by Lydia Joyce, historical (2007)
Signet, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-451-22077-6
Maggie made a face, folding her arms across her chest. "You're right. I'm no Frances. I'm not beautiful, and no man has ever given anything to make me smile. I'm not a whore - not yet, anyway - and I don't want to make no woman cry, even if she is a rich, spoiled nob. But that doesn't mean that I'm stupid enough to pretend that you've come here because you can't live without my love and are going to turn me into a princess and carry me away to a castle in the clouds. I have to keep my wits about me and look out for myself and my chavies because no one will."
"Do you not want me then?" the baron demanded, his face like ice.
Maggie sighed, feeling old. "You know the answer to that. I want you much more than is good for me. But I have to remember what is real." She walked over to him and placed a hand over his heart. "This is real." She tiptoed so that she could place a kiss against the bare skin of his neck, the skin hot and salty under her lips. "So is that. You, me, this night. I can't afford to believe in anything else."
Margaret King - she's named after the street because she has no clue who her father is - grew up on the streets. She's like Oliver Twist, only this Oliver Twist ended up shooting Fagin right in the forehead and gathering her friends to run off into the night four years ago. However, things don't go so well since then, with an enemy from Maggie's past sabotaging her chances at making an honest living. She decides to audition for the opera - she grew up in an opera house, so she's not a stranger to the process - as one last go before opting for the world's oldest profession.
As it happens, Charles Crossham, our baron in the excerpt above, needs an Eliza Doolittle. It's a long story, but previously he had attempted to do a My Fair Lady on his late father's illegitimate daughter and help her find at the very least a decent life among the gentry, but his sister Millie took it upon herself to openly give poor Lily the cut. Charles makes a wager with Millie - if he can teach a commoner to become a lady and fool Millie into believing that this lady is one of the Ton, Millie will become Lily's new best friend and sponsor Lily's Season.
So Charles ends up in the same opera house just as Maggie walks up on stage to audition. Maggie doesn't get the gig - her voice is nothing exceptional, alas - but Charles believes that she can be a good actress and approaches her for the Eliza Doolittle gig. Charles just wants to win the bet, he has no idea that he will soon be drawn into Maggie's world where his own perception about life and love will be challenged.
As you can tell from the excerpt above, Maggie is a rare heroine with a pragmatism that is almost unheard of among romance heroines. She isn't afraid to do what it takes to survive, just as she has no illusions about her relationship with Charles. Charles is a nobleman. No, he's not a spy for the Crown. Instead, he's a realistic fellow who lives like one would expect a titled gentleman to - tend to the estates, indulge in vices easily available to men of his class, and feel generally bored and listless about life in general. Maggie's arrival in his life introduces him to a world that is beyond his pampered existence, making him feel frustrated at how powerless he is at times to make things right in the world for Maggie. I can only imagine how sobering it must be that with pretty much a snap of his fingers, Charles has helped Maggie and her ragtag companions achieve all kinds of things - job, education, security - that these people on their own have been struggling desperately to find. All his money, however, can't solve Maggie's problem when her enemy closes in for the kill, so to speak.
In a way, I find Charles more interesting than Maggie because his character have more layers to peel at as the story progresses. He reminds me a lot of a Judith Ivory hero. Charles is not perfect, but he's not a complete rake either. He's a realistic-seeming fellow who is challenged into thinking and feeling by events that he is often out of depth in, and it's a pleasure to see him discover aspects of himself that he doesn't imagine that he has in him.
Voices Of The Night would have been a fabulous book if this book is, I suspect, a little longer. The last few chapters where the external conflict comes to a boiling point are rushed to a ridiculous degree. The epilogue is also rather unbelievable as it drives home a conventional happy ending that doesn't ring real for this unconventional couple. The author seems to be building up the villain to be an interesting character, but this fellow then gets his just desserts in a rushed manner in the end. Needless to say, the way the author has to wrap things up in her story is most unsatisfying.
Other than that, I find the romance between the two main characters most enjoyable to follow because they play each other off nicely. Each of them challenges the other person to think and feel. It also helps that Maggie is generally pretty smart and Charles gets so deliciously protective and even obsessive over her that he doesn't care anymore that she is from the gutters. She can't leave him! She just can't! He won't have it!
But one thing about Maggie troubles me, I'm afraid. As the story progresses, she becomes more determined to play the martyr. She knows that the bad guy will not honor his promises, but she will also not seek help or confide in anyone because she wants to protect them all. It's okay, you see, if she dies because she just wants to protect everybody and everything. While I can only admire her resolution and I have no doubt angels will sing over her glowing body when she's hanging lifelessly from the cross, I am not sure about Maggie thinking that her way is the only way. Her refusal to believe that Charles is capable of doing anything has me wondering about the longevity of her relationship with that man. Her adamant belief in that she has to be the martyr even when a big part of her knows that in the end she may lose her life for nothing as the bad guy will not honor his promises disturbs me even more because I cannot imagine anyone not trying to think of some alternative solutions to a pointless martyr act.
As a result, Maggie's initial pragmatism and common sense soon devolve into this one-note Joan of Arc complex that has me scratching my head and wondering what happened to the smart and pragmatic Maggie at the start of the story. But this problem is tied to those Darned Rushed Last Few Chapters, so I suspect that any kinks in this book could have been ironed out should the author have another 200 or so pages to work with.
Voices Of The Night seems like a departure of sorts from the author's previous three books as this one is free from over-the-top melodrama emo angst. Readers not enamored of the author's previous three books may even enjoy this one, who knows, because it presents the author's elegant prose and deft characterization in a more reasonably low-key level of melodrama. It's really too bad about the rushed later parts of the story because this one could have been a refreshing and most well-written keeper.
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