Alternate Title: The Greatest Escape You Will Eversea (see what I did there?)
The Chick: Madeleine Greenway. While she could be vaguely described as a mercenary, she's more of a "fixer" - arranging and organizing thefts, shifty deliveries, and shadowy errands for paying clients. Her last job is to organize the rescue of convicted murderer Colin Eversea from the hangman's noose - until the rescuer becomes the rescued when Colin saves her from her own employer's bullet.
The Rub: It's now obvious she's not going to receive her expected fee, which she desperately needs to make the final payment for a farm in Virginia where she can start anew. And while Colin seems like a nice enough fellow, there's now a juicy 100 pound price on his head...
Dream Casting: Rachel McAdams.
The Dude: Colin Eversea. The dashing youngest son of the Pennyroyal Green Everseas, he's a scoundrel, but not a murderer - but the only witness who can prove his innocence mysteriously vanished. Meanwhile, the love of his life is set to marry his older brother now that Colin's a criminal, and he can't help but think it's not coincidence...
The Rub: He needs to prove his innocence only slightly less than he wants to prevent his brother's wedding, but now he's both a wanted man and a highly recognizable folk hero - can he trust his mysterious, beautiful paid rescuer to work for him pro-bono?
Dream Casting: A younger Billy Crudup.
Colin: Oh noes! I'm going to hang!
Madeleine: No you're not! *rescues* Now I'll be paid!
Shadowy Employer: No you won't! *tries to kill her*
Colin: Lady, if you help prove my innocence, my family will pay double!
Madeleine: No I won't.
Colin: *sad eyes*
Madeleine: Okay I will.
Colin: You've cleared my name! Now we can get married!
Madeleine: No we won't.
Colin: *sadder eyes*
Madeleine: Okay I will.
Romance Convention Checklist:
1 Rascally Hero
1 World-Weary Heroine With a Sad Past
1 Surprise! Father
1 Quite Decent Just Not Romantic Enough Rival
1 Morally Ambiguous Brother
1 Irritated Wife
1 Lusty Countess with a Secret Past
1 Lusty Footman (for the Countess with a Secret Past)
The Word: When it comes to authors, I take them at their first impressions. The authors I like, I like immediately from their first book and buy as many of their other ones as I can find and afford. If I read a book I really don't like, I don't bother reading anything else by the author. Sure, they might have better books, but I have only so much money and so much time and so much space on my TBR pile, so really why should I bother throwing money down a well when I can try new authors I don't know or authors I already know are good?
It's really very fortunate for me that I make a personal point of reading every book that's on my TBR pile, and that I'd won a copy of Julie Anne Long's The Perils of Pleasure before I'd read The Runaway Duke. As you can probably tell from my review (and the fact that it landed on my Worst List of 2008), TRD was a giant serving of DO NOT WANT for me, despite the rave reviews other people gave it and the style of writing, which I quite enjoyed. The heroine was ridiculous, the hero creepy and controlling and really quite selfish when you consider most of his "sad past" is "boo hoo poor little rich boy" syndrome.
But The Perils of Pleasure? SO MUCH BETTER. Read on!
The book is actually the first in a series set in the town of Pennyroyal Green with its two feuding families, the conservative snobbish Redmonds and the wilder, more scandalous Everseas. The Everseas' family tree has been associated with piracy, smuggling, and all sorts of deliciously sordid acts but no Eversea has ever been caught or tried for any crime.
Anyway, the story begins on what seems like the diminishment of the famous Eversea luck: Colin, the youngest Eversea brother, has been convicted of murder and is sentenced to hang. He knows it's all a scam and a conspiracy - the victim drunkenly fell on his own knife, the only witness to prove Colin's innocence disappeared, and every appeal his family made to the government was suspiciously rejected. While his family believes his own innocence, few other people do, although the public have taken his rascally past and used it to make him into a tragic folk hero. And, not only is he set to die - but the love of his life is now (conveeeeniently?) engaged to his brother Marcus.
However, thanks to a series of well-orchestrated explosions and quick-thinking men, Colin is dramatically rescued from the gallows and removed to a private residence in a seedier part of town. His rescuer? Madeleine Greenway, a mysterious mercenary hired to save Colin from the noose and present him to her employers. She refuses to tell him who hired her, or anything else for that matter. She doesn't care whether Colin's innocent or not, she does only what she's paid to do, and soon she won't even have to do that - she's planning on using this mission's fee to buy a farm in Virginia and start life over.
However, when one of her assignment's contacts tries to kill her and Colin saves her life, the plot takes a thornier, more complicated turn. Colin wants his old life back, with all the trimmings (including his dreamgirl Louisa), and asks Madeleine to help him. Even though Colin assures her his family would be very, er, financially grateful to have him returned safe and sound, Madeleine doesn't trust him. She can't really trust anyone in her line of work (can you blame her?) and the odds seem to be stacked against Colin proving his innocence - but since her employers just tried to pay her in bullets instead of coins, she needs to find some form of income, and fast, so she reluctantly agrees.
What follows is part mystery, part travel/road romance as Colin and Madeleine follow a trail of clues and contacts through London (and out of it) to find the people responsible for Colin's conviction. Our protagonists are forced to spend nearly the entire book joined at the hip, and combined with the ever-present stress of the threat of discovery, this enforced intimacy forces Colin and Madeleine to confront their own feelings and character flaws in marvelous and marvellously-written ways.
I've always liked Julie Anne Long's writing style - even in The Runaway Duke. But this time we finally have beautiful, subtle, and moving characters that are worthy of her magnificent description. Colin at first appears to be the black sheep romance heroines are so fond of stomping their feet at and then swooning over - his checkered past is full of daring seductions and mischievous pranks and irresponsible spending. However, the novel slowly reveals how much angst he actually retains. He kinda knows he's a shiftless loser and always compares himself to his larger-than-life brothers and finds himself wanting. He resents the fact that he's been turned into a public hero for his murder conviction and past wrongdoings when he hasn't done anything he considers worthy of celebration.
Meanwhile, unlike the profligate Colin, Madeleine's based her life on strict emotional economy. Sudden and tragic circumstances destroyed her life and forced her to rebuild it all by herself - and only for herself, discarding everything weak, untrustworthy, or that could be taken away from her. She lives a slender, bare, but flexible and moderately successful life - but it cannot bear the weight of company. If Colin hadn't saved her from that bullet in time, nobody would have mourned or missed her, and Madeleine comes to realize this with Colin, while at the same time she has to painfully readjust to fitting other people's preferences and needs into her plans.
Through Julie Anne Long's beautiful writing, I fell into the lives of these characters. I don't think there was more than one wrong note in the development of their romance - I felt all their motivations and changes so powerfully, that their blossoming feelings just felt natural. Truly, Julie Anne Long has a remarkable grasp of words that depicts nearly everything in a new light - it makes other novels with plainer language look dull in comparison. One of the main problems I had with The Runaway Duke was that the protagonists weren't balanced - Connor held all the power and did most of the thinking and heavy lifting while Rebecca looked pretty and asked stupid questions. Here, however, Colin and Madeleine are on the same level - while very different, they are both intelligent as well as flawed and they contribute in equal measure to the storyline.
There were a few odd points and flaws in the novel - one being the character of the Countess, a former lover of Colin's that he goes to for help. Her secret past (for which she's being blackmailed) is so incredibly similar to that of the Cordelia, Duchess of Dunbrooke's from The Runaway Duke (they even acted in the same cheesy theatre) that I was taken aback. I haven't read any other of Julie Anne Long's novels - is this some kind of running joke or gag that I'm not aware of? Because for these two characters from novels by the same author to have near-identical backstories seemed beyond weird.
Another thing that bothered me was Colin's determination to stop his brother's wedding and win back Louisa - it lasted way too long for my liking and seemed increasingly uncharacteristic after he and Madeleine grow closer. To Long's credit, I do understand that Colin's repetition of "Louisa is the girl for me" (even after he sleeps with Madeleine) is partially based on his fear of deviating from his set life plan, but in the final chapters it just seemed like so much head-banging, where I felt he should know by now that he loves Madeleine since his actions and reactions clearly show that he is which means he should shut up about his ex-girlfriend.
Finally, there is one more flaw in the narrative that kept this book from being a straight A (or even an A+), and that was --- SPOILER ALERT:
---the revelation at the end that Colin was Isaiah Redmond's illegitimate son. This came out of fucking nowhere at the eleventh hour and seemed so pointlessly contrived. There was no build-up or suspicion that this could be case in the novel AT ALL and seemed to serve only to explain the motivations of the shadowy employer who arranged for Colin's rescue. Colin doesn't even really do anything about it once he knows the truth, nor does it effect his behaviour or how he acts around Madeleine, so the Big Reveal just seemed jarring and false.
Other than that, though, this novel was a delight to read and I have to say I am very glad I had the opportunity to give Julie Anne Long another chance. Especially now that the Pennyroyal Green series has two more books in it!