Monday, December 21, 2009
"The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie," by Jennifer Ashley
Alternate Title: Autistic Endeavors
The Chick: Mrs. Beth Ackerley. A young widow who's experienced all the highs and lows of life, all she wants is to settle down with a nice gentleman and a minimum of drama. That is, until she unexpectedly falls for the dark, eccentric stranger who warns her that her nice gentleman is not so nice.
The Rub: Lord Ian Mackenzie, hell, all the Mackenzies, are High Maintenance Drama 24/7.
Dream Casting: Kate Winslet.
The Dude: Lord Ian Mackenzie. Kept in an insane asylum since he was nine, Ian is a genius at some things and helpless at others. However, he knows what he wants, and he wants Beth.
The Rub: Ian is incapable of forgetting anything he's ever witnessed - and I mean anything - and he worries that the secrets locked in his head may harm the ever-curious Beth, if he doesn't unintentionally do so himself.
Dream Casting: A younger Gerard Butler (think Dracula 2000).
Ian: Hi Beth, I'm Ian. Let's get married.
Beth: Are you crazy?
Ian: Yes, actually.
Inspector Fellows: See! I warned you! Lord Ian's crazy!
Mac, Cameron, Hart - Ian's Brothers: Ian, are you crazy?
Beth: Well, I'm crazy, too. Crazy IN LOVE.
Mac, Cameron, Hart: ...
Ian: No, no, no, I'm the one who's --
Mac, Cameron, Hart: *whisper explanation in ear*
Ian: Oh. Now I understand the reference. I love you, too.
Romance Convention Checklist
1 Tortured Hero
1 Merry Widow
1 Separated Couple With Sequel Potential (Isabella and Mac?)
1 Brotha from Anotha Mutha
2 Cases of Muuuuuurder
2 Really Bad Parents (Deceased)
1 Romantically Lacklustre Rival
Several Examples of Ming Pottery
2 Surprise Lesbians
The Word: Okay, I'll admit I was drawn to this story mostly by the gimmick of the plot. This book has also received a shit-ton of fantastic reviews, but really I'll admit that without knowing anything about the author, it was the novel's idea that drew me in until I knew I at least had to try reading it. Boy, am I glad I did.
As it turns out, it's not just a gimmick - but a legitimate plot device the author uses to explore the historical romance - and particularly the time-honoured cliche of the emotionally inexpressive hero - from a new and interesting angle.
The novel's hero, Lord Ian Mackenzie, spent the entirety of his adolescence in an insane asylum, where he was subjected to ice baths, electric shocks, and regular beatings. While his brother Hart, the Duke of Kilmorgan, wasted no time springing him from the joint once their monstrous father died, it's clear to everyone that Ian isn't normal. He tends to focus on seemingly inconsequential things to the exclusion of all else. He misinterprets body language and lacks the ability to understand humour, irony, or sarcasm. He cannot maintain eye contact and he's incapable of lying. However - he can learn entire languages in days, is brilliant at mathematics, and remembers every single thing that anyone has ever told him - ever, whether he understands it or not.
Modern readers, of course, can identify Ian's condition as Asperger's Syndrome, a type of low-level autism. However, in the 1880s, this diagnosis didn't exist yet, so most of the people around Ian (including people he cares about) are inclined to think that Ian is just crazy, or at the very least extremely eccentric.
However, thanks to his looks, fortune, and his powerful family, Ian is capable of moving within Society and living more or less by his own terms. He knows what he wants, and because he is a fundamentally honest person, when he wants something he goes after it openly. When he meets the lovely Mrs Beth Ackerley at the opera, he's immediately attracted to her, and subsequently warns her that her fiance, Lyndon Mather, is a philandering, debt-ridden jerk with a house full of spank-happy mistresses. Mind you, Ian doesn't do this out of the goodness of his heart or for Beth's protection. He wants her, and he possesses the information required to separate her from her fiance - in his logical mind it makes perfect sense to use one to gain the other.
Beth is grateful for Ian's assistance and attracted to him in her turn, but remains uncertain. Her life has been an emotional rollercoaster - born in the slums, she worked as both workhouse drudge and gentle companion, experienced the abuses of her drunk father and the love of her kindly vicar husband, and unexpectedly inherited a fortune from an elderly widow. Her life has been so unpredictable and varied that she believes she needs stability, peace, and quiet, even as her attraction to Ian promises to be anything but normal.
Deciding to embark on a string-less affair with Ian, she comes to appreciate his honesty, forthrightness, intelligence, and even his incredible bluntness. However, she has to contend with the suspicions of Ian's protective brothers who distrust her intentions (particularly Hart), the accusations of a dogged Inspector obsessed with bringing the Mackenzies down, and Ian himself, who remains convinced that he's incapable of feeling or understanding love.
Ian is definitely the focus of this book, but I feel I ought to expound upon Beth first because she is such a subtly powerful character I'm concerned the skill that went into her characterization may be overlooked. Jennifer Ashley gives both of her characters interesting backstories but doesn't dwell on their pasts as constant, recurring sources of angst so much as use them to drop hints to explain the drives and motivations that have brought their characters up to this point.
Beth has a very varied past that's made her into a flexible social chameleon. Her ability to quickly adapt to any situation allows her to communicate successfully with Ian. Ian is honest to the point of crudeness and often fails to comprehend whole stretches of conversation, but Beth knows how to roll with the punches, overcome and learn from her surprise, and identify what Ian means to say. Their conversations are some of the loveliest I've read, and while Beth's wry humour often flies right over Ian's head, she learns the language of his ticks and hard truths to see the emotions underneath that he has such trouble expressing.
What can I say about Ian? He takes himself as he is and while he recognizes that his disorder renders him an inconvenience or a threat to some people, there's no self-pity or recriminations or "I wish I was normal" nonsense. In the case of emotions, I can't help but compare him to Caressed by Ice's Judd Lauren. In Ice, Judd tells the reader and Brenna that he's in love, but his cold behaviour, language, and thought processes show us nothing. Conversely, Ian believes he can't feel love, even as his growing need to keep Beth with him "always," his dependence on her to make the noise of the world stop, the increasing ease with which he can communicate with her, demonstrates that he can and does, even if he's as yet incapable of identifying it in himself.
As well, I truly have to commend Jennifer Ashley for the well-rounded cast of secondary characters. The common tendency in romance series introductions, particularly those based around siblings and family, is to shoehorn the spunky sisters and manly brothers into the storyline long enough for them to demonstrate how hot, troubled, and single they are, tease the heroine and hero with knowing looks, exchange a few choice (mostly insulting) words with whomever is destined to be their opposite number, and then stomp out without really adding to the story. It's all so much sequel baiting, turning potentially interesting characters into future advertisements for the series.
However, The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie is centred on the importance of family - and I mean real family, not A Group of Perfect Sexy People Who Are All Happy With Each Other All the Time. Although they love him dearly, Ian's brothers have as difficult a time understanding him as anyone else, and aren't these Uber-Enlightened Ahead of Their Times blokes who instinctively understand the symptoms of Asperger's Syndrome. Hart, especially, believes Ian is crazy and quite possibly dangerous, and the murder-mystery subplot of the novel ably demonstrates the tangled ties of trust, distrust, love, gratitude and sacrifice that bind brothers together.
I loved reading about about Ian's family and while, yes, there were sequel baiting galore (dead wives, jiltings, and alcoholism ahoy!) every character was well-developed in the limited page space they received, and they all contributed to the story while still fueling interest for the series. And wow, am I interested in the series (particularly Cameron's story)!
I've noticed that The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie's appeared on a lot of this year's Best of 2009 lists, and I can see why. A unique premise, a fleshed-out and contributing cast of secondary characters, no clear-cut villain (ahem, no clear-cut living villain), and a romance both sweet (Ian's unique declaration of love is worth the price of the entire book) and spicy (sex scenes are hot but not so numerous as to detract from the narrative). You'd have to be mad not to try this one out.