by Madelynne Ellis, historical (2008)
Black Lace Books, £7.99, ISBN 978-0-352-34168-6
Phantasmagoria is a genuine sequel to A Gentleman's Wager. If you intend to read the previous book, you really should skip reading this review. After all, this story takes off from where we last saw the characters in the previous book.
So, when the story opens, Bella Rushdale, Vaughan Forvasham, and Lucerne Marlinscar have a ménage à trois going. But the thing is, Bella believes that she loves Lucerne and she is starting to find it vexing to keep sharing her personal intimate moments with Vaughan. Vaughan thinks that he loves Lucerne more than Bella and like Bella, he is starting to wish that Bella will sometimes vamoose and let him and Lucerne have some quiet time together. I don't know what Lucerne wants - asking that man to make a decision is like asking an elephant to do the foxtrot. With Vaughan being the self-absorbed manipulative bastard that he is, he decides to set in motion a scheme that will temporarily remove Bella from the equation, but alas, he learns to his dismay that Bella cares more about salvaging their relationship than Lucerne.
That's pretty much all I am going to say about the story. As to whether this story has a happy ending, well, that depends on where you want this relationship to go as opposed to where the author ends up taking the relationship to. Am I making sense here? In other words, I hope you aren't expecting a conventional happy ending typical of that in stories where three is never company. Three is company in this story, and Ms Ellis attempts to show me how her characters reconcile themselves to their circumstances. Not all of them will make decisions that the reader may agree with.
As for me, I actually want Bella to ditch both men, because my goodness, if I were her and I have to choose between a whiny and passive idiot and a manipulative asshole, I would rather move to one of those scary places in Mexico where women allegedly do naughty things with donkeys on stage. But I'm not Bella, so that's the thing here. Ms Ellis succeeds pretty well in showing me what makes Bella tick, so I can only conclude that the ending is a happy one for her because she likes being treated in such a manner by the two sorry excuses of masculinity in her life. I still can't get into Vaughan's character. I have a strong suspicion that Ms Ellis is trying to turn him into this dramatic larger-than-life bad boy who could have come from a place called Wuthering Heights, but I find him a repellent twit instead. There are some attractive bad boy traits in him, but most of the time the weak heroine brings out the worst qualities from him - Bella allows Vaughan to treat her pretty badly here, which makes him come off pretty simply as an asshole.
Phantasmagoria is interesting in that while I find the previous book a more enjoyable erotic tale rather than a romance, I find this one a more interesting character study than an erotic romp. Emotionally, I can't exactly say that I find this a romantic or even pleasant read as I find the characters flawed in a pretty unattractive manner. But I find this story interesting nonetheless because Ms Ellis attempts to show me how a realistic ménage à trois arrangement would most likely be, given that, realistically, it is very hard to pretend to love both partners equally and sometimes I'd imagine that you will want some breathing room too instead of having two people hovering around you all the time. Having never been in such an arrangement myself (alas, Hugh Jackman never did come calling), I can't vouch for the authenticity of the issues raised here, but they do make a most interesting read nonetheless. I also appreciate how the author goes ahead and makes some decisions about her characters that may make some of her fans unhappy.
At the end of the day, I can't say that I find Phantasmagoria a satisfying erotic romance, but I do, however, find this a most intriguing story with some fascinating characters running around with all kinds of angst and drama. All things considered, I think the author has done a pretty good job here.
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