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Willaful Review: The Malorie Phoenix by Janet Mullany

Reviewing this brought to mind a moment from the t.v. show “Gilmore Girls” (a discussion of “The Donna Reed Show”):

Rory: My favorite episode –
Lorelai: Mm…tell me, tell me.
Rory: – is when their son, Jeff, comes home from school… and nothing happens.
Lorelai: Oh that’s a good one. One of my favorites is when Mary, the daughter, gets a part-time job… and nothing happens.
Rory: Another classic.

The Malorie Phoenix started off with a bang — literally. Pickpocket Jenny is seduced by the charming Benedict de Malorie at Vauxhall. She leaves with his stickpin, an heirloom jewel, and a bun in the oven. About ten months later, an ailing Jenny finds Benedict, hands him a baby girl (with the jewel sewn into her clothes) and vanishes.

Seven years later, Jenny’s new life as a courtesan ends with her kindly protector’s death. When some strangers hatch a bizarre scheme for her to impersonate a young woman Benedict once almost married, she embraces a chance to reclaim her child:

And now, possibly, she had the means to support her daughter. With independence and an income she could achieve a modest respectability. Roly had taught her many things, including how to manage investments and run a frugal but comfortable household… She could not and would not raise Sarah as the daughter of a courtesan.

The beginning of this historical had me settling in happily for a good read. It felt fresh and different, willing to go in unpopular directions — such as Jenny having had a good sex life with her old, fat protector — and take chances. The writing style seemed somewhat elliptical, with surprising gaps in the action, but that felt acceptable as a stylistic choice.  Even when the plot veered into utter absurdity with the impersonation plan, I tried to just let it flow over me and willingly suspend disbelief. I liked the beginning and I really wanted to keep liking the rest of it.

And I think this could have been a fantastic book if the author had just concentrated on the romance and stayed away from further plot complications. Jenny and Benedict have great chemistry and I enjoyed them together, from their unexpected, swept away first encounter (both were virgins), to their passion when they realize how they truly feel about each other:

Jenny took the final step between them, into Benedict’s arms.

He was shaking, this tall thoroughbred of a man, as he buried his fingers in her hair. ‘God help me, I didn’t want… I thought I was mad. Jenny…’

‘Benedict.’ Her voice was as much a wobbly gasp as his.

A coat button pinged onto the flagstones. She couldn’t tell whose it was, she didn’t care, as frantic as she was to touch his skin, tearing his shirt from his breeches, her fingers chilled and clumsy.

He swore like a stableman as he ripped his shirt over his head, found his cuffs still buttoned, and trapped by his own haste, let her fumble with them until he cursed again and wrenched his arms free. More buttons flew, and linen floated to the ground.

[some deleted for length]

It seemed an age before her petticoats fell away, and she had the sense to let him unlace her stays only enough so they could be pulled off over her head. She turned in his arms, her mouth met his, and she didn’t care if she ever wore clothes again.

The trouble is, neither character ever seemed more than vaguely interested in the assorted mayhem happening all around them, which made it impossible for me to be interested either.  Jenny realizes she’s been given drugged tea… and nothing happens. Benedict finds out that Jenny isn’t who she claims to be… and nothing happens. Someone tries to poison Benedict… and nothing happens.  Jenny tells Benedict that her maid is in league with his enemies… and nothing happens. They’re simply too busy with each other to be bothered.   That would be just fine with me if all of those plot elements weren’t floating around, demanding some sort of reaction from the characters, and never getting it.

I liked the originality of the story enough to stay interested, and considering how many cutesy, fluffy historical romances are languishing half finished in my TBR, that is saying something. This is neither cutesy nor fluffy, and the savvy and unapologetically sexual heroine is a big plus.  But the amount of head-scratching I did leads to a rating of 2 1/2 out of 5 stars. Thanks to netGalley for providing the e-arc for review.  The book is not currently available in print, but you can buy it for Kindle here or for Nook here.


  • Anne
    April 29
    9:38 am

    Gah! I’m so torn. I love all four of Janet Mullany’s Little Black Dress regencies. They’re all on my keeper shelf. I wondered if you (or anyone else here) have read any of them and how they compare with this in tone? Are they very different?


  • @Anne: I haven’t read any of her other books, but from what I’ve read, they sound much lighter in tone than this one. What would you say you especially like about her other books?


  • Anne
    April 29
    4:01 pm

    I think she’s a very witty writer and that’s what made the books I mentioned keepers. But, in general, I enjoy angsty reads, so perhaps I’d still enjoy this.


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