The Chick: Esme Brentmor. The half-Albanian daughter of Jason Brentmor, when her father is declared murdered, she flees to avoid capture - and plan a bloody revenge.
The Rub: Due to a case of mistaken identity, her young cousin is kidnapped and his reluctant guardian Varian insists on following her to the capital - unaware of Esme's plans for vengeance, or her expectation that she'll likely die in the attempt.
Dream Casting: Carey Mulligan.
The Dude: Varian St. George, Lord Edenmont. After squandering his family's fortune, he's spent years using his wit and charm to mooch off of richer people. When his latest patron pays him to accompany his son to Venice, and that son ends up kidnapped, he has no choice but to turn to a crazy half-Albanian girl for help.
The Rub: He soon grows to love that crazy half-Albanian girl, but he has nothing but debts and a dilapidated house to offer her.
Dream Casting: Dominic Cooper.
Esme: My father is dead! I need revenge!
Varian: I've squandered my fortune. I need money!
Percival, Esme's Cousin: My father could be a smuggler! I need a secret chess piece!
Esme: Varian's so hot - but I have to have my revenge!
Varian: Esme's so sexy - but she's only 14!
Esme: I'm 18.
Esme: Aren't you overcome with guilt and dirty filthy thoughts because you're a rank scoundrel and I'm a pure young girl?
Varian: Yeah, but I'm too selfish to be a martyr.
Sexy Villain: Yoink! *steals Esme*
Varian: Oh HELL no.
Not-So-Sexy-Anymore-Villain: Fine, here, have some free money! I'm off to be pretty in three (!) more Loretta Chase novels!
Varian and Esme: Hooray!
Romance Convention Checklist
1 Puberty-Snubbed Red-Headed Heroine With Self-Esteem Issues
1 Fake Dead Dad
1 Sexy Villain (and Recurring Loretta Chase character!)
1 Jealous Gay Manservant
1 Jealous Straight Brother
2 Rather Nice Brothers
1 DIY Home Reno
1 Bastardy Fake-Out
Several Cold Baths
1 Missing Chess Piece
The Word: Usually, there's a line of precedence with the books on my TBR. I don't immediately read the books I buy because I have, like, 200 other books already waiting to be read (some that have spent several years waiting on the literary bench). But, when I learned that The Lion's Daughter (recently purchased at a library sale) was one of Loretta Chase's earlier books and a part of the Scoundrel series (a series of bizarre and convoluted chronology including Captives of the Night, Lord of Scoundrels and The Last Hellion), I decided to bump it up.
The novel opens on a conspiracy - Jason Brentnor is a British exile known as the Red Lion, and adviser to Albania's wiley/insane ruler Ali Pasha. Rebellion and unrest are brewing in Albania, possibly headed by Ali Pasha's young cousin Ismal, and Jason fears that his daughter Esme might be caught in the crossfire and used as a hostage to ensure his cooperation. Jason has already told Esme his plans to send her to England to his estranged family, but he also decides to fake his own death - in part so that he can suss out the real cause behind the attempts against Ali Pasha, and in part to ensure Ismal will have no reason to need Esme as a pawn.
Unfortunately, he underestimates his daughter, one of those hoydenish, pants-wearing, snubbed-by-the-puberty-fairy heroines who is far more influenced by her Albanian heritage than her English one. She never wanted to go to England in the first place - her father's family disowned him after he lost an important piece of land in a card game, and subsequent nasty letters sent from Jason's father conveyed their disapproval of his Albanian wife and equally savage Albanian daughter. Instead, she flees both her guardians and Ismal's henchmen, determined to wreak vengeance or die trying.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in Europe, Jason's 12-year-old nephew Percival eavesdrops on his father Gerald (Jason's brother), discovers his father has been smuggling weapons into Albania to help Ismal's rebellion, and sees him stuff a coded message into the black queen piece of an expensive, antique chess set and give it to his shady accomplice.
Percival realizes this information is important to his uncle Jason, but his father has already arranged to have him transported to Venice, in the care of indolent, impoverished nobleman Varian St. George. Percival offers Varian a larger bribe to take him to Albania instead, where the story really begins.
Confused yet? Bear with me, it gets a bit less complicated. *deep breath* Varian and Percival arrive in Albania only to run into Esme who is fleeing Ismal's henchmen and in the ensuing fracas, Percival is kidnapped by mistake. Esme knows that Percival's in little danger since even Ismal is aware of the bad PR that can come from murdering an unarmed British tween, and Esme agrees to take Varian with her to the city of Tepelena, where Percival will most likely end up. *gasps*
Yes, retelling it all makes it sound like an absurdly complicated set-up, but The Lion's Daughter is a complex and rich romance, evoking both the familiar and the exotic, creating both sympathetic and believable characters that nevertheless have pretty unique backgrounds.
I adored Esme - one of very few heroines I would actually term "adorable" with a straight face. Yes, she's an unconventional character for her time but thankfully Loretta Chase gives her the background, smarts, and skills to back it up. She's not one of those "Princess Jasmine" heroines who rebel against the system without really knowing what the outside world is like and who turn out to be brainless twits when they do. You know, the ones who traipse about their rich daddies' estates in boy's clothing only to discover, *gasp* walking down dark alleys at night in an unfamiliar part of town as an unaccompanied woman is unsafe?
Esme's father, knowing the political instability of Albania, made sure his daughter learned how to protect herself, physically and mentally. Seriously, she's built like a 13-year-old boy but can take down men twice her size. She's also smart enough to recognize when she's physically outmatched and use her brains instead. It's Esme who takes the lead when she, Varian and their ragged band travel to Tepelena.
That's not to say she's a superwoman. She's been raised to believe herself an outsider - half-British, half-Albanian, with a fiercely independent streak that sets her apart from women of both nationalities. She's self-aware enough to be uncomfortable with her alienating temper and boyish appearance but not enough to give them up without a good reason. Despite this, she tries to hold herself emotionally aloof on the road to Tepelena - for she knows she's likely to die once she attains her revenge and attachments will only make her duty harder. She's definitely a literary descendant of Leonie from Georgette Heyer's These Old Shades.
She's also got a bit of Alex from Judith McNaught's Something Wonderful, too, in that our hero, Varian, mistakes her first for an underage boy, then for an underage girl, only realizing she's eighteen roughly halfway through the book.
Varian is another unique hero - far from a go-get-'em Alpha, he's more of a slacker Beta. After blowing his entire fortune with gambling and reckless living, he's gotten by on his looks and his charm, leaching off of wealthy hosts in return for the cachet of his aristocratic presence. He's garnered a reputation of being little more than a whore, willing to do almost anything for enough coin, agreeing to babysit Percival for a healthy sum, only to take him to Albania on the promise of an even healthier one.
Now that Percival's been kidnapped and Varian has to rely on a young woman far more honourable and self-sufficient than he is, he is forced to re-evaluate his style of existence, which involves a great deal of guilt. He refuses to allow himself to be a martyr, thankfully, but he sees this as an indication of his inherent selfishness. Even though Esme's thirteen (he thinks), he can't help but be attracted to her (and make out with her a little). Even though he's penniless and has nothing to offer her, he can't stay away from her for her own good (although once he learns she's 18, visions of Pedo-Bear no longer dance through his head). Even though Esme is All That Is Awesome and he is All That Is Lazy and Whorish, he can't help loving her and wanting to be around her forever, oblivious to how much Esme's presence improves him as a person.
Seeing these two kids come together is wonderful (their first sex scene is one of my personal faves), and the basic elements of the romance - the dialogue, the characterization, the emotional development - are good enough that we don't even really need the complicated political subplot and exotic locations and Secret Family Drama - but having them makes an already wonderful novel even better. It's tasty, original icing on top of an already heavy, rich, delicious cake. Okay, sometimes the "Who's Got the Black Queen?" becomes little more than a confusing game of political hot potato, but it's interesting nonetheless.
Is it better than Lord of Scoundrels? Well, I think so. The sweet and spicy combo of Varian and Esme is incredibly romantic, and our characters are allowed to be flawed and make mistakes without coming across as morons. We also, as I came to discover from experienced Loretta Chase readers, get a sexy, sexy villain who ends up appearing in three other Chase novels (one of which is his own).
I'm looking forward to it!