the story. While nothing particularly thrilling happens in the story and the writing is competent enough, the taint of that one paragraph and the over-the-head religious pap that follow it, is enough to make me dislike this novella virulently.
But hey, two out of three is still a win, right?