by Madeline Hunter, historical (2010)
Jove, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-515-14754-4
Ravishing In Red the first book in Madeline Hunter's The Rarest Blooms series. This book will be followed by Horny In Honey, Beauty In Bratwurst, and Packing In Pork. It's about four guys who know each other that happen to fall in love with four women who also happen to be friends. The whole thing sounds incestuous, but still, it's a convenient excuse for a series.
The plot synopsis can get quite complicated, so bear with me. Let's start with our heroine, Audrianna Kelmsleigh. About a year ago, her father committed suicide. You see, that man was the officer in charge of inspecting and making sure that every batch of gunpowder sent through the Board of Ordnance to the English soldiers abroad was in tip-top condition. Well, that wasn't the case where poor Audrianna's father was concerned. Audrianna is convinced that her father was innocent - he was the scapegoat of the Board of Ordnance, thrown to the wolves to cover up their own rear ends. Lord Sebastian Sommerhays, our hero, happens to be one of the men investigating the case. He is still on the case today, if only to tie up loose ends.
When the story opens, our heroine arms herself with a gun and stakes out at a room in an inn, convinced that a mysterious ad that her friend had seen was placed by someone who knows something about the tampered gunpowder. Sebastian saw the same ad too, and he charges into the room shortly after. Because our heroine is a woman and therefore doomed by genre laws to be as useless as a second pinkie finger, she not only doesn't use that gun but she also lets Sebastian steal a kiss while he takes her gun out of her hand. You know, I think Madeline Hunter has been reading too many books by Jo Beverley - I have this suspicion that the heroines of the two authors are pretty much interchangeable at this point.
The real person who placed the ad shows up, a gun goes off (not Audrianna's - the synopsis at the back cover is quite misleading, because, remember, Sebastian has used his clever tongue to take the gun from our dazzled idiot heroine), drawing folks to the scene, and now Sebastian and Audrianna are hopelessly compromised while the guy who placed the ad manages to get away. As the scandal begins to thicken, Audrianna naturally is like, "No, I will not marry, no, never!" even if she had been repeatedly told that she has no choice. Of course, she will marry Sebastian anyway. All her protests are supposed to be a sign of her independence, I guess, although it's hard to view a heroine who runs off into dangerous situations and freezes at critical moments as an independent person. An idiot, more like. The rest of the story deals with these two trying to get used to the idea of marriage to each other. Meanwhile, Sebastian realizes that the resolution of the case he is seeking to solve may hurt the ones he loves, and we're not just talking about Audrianna here.
Since she has now moved to Jove, as far as this book is concerned, it looks like Madeline Hunter has ditched her pretensions to become Jane Feather and is now aiming to become someone more akin to Amanda Quick instead. It's a bit disconcerting at first to realize that Sebastian Sommerhays, the hero of this story, isn't lying to the heroine. In fact, he treats her as his equal at various points in this story. Madeline Hunter's heroes in the past weren't like this - those men treat their heroines like their dogs, only they don't lie to their dogs as much as they do to their heroines. Still, the heroine is still a twit like the author's last few heroines, so this book isn't a complete culture shock.
Sebastian is definitely the more complex character compared to Audrianna. He has to grasp with issues like family loyalty and duty, and he will be torn between doing what is right and doing what is best for his loved ones. He has a complex and intriguing relationship with his brother, and he also is that rare hero by this author who isn't afraid to shower the heroine with love and affection.
On the other hand, Audrianna is an idiot - she is exactly what is advertised on the box, in other words. It doesn't help that before she marries Sebastian, she is a typical reckless idiot who is all bark but no bite, but after she has been joyfully introduced by Sebastian into the pleasures of boinking, she immediately morphs into a bewilderingly sage and understanding woman who knows exactly how to psychoanalyze our hero and his brother. How Audrianna manages to go from one extreme example of a character to another extreme is never made clear here. I can only fall back on my knowledge of romance novel tropes and assume that while some heroine's hymen gives magic powers, Audrianna's hymen stops her brain from functioning, hence its loss automatically turning Audrianna into an Oprah Winfrey type of heroine who also happens to have the body of a love bunny and put out on a regular basis to the hero.
Incidentally, don't be fooled by the back cover calling this one "a new tale of erotic passion". Madeline Hunter is not going to start getting her characters to bump uglies in the rear end or use their mouths to do things people only do in erotic romances, so I hope you aren't expecting something like a typical erotic historical romance here. Still, I think this book breaks the author's personal record when it comes to the number of love scenes in a single book. These two are always doing the love bunny dance.
Ravishing In Red is a story that is made interesting to read because of the relationship between the hero and his brother as well as the emotional conflicts experienced by the hero as he pursues his investigation. A part of me suspects that this story would still be as good if the heroine and her romance with the hero were completely stricken off. This is because the heroine adds nothing to the story - she's not a character in her own right as much as she is merely a plot device to catalyze the hero's emotional turmoils. She brings out some incredible scenes of romanticism from the hero, but on her own, she's still a underwhelming twit who morphs overnight from idiot to sage wife in a most unrealistic manner. Let's hear it from the boys, then.
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