The Chick: Evangeline Pemberton. On the run from her appalling stepfather, she tags along with her neighbours, the Stantons - unaware that Lady Stanton plans to use her (and her psychic "Gift" of reading people) as a pawn to help her daughter snag a husband.
The Rub: Evangeline doesn't want to trap any groom, even a suspected killer like Gavin - but she has nowhere to go if she doesn't comply.
Dream Casting: Felicity Jones.
The Dude: Gavin Lioncroft. While he'd much rather stay in his giant house and mope, his sister (whom he hasn't seen in a decade) decides to throw a houseparty, in his digs, without telling him. At least he gets to see his nieces.
The Rub: When his sister's awful husband is murdered under his roof, all suspicion points to him.
Dream Casting: Hugh Jackman. Why? So that even as this book became irredeemably silly, I could think about Hugh Jackman. In a cravat.
Evangeline: Save me from my evil stepfather!
Lady Stanton: Sure - PSYCH! We're taking you to an evil houseparty run by an evil rich dude!
Evangeline: Wait, why?
Lady Stanton: Because we need your psychic powers to help trap my daughter in marriage with a murderer!
Evangeline: That makes no sense.
Lioncroft: Gar! Why are people at my house?! Who DARES disturb my brooding angst!
Evangeline: Wow - despite the fact I think he's a cold-blooded murderer, I totally want to bang him!
Susan, Lady Stanton's Daughter: That makes no sense.
Lord Hetherington, Wife Beater: *dies*
Lioncroft: Who could it be?
Evangeline: Was it Tipsy McDrunkard? Or Consumption McGee? Or SlutWhore TotallyPreggers?
Lioncroft: Why aren't you actually, uh, using your psychic powers?
Evangeline: No reason.
Lioncroft: That makes no sense. But I can't love you! I'm too angsty! I'm a murderer!
Evangeline: Dude, I thought you were hot even when I thought you were a murderer.
Evil Stepfather: Yoink! *steals Evangeline*
Evangeline: *shoots stepfather*
AnimeJune: That makes no sense!
Romance Convention Checklist
1 Broody McAngstyPants
1 Psychic Broody McAngstyPants
1 Evil Mutha
1 Evil Mutha-To-Be
1 Not Quite Evil But Still Spineless and Untrustworthy Mutha
1 Crazy-Ass BFF
1 Cranky Old Man
1 Case of *cough cough* Convenient Consumption
1 Evil Rapist Batterer Pedophile Stepfather
2 Inconveniently Dead Parents
1 Secret Passage
The Word: First of all, I would like to thank Erica Ridley, who offered me a free ARC of her debut novel, Too Wicked to Kiss. To return the favour, I would like to advise that she not read this review. I didn't enjoy your novel, Ms. Ridley, but I'm sure other people will. That being said, unless you're in the mind for some constructive (and some not-so-constructive) criticism, this review might not send you to your happy place.
Our heroine, Evangeline Pemberton, wakes up in a carriage that's not going where it should. She thought she was mooching a ride to a London houseparty with Lady Stanton and her daughter Susan. Her mother, who for years protected Evangeline from the dastardly machinations of her eeeeevil stepfather, took an assisted swandive down a flight of stairs five days past. Now Evangline has no one and needs to get the hell out of Dodge by any means necessary.
However, Lady Stanton, who's so evil she might as well be Evangeline's stepdad in drag, has other plans. Thanks to some shenanigans, her daughter's reputation is in tatters so the two are off to the country estate of one Gavin Lioncroft, a man who is believed to have murdered his parents, thus making him the only man in England who ranks lower in public opinion than Susan. If Evangeline doesn't want to hitchhike through the empty English countryside, than she'll have to help Susan to compromise herself with Lioncroft and force an engagement.
By this point, the reader has to suspend disbelief and just buy that Susan is apparently so compromised that the only man she can marry is one that even her mother thinks is a cold-blooded killer. And this is the first chapter, ladies and gentlemen.
Lady Stanton also wants Evangeline's particular assistance because she knows of Evangeline's special "Gift" - like that dude from The Dead Zone, Evangeline gets visions (along with wicked migraines) whenever she touches people. Gal can't even give a handshake without discovering you've cheated on your taxes.
Anyhoo - they arrive at Blackberry Manor (Lioncroft's crib), only to discover that the host has no idea a houseparty was even planned. His sister Lady Hetherington, whom he hasn't seen since the *lowers voice, waggles fingers* incident with their parents, needs his help snaring a suitor for her daughter, Nancy, who has also been up to shenanigans. Gavin, in typical Alpha Male With an Obvious Predator Metaphor In His Last Name fashion, growls and snaps and makes an ass of himself in an attempt to scare his guests away with bad behaviour and terrible home decor.
During this time, we are introduced to the other guests, all thinly-drawn caricatures who rely on repetitive character traits: Edmund (Tipsy McDrunkard), who is Always Drunk, All the Time, and is never found without an alcoholic beverage on hand; Benedict (Consumption McGee) who cannot move, sit, or pass wind without coughing suspiciously into a handkerchief; his wife, Francine (SlutWhore TotallyPreggers) who always clutches her belly at important moments in the story as if asking the unborn fetus for advice; and Lord Teasdale, a crotchety old dude who Lady Hetherington is intending to betrothe her daughter to. As well, we have Lord Hetherington, casual Wife Beater and All-Round Douchebag, but he's not that important since he dies early on in the narrative.
Of course, everyone seems convinced Lioncroft murdered him, including Lady Stanton, but even that doesn't diminish her determination to trap him in marriage. When she asks Evangeline to use her gift on Lioncroft, it's not to discover if he's innocent of the crime, but whether he'll be caught and hanged for it.
Trouble is, Evangeline's tried touching Lioncroft - several times, in fact, even though she's convinced he's an awful violent brute just like her stepdad. I guess the idea of parental murder just makes her freak flag fly, since she can't even look at him without tripping, falling, and accidentally shoving her tongue down his throat. However, in a quirk a la Twilight and the Sookie Stackhouse books, Lioncroft is the only person she's ever touched who doesn't give her headaches and visions. So she'll have to grope elsewhere for clues.
As explained in the author's note at the back of the novel, Too Wicked to Kiss is another entry in the recent bizarre resurgence of Gothic Romances. In this novel's case, this entails reams of melodramatic and florid description, stilted and often anachronistic dialogue, and spooooky home decorating (carpets the colour of blood, creepy statuary, "undulating" grey wallpaper, etc.), all of which only serves to make this novel about as dark and shady as a game of Clue. Mr. Lioncroft - in the bedroom - with the blood-stained pillow!
However, easily the worst element of this book is the fact that not a single character - not one - is sympathetic or worth reading about. I would gladly push any of them into the path of a speeding train. The author utterly fails to give any character a reasonable or understandable motivation for their actions.
I mean, we have the obvious Murder Motivations for our four one-note murder suspects (Edmund, Benedict, Francine, Teasdale), but why do they stick around after Hetherington dies? Some of them really think Lioncroft is the murderer, but they continue to eat his food, sleep under his roof, and continually insult him to his face. Um, what? Okay, if I had to pick a favourite it would probably be Teasdale, since his main "character flaw" is that he's crazy-old and says whatever he wants to, which makes him kind of awesome, actually. But still - where's the motivation?
We also have Lady Stanton - who seems desperate to marry Susan off to a man she (in her mind) knows is a murderer. ***Mild Spoilers*** Susan's so-called shenanigans involved getting caught repeating nasty gossip - it wasn't like she was caught in the middle of a Devil's Threeway! ***Mild Spoilers*** Are you telling me that recruiting a psychic to forcibly trap a reclusive murderer who lives several miles in the middle of nowhere was your only option to marry off your daughter? Really? It was murderer or nothing? Lady Hetherington was willing to marry her shenanigan'd daughter off to the Regency equivalent of Mr. Burns. Were there no rich old farts around at this time of year?
Then, we have her daughter Susan, a young woman with the intellectual speed of a hamster on a broken wheel. Her favourite activities include Jumping on the Popular Bandwagon, Being Easily Led, and Inconveniently Interrupting Important Conversations. And those are her consistent traits - in nearly everything else, she's a cipher for whichever character trait is most irritating at the time, whether or not it relates to her previous behaviour. Want her to make a lot of Stupid and Ignorant Assumptions in this chapter? Sure! As long as she can make an Unexpectedly Wise Pronouncement in the next chapter! Let's have her Wail About People Remembering Her Past Shenanigans in this paragraph - and then she can Wail About Another Character's Past Shenanigans in the next!
Perhaps that's why no one in Society wants to marry her - not because she spreads gossip, but because she's the character equivalent of an elementary school student's collage of Annoying Tropes raggedly cut out from old issues of Highlights and National Geographic magazines from the '70s. And guess what - she gets a freaking sequel.
Now let's discuss our heroine, shall we? Also a breathtakingly inconsistent and unmotivated character, she claims to hate violent, murderous men because they remind of her rape-happy step-father, and yet just a look from Lioncroft (before she even shares a conversation with him) sets her all a-flutter. Um, what? She spends the greater part of the first half of this novel believing he's a killer, but she continues to make out with him and get crazy-jealous of Susan and harp on his personal appearance. Why?
Because of this, Gavin and Evangeline don't really have any positive interactions for the first half of the book - every time he stops to talk to her she treats him like dirt and makes a lot of ass-hat-y comments. Of course, by the second half, despite the lack of interaction, Evangeline is mostly convinced Gavin is innocent - why? Again, because he makes her horny - heaven knows they haven't spent nearly enough time together in the narrative to indicate anything else. Um, I'm sorry, but if female genitalia were capable of telling the difference between good and evil then Bernie Madoff would have died a virgin.
As well, even though Evangeline's tasked with engineering Susan's compromisation, she and Lioncroft are repeatedly discovered by several people in tawdry situations that should have been compromising in and of themselves, but everyone conveniently fails to notice.
And even when Evangeline's mostly convinced of Gavin's innocence, she takes every excuse to demean him. She implores him to be kinder to people, but of course, if he shows a spark of kindness to a woman, Evangeline bitches at him and storms off in a huff. If he shaves, she throws a shitfit. I suppose Ridley gives us an interesting gender-reversal of the popular romance trope: this time it's the heroine who's overjudgemental and self-righteous and asshat-y, and the hero lies down and takes it.
As well, her power is never really developed or explained. Why is she unable to "read" Lioncroft through touch? It's not explained, we're just supposed to accept it. As well, even though two people (including one she's growing to care very deeply for) entreat her to use her powers to find out the murderer, she nods her head and agrees - and does nothing. Eventually, most of the touch-visions that help her to solve the crime occur accidentally - when she slaps someone, or when she falls and someone catches her. The villain actually ends up revealing him/herself in an egregiously clumsy, contrived and silly manner. Why did Evangeline have to have a secret power at all, if she rarely uses it even to save a man's life?
Now, our hero. In order to have her novel fit the criteria of a Gothic Romance, Ms. Ridley tries to give us a dark, brooding, angsty hero with a deep, dark past. Unsurprisingly, he's not nearly as dark as he seems. In fact, most of the time he's just somewhat rakish, very needy, and more than a bit amusingly ridiculous. He's more of a "sad Rake" from a lighter Regency - it's like he escaped from a Julia Quinn novel in order to set up shop as Heathcliff Lite - All the Broodiness, None of the Insanity.
The only thing really dark about him is the hinting he makes about the deaths of his parents, and, just like nearly everything else about this book, the payoff to the big reveal of this is incredibly lame. The book isn't out yet so I won't spoil the actual details, but it's very much of the "while fighting with my brother, I sneezed on him, and he caught consumption and died" pseudo-guilt variety.
Too Wicked To Kiss fails to impress, mostly since I could have done without any of the characters at all. We have melodramatic writing, hamhanded plotting, nonsensical character motivation, an unsatisfying climax, and a needless paranormal element.