The Chick: Phillipa Benning. The social Queen of London, when she overhears a conversation that reveals socially-invisible Marcus Worth is the famous English spy the Blue Raven, she sees a perfect opportunity to cement her status - by revealing his true identity at her annual fete.
The Rub: Phillipa discovers that Marcus is perfectly dashing all by himself - good thing he's the Blue Raven, otherwise he'd be a socially average nobody. Right? Right??
Dream Casting: Rosamund Pike.
The Dude: Marcus Worth. Socially, he's just a third son. Secretly, however, he's contributed to some of England's most important military victories. Unfortunately, secrets can't get him a date to the ton's biggest events, which he desperately needs in order to thwart an evil French spy.
The Rub: Phillipa Benning ends up being an invaluable resource, and an invaluable companion. However, the deeper they get, the more he risks her reputation - and her life.
Dream Casting: Who else to play a beta male spy? Zachary Levi.
Marcus: Oh no! A French spy is planning nefarious deeds at hoppin' shindigs!
Phillipa: Oh no! Some skank is trying to steal my Most Popular crown!
Lord Fieldstone, Leader of the War Department: Something something preposterous yadda yadda no clear evidence, et cetera et cetera famous spy Blue Raven!
Marcus: You did not just hear that.
Phillipa: Oh, I totally did. Listen, I'll get you into all the hot parties if you promise to unmask yourself as the Blue Raven at mine, making it the hottest party of them all. Deal?
Marcus: Um ... sure.
Shenanigans: *are had*
Trouble: *is made*
Byrne, Marcus' Hot Troubled Brother: By the way, I'm the Blue Raven.
Byrne: Okay, technically only 30% of the Blue Raven. The sexy 30%.
Phillipa: Oh, okay then.
Evil French Villain: Yoink! *kidnaps Phillipa*
Marcus: OH NO YOU DID NOT.
Marcus and Byrne: *Hot Brother Double Team!*
Evil French Villain: *defeated*
Phillipa: Know what would make my party totally awesome?
Marcus: A secret wedding?
Romance Convention Checklist
1 Popular Queen Bee
1 Bespectacled Beta Male
1 Evil French Spy
1 Evil English Spy
Several Happenin' Parties
1 Bitchy Rival
1 Bitchy BFF
1 Boozy Chaperon
Several Lost Hairpins
Several Happenin' Hootenannies
The Word: Some of my regular readers know that I tend to really have One Rule when it comes to book buying: Thou Shalt Not Purchase More Than One Book By An Author Thou Are Not Familiar With. Despite the beautiful covers and the critical praise and the interesting blurbs, I never really know what a book is going to be like until I buckle down and just read it. And once I do, if I don't like it, it's a huge bummer to find two more of the same author's books on my shelf. I mean, once I read Anne Mallory's For the Earl's Pleasure, I didn't waste any time jettisoning The Bride Price off my TBR.
In this case, however, I have cause to be very, very thankful that I broke this particular rule for Kate Noble. Thanks to the Booksmugglers' praise, when I met Noble at the RWA 2009 Literacy Book Signing, I decided to buy both her available books (Compromised and Revealed) instead of just her first one. Unfortunately, her debut novel, Compromised, didn't wow me. It was by no means terrible, but it just came with so much hype that it didn't live up to. I'll admit I thought I had another Nalini Singh on my hands - i.e. an author everyone else in the romance world seems to like that I don't. It wasn't bad enough to make me kick Revealed off my TBR, but I can tell you right now that if Revealed hadn't already been on my TBR, I might never have gotten around to reading it.
And that, dear readers, would have been a colossal mistake.
At its heart, Revealed follows that time-honoured '80s highschool movie plotline - the Popular Girl and the Nerd. Phillipa Benning is the toast of the ton, possessing the Three Ws: Well-bred, Witty, Wealthy - and, as a lovely bonus, Widowed. She can make or break a debutante's reputation with a well-placed word, start a fashion trend by accidentally tearing her sleeve, and turn a boring dinner party into a climactic event with her mere presence. Moreover, she's fully aware of her awesomeness and loves every minute of it.
However, when her uppity nemesis Lady Jane starts honing in on her turf (in this case, the handsome Marquess of Broughton), Phillipa realizes she'll need a special edge if she wants to maintain her seat on London's social throne.
Meanwhile, Marcus Worth is - a nobody. A paltry third son and clerk for the War Department, he doesn't even merit a blip on the social Richter scale. He's not ugly, but he's not particularly handsome. He's certainly not a rake. He even wears reading glasses. What society doesn't know, however, is that Marcus was secretly involved in some of England's most significant victories against the French, attributed to the Blue Raven, a legendary spy. Marcus has a hunch that a French assassin the Blue Raven supposedly killed is still alive and planning to wreak havoc at some of the ton's swankiest parties, but no one will believe him. Even worse, he doesn't have half the amount of cachet required to be invited to the ton's events.
It's Marcus' own (mis)fortune when Phillipa accidentally overhears a conversation between Marcus and the head of the War Department that identifies Marcus as the Blue Raven. Phillipa comes up with a brilliant scheme - she'll use her Queen Bee status to land Marcus on the Invite list to all the events on the French Spy's hit list, and in return, he'll reveal himself as the Blue Raven at Phillipa's annual Benning Ball, granting her social immortality.
Things don't go as planned, however. Marcus discovers that Phillipa's fashionable coiffure hides a cunning brain and a photographic memory and as events escalate they become more involved in catching the French spy and averting disaster. Phillipa, meanwhile, comes to appreciate the extraordinary kindness, humour, and wit to be found in a man she normally would never have looked twice at.
Kate Noble takes two very unconventional characters (at least, unconventional in romance) and turns them into very three-dimensional, fully-realized and sympathetic people. Wealthy, popular party girls like Phillipa are usually given short shrift in historicals - too often they're the spoiled, bitchy villainesses who are ultimately snubbed by the hero in favour of the plain-jane poor relation.
Phillipa surprises by being a) an unrepentantly social person who b) actually enjoys her lifestyle, and all c) without being completely evil. She's unabashedly interested in and entertained by balls, clothing, and shopping, but she's also independent and supremely confident in who she is. While she develops, her character also remains consistent. She doesn't suddenly experience the blinding revelation that - gasp! - London Society is Empty and Hollow, and only Moving to the Country and Having Eight Babies Named Alphabetically Will Complete Her as a Person.
That being said, she does have her issues - there's a very good reason behind why she doesn't talk about her brief marriage, and Kate Noble explores the solitude of life at the pinnacle of popularity. Phillipa answers to no one - but she also has no one to turn to.
As for Marcus, he's a delightfully unorthodox hero, firmly in the Beta mold. He's intelligent, moral, self-sacrificing, humorous - but gentle and verbal instead of aggressive and forceful. Phillipa is used to flatterers and cynics, but not to Marcus' straightforward, honest vibe. He's got the smarts and the skills, but not the presentation: he can't help but be overlooked and dismissed, even by his direct superiors. It's a refreshing deviation from the romantic norm of the hero who sucks all the air from a room whenever he enters. Marcus' shortcomings in public are where the flamboyant and culturally savvy Phillipa comes in. And they truly make a fantastic team.
While before, in Compromised, I was bored by Kate Noble's setting descriptions (they came off as too derivative of Julia Quinn), she steps up her game in Revealed. The balls and houseparties, as well as the guests, that come under threat are sumptuously described, and Noble lets her protagonists describe the people and society around them. Often in historicals, because the hero and/or heroine are outcasts or jaded, their descriptions of the Regency are similarly cynical and negative. While Revealed's protagonists are practical in their own way, they have a more appreciative outlook on the world they live in, and this is reflected in the writing. Also, there is a definite lack of telling over showing (one of Noble's main problems in Compromised).
But really, my adoration of this book comes down to the protagonists, Phillipa and Marcus, and the wonderful pairing they make that is so unlike the usual historical romantic pairing. In fact, it's more of a gender reversal: in most historical romances, the hero is the popular, wealthy aristocrat with the title while the heroine is typically the unimportant social outsider with an acerbic point of view. Oh, but Phillipa and Marcus work it, and work it hard. Revealed is a 100% improvement over Compromised, and while this threatens to become a persistent refrain, I have to thank the Booksmugglers for allowing me to discover one of the best historicals I've read in ages.