Monday, January 26, 2009
"Lord of Scoundrels," by Loretta Chase
Alternate Title: Just Shoot Him!
The Chick: Jessica Trent. While she's managed to maintain a nice income for herself through the acquisition and sale of antiques, her so-stupid-he-rides-the-short-bus brother is beggaring the rest of the family funds by hanging out with the disreputable Marquess of Dain. Jessica figures it's up to her to fish her brother out.
The Rub: Every voice in her head tells her that the Marquess of Dain is a nasty, nasty boy - but the voice coming from elsewhere on her person thinks he's nasty in all the right ways.
Dream Casting: Morena Baccarin.
The Dude: Sebastian Leslie Guy de Ath Ballister, Marquess of Dain. Big, dark, and mean, he's made a name for himself by being the Biggest, Darkest, Meanest person around. While he's attracted to Jessica Trent, he has no idea why - she's too smart, sharp, and domineering for his tastes, which tend towards the voluptuous, vapid, and paid for. Plus, she's a lady, and that means she must be working some kind of angle - those sneaky, wiley womens always are.
The Rub: He has serious mommy issues which lead him to distrust all women - especially ones who seem to be attracted to him, because that's just impossible - he's a Big Dark Mean Machine! With a beaky nose! How is that possible?
Dream Casting: Richard Armitage.
Jessica: You leave my gullible, slightly challenged brother alone, you Scoundrel! *secretly attracted*
Dain: Shut up and get back in the kitchen, woman! *secretly horny*
Dain and Jessica: *public grope* *caught!*
General Public: You've got to marry her!
Dain: Oh no I don't.
Jessica: Oh yes you do. *shoots him*
Dain's Friends: Damn, the bitch is a gangsta!
Dain and Jessica: *married*
Jessica: I love you, but you're so immature!
Dain: I love you, but you have ovaries, so naturally you must be some kind of lying, deceitful skank running a con on me!
Jessica: You know, things would go a lot easier if you just obeyed me.
Dain: Yeah, right. *adopts son* *stops being a whiner* *forgives mummy* I stand corrected!
Romance Convention Checklist:
1 Case of Mommy-Issues-Inspired Misogyny
1 Shotgun (er, I mean Dueling Pistol) Wedding
1 Secret Love Child
2 Very Bad Parents
1 Not Quite So Bad But Still Fairly Negligent Parent
1 Horny Grandma
2 Sleazy Frenemies
1 Idiot Brother
Several Whores and Tarts of Varying Stages of Cleanliness
1 Falsely Crippled Limb
The Word: As I was discussing with Anonymous Commenter my review for Scandalous By Night, AC mentioned how dark, cruel, and even vengeful heroes could be enjoyed if written well (the point being that, as in SbN's case, Everod, being poorly-written, came off as an Asshole of Epic Proportions). That never became more clear to me when I finally buckled down and read Loretta Chase's Lord of Scoundrels.
This book has had the living daylights hyped out of it - it's considered by many to be Chase's masterpiece, and one of the historical romance genre's timeless gems. I enjoyed myself thoroughly while reading it - but once I was outlining what to put in my review, I thought - "Wait, doesn't this book essentially have the same plot as Celeste Bradley's The Duke Next Door, a book I despised as being contrived and cheesy?"
Here, I finally get to show a good example of how excellent writing can elevate a familiar idea into classic territory. Let's compare Scoundrels with Duke. Both books have a hero who is considered a Beast, who invokes terror in the populace, particularly with the feminine set. Both heroes mistrust women, particularly pretty women, thanks to their tarnished pasts. Both novels involve a marriage settled through unconventional means, in which husband and wife devote themselves to fighting each other for the upper hand. Both heroes even have demonically unruly children they sired upon women they hated, that they want nothing to do with, until the heroines instill in them the responsibilities of fatherhood. And yet, I loved Lord of Scoundrels! How is that possible?
Let's buckle down to Lord of Scoundrels' particulars, shall we? Jessica Trent, our heroine, arrives in Paris to dig her Ralph-Wiggum-esque brother Bertie out of the financial pit he's landed himself in by cavorting with dastardly fellows led by the Marquess of Dain. Bertie introduces Dain to Jessica in an antiques shop, and sparks fly immediately - Dain, in particular, is so inexplicably attracted to Jessica that she's able to buy a grimy portrait out from under his nose that turns out to be a pricelessly rare religious icon of the Madonna and Child.
Dain's discovery of this fact sends his Towering Male Ego into overdrive - he's outraged by the fact that a woman managed to get the better of him. Part of him wants the icon just to recover his own pride - while the other part of him wants the Madonna because it reminds him of his Unresolved Mommy Issues (although, really, his mother was no Virgin Mary and his only similarity to Jesus is that he hangs out with a bunch of whores). He demands that Jessica sell him the icon - Jessica refuses, but offers to give him the icon for free if he severs all ties with Bertie. But Dain is MAN! Big! Strong! Capable! Feared! He does not Barter with Silly Women! Dain's adult male equivalent of a temper tantrum sets in motion a heated battle of the sexes.
Dain is, on paper, an appalling example of a human being. First of all, he hates women. He really hates women. He's a guy who relies exclusively on prostitutes for female entertainment because he suspects that all women are whores and at least the harlots on his lap are upfront about it. Really, he thinks, why waste the time and effort to court some snooty rich bitch when, for a few coins, he can get exactly what he wants, when he wants, without all the fuss and emotional manipulation? They're all the same below the waist, right? His helpless attraction to Jessica frightens and angers him - he despises the idea of being weaker than, subject to, or controlled by a woman, and his increasingly ga-ga feelings for Jessica render him precisely that.
So why was I able to tolerate him? Two main reasons - the first being, Loretta Chase's superb characterization. Chase provides a backstory, as well as the running commentary in Dain's mind, that both explain the very human side to his distrust of women. His mother abandoned him when he was eight, he had a sense of his own ugliness (literally) beaten into him, and he endured several run-ins with women who did try to manipulate him to their own ends. Consequently, he instinctively distrusts women who show him kindness - in his own mind, no woman in her right mind would find him attractive, therefore, any woman who doesn't run screaming in the other direction must be lying in order to further her own agenda.
Dain is a man who thrives on controlling every aspect of his life - which is why he prefers consorting with prostitutes, who are paid to do only what he tells them to with a minimum of backtalk, to real relationships, that pose too many risks. While his life isn't exactly happy, at least it's a type of unhappiness that he's responsible for. The last time he allowed himself to be controlled by a woman, it was his mother, who ran off to the West Indies and left him alone, and in his mind, any other agony is preferable to the soul-searing pain of that experience.
However, sad backstories don't necessarily render a hero palatable (just read To Sin with a Stranger, or better yet, don't). Jessica, our heroine, is the second reason I bought Dain as a romantic hero. She. Does. Not. Take. Shit. From ANYONE. Unlike The Duke Next Door's Deirdre, who struck me as a spoiled child throwing a temper tantrum because Hubby Dearest wouldn't buy her sparklies anymore, Jessica never comes off as less than Dain's equal, in both intellect and attitude. She and Dain throw themselves into some epic battles with each other, but even though she's, like, two feet shorter and a hundred pounds lighter, she always manages to hold her own.
Part of my enjoyment of the book came from reading of the lengths to which Jessica goes to stay on top. Dain's manoeuvres are straight out of the Alpha Male handbook (#1: Give direct order. #2: Act befuddled when woman inexplicably defies direct order...), but Jessica finds some really hilarious ways of obtaining the upper hand. One of my favourite scenes with Jessica comes right after she and Dain are caught canoodling by a bunch of giggling French aristocrats. Dain immediately jumps to the conclusion that Jessica engineered her compromisation on purpose to snare him (to be fair - this had happened to him before), and promptly abandons her to re-fasten her bodice and witness the destruction of her reputation by herself.
Jessica's revenge? She hunts him down, shoots the motherfucker with a pistol at close range, and then hires a lawyer to sue his ass! Hot DAMN! But she doesn't only retaliate - a lot of the romance springs from Jessica's pitbull-like tenacity to hold on to her relationship with Dain, no matter how many times he tries to drive her away or assume the worst about her or wield his authority. And slowly, Dain cracks - he's spent his life assuming women are conniving, deceitful, and manipulative, and are only bound to use him and lose him just like his slutty ol' mom did. And here is Jessica, who defies him, nags him, seduces him, drives him absolutely crazy - but doesn't leave him. Who never leaves him or betrays him. She never pulls any eleventh-hour bullshit like hiding a secret from him or running off in a huff to give the book an extra climax. And he surrenders, slowly, so slowly, by delicious-to-read inches.
That being said, Jessica isn't perfect - there's one scene where Dain becomes upset on seeing his mother's portrait and she starts preaching that his mother was just a misunderstood, abused child, and I thought Jessica came off as really thoughtless and inappropriate. She's a confident character who, having babysat a lot of male cousins, thinks she knows all men, and there are times when she overgeneralizes Dain and has to find out the hard way that, hey, he has facets and quirks.
But that's why I loved Lord of Scoundrels. We have a hero and heroine who are both intelligent but human, whose flaws are realistically motivated. When they duke it out, they don't fight because of a hatred for or a desire to hurt the other, but more to protect the emotional territory they've won because they're both afraid of surrendering everything. Both characters begin the book as controlling, dominant characters who have everything in their lives numbered, catalogued and organized - and as they fight to keep their independence and control, they eventually reach their HEA by surrendering - both of them. Even Jessica learns that sometimes she has to go with the flow and fly under the radar to turn Dain around to her way of thinking - that not everything has to be a bare-knuckle brawl, and she can't keep Dain on a leash and train him.
Even with this positive review, my first grade for the book was going to be a B+. Why only that? Well, when you read romance, sometimes you have an emotional grade and a practical grade. Practically, this book was an A because it was well-written and realistically motivated and had great characters and was well-paced. But emotionally, it didn't give me as much of the Warm Fuzzies as other A grade books have. But, well, reading this review and going over some of the scenes reminded me of some of the Warm Fuzzy moments I must have missed. Most of these involve Dain - he's such a rock-hard, take-no-prisoners character that his rare moments when he's complete emotional jello in Jessica's hand are that much sweeter. A-.