~ WONDERFULLY MATCHED LEADING CHARACTERS MAKE THIS A SUPREMELY ENJOYABLE ROMANCE (4 stars) ~
This was my first Anne Stuart and was a great one to start with. The plot is a good one, the chemistry sizzles, there are some wonderfully humorous lines, and the secondary characters are well-written, with two of them being extremely compelling (my guess is they get their own romance). I loved Melisande and Benedick together; there is a wonderful mix of antagonism and attraction to their relationship. They're both strong characters, but they also have vulnerabilities that the other sees and responds to. This is definitely an opposites-attract situation, so for all readers who love that setup you should be happy here.
I loved Lady Melisande "Charity" Carstairs and thought she was a great heroine. She's supposed to be plain and boringly-dressed, but she's a confident woman with a very strong sense of self. I think Stuart did a wonderful job of making her come across as very capable and independent, but also vulnerable and a little unsure of herself; it was just the right mix of the two sides. I also loved that she had an interest - that she actually pursued! So often we're given heroines who are supposedly brilliant scientists or devoted to helping orphans ... yet we never see any evidence of their so-called passion and it barely at all figures into the story or their character. That was not the case here. Melisande - or "Charity," as society refers to her - is very focused on helping prostitutes who want to leave that life and runs the home out of her own house.
While I normally prefer historical romance heroines who don't have any past loves or much experience, I really liked the history that Stuart created for Melisande. She married relatively young to a man who was some 50 years older than her and while he was known to be crabby and not very nice, there was affection between them and she took care of him. There had never been any sexual attraction - on her part, at least - so when her husband dies, she is interested in pursuing a relationship with someone whom she is actually attracted to. The guy ends up being weak, a fortune hunter, and not very talented in the bedroom skills department, so she decides maybe sex is just not for her and she will focus on finding fulfillment in her work and helping others. I loved that while not having real self-confidence about her charms, she had tried to take charge of her own sexuality and sought to satisfy her curiosity - and she does so again (eventually) with Benedick.
First off, let me say that while I have not read another Anne Stuart book, I have read plenty of reviews for them, so I have a pretty clear picture of the plot ploys she normally uses and how she writes her heroes. From what I understand, compared to her other leading men Benedick is practically a saint. In the beginning of the book, Viscount Rohan is a somewhat selfish man, but he is at no times unfeeling or wholly bent on only satisfying himself. Don't get me wrong, he's definitely not the most caring guy you'll meet - far from it - but he's not offensive and is - almost against one's will - quite likable.
Benedick cares about his brother and he battles his own inner demons, having had one fiancee who killed herself and two wives who both died in childbirth, along with their babies. When Melisande tells him the resurrected Heavenly Host is engaging in rape and soon murder, he at first doesn't believe her, but once he thinks even the possibility might exist, he is willing to help to stop it. She's told him his brother may be involved and yes, that is one of the big motivations for him, but from the beginning I did not see at the sole one.
I loved the way he teased Melisande and kept trying to tempt her into seduction. Benedick is a very sensual character and I loved his interactions with Melisande, how he sometimes called her "Cherity," how he would react with complete fright whenever the subject of reforming or do-gooding came up - I just loved the persona he created and his cultivated attitude of indifference and seduction. It's a great setup, of course, because here's Mr. Sensuous and Talented Charmer set up against Mrs. Saint who Has Forsaken Her Desires - what self-respecting man can resist such a challenge?
I thought the plot was a good one; I figured out who the new Heavenly Host leader was relatively quickly, but that's because Stuart isn't really that subtle in her hints. In the end though, while the mystery is what propels the book, it's not the main focus; instead, the developing relationship between Melisande and Benedick takes center stage - as it should, IMO - and there is a strong secondary story involving his brother, Brandon, that is very emotional (and, I'm guessing, a setup for the next book in the series).
So as I said, I've read a lot of reviews for Stuart's books and just like she has a standard hero type (the villain-maybe-turned-hero), she also has a plot ploy that I think she uses very, very frequently. I'm talking about the unbelievably annoying I'm-going-to-push-you-away-and-say-some-really-cruel-and-nasty-things-because-now-we've-slept-together-and-I-realize-I-may-have-feelings-for-you-and-as-an-idiot-of-the-male-persuasion-that-means-I'm-terrified-so-I'm-going-to-act-like-an-ass-to-save-us-both (enough hyphenations for you?). Honestly, for me that ploy ranks just as badly as Big Misunderstandings and Things Left Unsaid - it's like a horrid mixture of both!! Really, really cannot stand it and if it were not for that - fine, throw one last obstacle in front of the relationship, sure, but come up with something original!! - this would be getting 4.5 stars or maybe even 5. Also, because Benedick is such a bastard with that little tantrum of his, I think he should have been made to grovel more. I don't care if he felt horribly guilty and despairing as a result - he should have had to beg a little more.
The Epilogue was weak. I love Epilogues and think they almost always make a romance book better, but if it's not done well than it's even worse than not having one at all. What the Epilogue covers is appropriate, cute, sweet, and all that good stuff, but Melisande is completely off-page for the entire thing (though mentioned and in the house). It's supposed to be an extension of the HEA, so for me having both the hero and heroine in it is kind of essential!!
Prequel - The Wicked House of Rohan (Alistair Rohan and Kathleen Strong)
Book 1 - Ruthless (Francis Rohan and Elinor Harriman)
Book 2 - Reckless (Adrian Alistair Rohan and Charlotte Spenser)
Book 3 - Breathless (Miranda Rohan and Lucien de Malheur)
Book 4 - Shameless (Benedick Rohan and Melisande Carstairs)
Book 5 - My bet: Brandon and Emma (fingers crossed!)
This was the first Anne Stuart book I've read and it can definitely be done as a stand-alone. Some of the main characters from past books reappear, so might be more enjoyable if you've read the others, but is not a must.
If I'm right about Book 5 - and I don't see how I wouldn't be, since this book practically acts as a prequel for their relationship - then reading this book first is definitely recommended, since you get the whole back story of their relationship. Utterly heartbreaking and will make such a good book!!
The two leading characters are fantastic together - fantastic dynamic, wonderful chemistry, great dialogue - and the secondary characters are very strong. Besides for an annoying plot ploy towards the end, was a fabulous read and I would definitely recommend it. I will end up buying my own copy so I can reread in the future.
* This review is of an advance reading copy provided by MIRA through NetGalley.