by Meredith Duran, historical (2012)
Pocket, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-4516-0695-9
At Your Pleasure is an ambitious effort that attempts to be an epic tale of love and conflicted loyalty, but it doesn't completely succeed. This is not a book with glaring flaws, but rather, a book with a number of tiny little cracks here and there. These problems by themselves are nothing minor, but together they create a cumulative effect of drawing me out of the story at pivotal moments.
This story is set in England at a time when having the "wrong" religion can get you killed. It's 1715. Queen Anne died about a year before, and King George I plumped his Hanoverian arse on the throne, creating a ripple effect where the Tories championed James Stuart's claim to the throne, and families once powerful now find themselves at the brink of losing everything if they make a wrong step or cross the wrong person. Our heroine Leonora Colville's brother is away in France with their father, plotting against King George in the name of the Jacobite cause. Our hero, Adrian Ferrers, is the Earl of Rivenham whose family name has only recently been restored to a semblance of its past glory. But there is a catch: he must prove his loyalty to the King by arresting Nora's brother David for treason.
So, when the story begins, Adrian and his men storm Nora's home, putting her under house arrest in an effort to draw out David Colville. Complicating matters is the fact that Adrian and Nora had a history, a relationship that ended in plenty of tears and wrong assumptions about the other person. Nothing is ever easy in this story, so there's plenty of fun to be had.
On many levels, this story works - almost perfectly, at places. This one delivers plenty of raw emotions as our hero and heroine pretty much thump their chests and rend their hearts in melodramatic anguish when they are not having love-hate shags that score considerably high on the Richter scale. The writing is pretty, the momentum never falters, and there is no shortage of drama.
It is only when I start to mull over this story in preparation of writing this review that I begin to notice all those small cracks on the beautifully painted wall, so to speak. One problem I have here is the fact that this is a story with conflicts and issues that are of a grand scope. I mean, love isn't only about the hero and the heroine. Their relationship can affect the people that serve them and their family members. Therefore, it is very jarring to have Nora narrowly focusing on her romance as a simple matter of choosing between Adrian and David. I never get the impression that she thinks of her relationship with Adrian beyond this narrow scope. She shows little concern for her own safety and displays only a passing concern for the people whose livelihood - and lives - depend on her family.
I would like to know more about Nora and what makes her tick, but instead, I have Nora endlessly getting worked up about how she really finds Adrian still attractive but he wants to kill her brother so OH WHAT SHOULD SHE DO, OH THE ANGST. I may have some sympathy for Nora if she doesn't make things so complicated for herself by being a stereotypical unicorn-loving pink glittery damsel of love and peace. She is living in dangerous times, and yet, she refuses to make any pragmatic decision that could offend the sensibilities of the genteel romance reader.
Early in the story, she decides to drug Adrian's men to sleep after Adrian had left the house, in order to facilitate the movement of her brother's men. Why not just poison those men? She and her people will pay dearly for her actions anyway, so she may as well be pragmatic and kill the enemies, no? But of course, a romance heroine can't do these things or she will be deemed a scarlet woman. Likewise, Nora is shocked at the possibility that her brother's people would kill Adrian's men - enemies killing each other, what a shocking concept - and, because heroines are beautiful people with peace to the wazoo, decides to do some maneuvers to save Adrian - and put herself even more in the man's power. And then she whines that Adrian is now going to kill her brother. Good lord. Nora has some difficult choices to make in this story, but it's hard not to wish to strangle her when she keeps doing this I-love-everyone-oh-I-don't-know-what-to-do nonsense.
Fortunately for Nora, the author makes it easy for Nora in the end to walk away and get the guy while keeping her hands clean and conscience clear. I'm so happy for Nora, but the author's decision weakens the story considerably. Nora gets her happy ending despite doing so many things to sabotage herself, by refusing to take a stance, make a hard decision, or get her hands dirty. When she does something, it's often hamfisted displays of stupidity, such as the "I'll just put them to sleep instead of poisoning them because I love peace and killing is bad" incident I mentioned earlier. Sometimes, you have to do "bad" things, especially when you are backed against the wall and many lives depend on you doing the ruthless thing. The author puts Nora against the wall, but then has her fail spectacularly in the name of being a "good and virtuous heroine". Too bad, really, because I end up feeling that Nora doesn't really work for her happy ending and, therefore, she doesn't fully deserve it.
Adrian is not without faults, either, although with him being a man, he is naturally given plenty of leeway to do "bad" things here. Still, I'm not sure about his stubborn belief that Nora is part of the plot that led to their broken relationship years ago, because, in the years following that event, he was supposed to have become this hardened man wise in the ways of the world. I give him some leeway in this - you don't hold a grudge for so long if you don't have a blind spot where that person is concerned - but his willingness to believe the worst of Nora continues a bit too long to be believable, if you ask me. Then again, Nora's wishy-washy antics make it hard for anyone to trust her, so I don't know. The fact that I have doubts suggest that the author could have done a better job in selling me the story, no? Or maybe I'm just a reader who is tough to please, heh. At any rate, Adrian is a pretty intriguing hero because of the way the author slowly cracks open his icy heart as the story progresses, but I am frustrated by how the hero is allowed to do "bad" things that are in character for a man of his time, but the heroine is not allowed the same opportunity. The hero always has more power than the heroine, and the relationship, as a result, is far less satisfying than it could have been.
At Your Pleasure is, at the end of the day, a well-written book brimming with well-delivered pathos and angst, but its unwillingness to completely abandon the double standards of the genre works against it as well.
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