by Laurel McKee, historical (2010)
Grand Central Publishing, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-446-54478-8
Countess Of Scandal is set in Dublin during the eve of the Irish Rebellion of 1798, which our hero Major William Denton and our heroine, Eliza Blacknall, will witness and be a part of as the story progresses. Yes, whatever the generic title and the admittedly lovely cover of this book may lead you to believe, you will not be getting another Regency-era romp in London. The interesting setting makes this one worth a look if you are keen on reading something different in your historical romances.
Both our main characters are English, but Eliza's sympathies have always been with the Irish. Seven years ago, William and Eliza were in love... until William decided that enlisting with the Thirteenth Regiment of Foot would be the best option for him to make his way up in this world. Eliza was dismayed - the Regiment is an English army. And all Englishmen were icky! Well, that was the end of a beautiful teenage fling. Today, Eliza is the widowed Lady Mount Clare who uses her late husband's money to sponsor the activities of the Society of United Irishmen and her free time to write, anonymously of course, propaganda material for them. Trouble for Eliza begins when William shows up as part of the troops sent by England to quell the rising insurgence in Ireland. They are now on opposing sides, but this only makes their romance more interesting, I guess.
This story starts out really slow. I have problems with how apparently everyone, even passers-by on the street, knows that Eliza is in cahoots with the Society of United Irishmen. William knows of this as well, and his main concern is to get her to stop her activities. So when Eliza is worried that William will learn of her secrets, I have to snort. What secrets? Everyone and his grandmother knows. And then the author includes obvious mouthpiece characters like Eliza's sister Anna, who irritatingly enough keeps reminding Eliza that Eliza is meant to be with William - an action that doesn't make sense considering that William is an English soldier and Anna's sympathies also seems to lie with the Irish. Calling Anna "romantic" isn't good enough a reason to treat Anna like the author's personal mouthpiece to remind me that William and Eliza are meant to be together forever.
But at about the midpoint of the story, things stop dragging around and the pace picks up. Lo and behold, the story plunges me into the heat of the drama as violence breaks out and Eliza is forced to confront the full extent of the consequences of her involvement with the Society. To my pleasant surprise, the Blacknall women can mostly hold their own very well. Eliza is unexpectedly capable of making good decisions and taking control of a situation, Anna turns out to have some steel beneath her annoying Pollyanna exterior, and their mother is a strong and capable woman like Eliza.
The author tries to portray a fair picture of the dog-eats-dog chaos of the insurgence of violence - people both English and Irish are capable of acts of inhuman cruelty. If you feel that the English does get portrayed a little more evil than the Irish here, I won't disagree, but I don't mind too much, especially in light of the documented atrocities committed by the English troops in Ireland in the brutal aftermath of the 1798 rebellion. I'd say we let the Irish savor some comeuppance over the English for once, if only in fiction.
There is one main weakness, I find, in this story, and it can be a deal-breaker for some people out there. The romance is not particularly strong or memorable. Ms McKee tells me that our two characters are in love, and that's pretty much it as far as romantic developments are concerned. Apparently as teenagers, they have already found a love so pure and true, it is enough to last for a lifetime even when they meet again seven years later in a time of genuine turmoil. By page 97, our main characters are already having sex because, yeah, this is love, yeah baby. I don't buy this grand love of theirs, I'm afraid.
To conclude, my impression of Countess Of Scandal is that this book tries to combine more conventional elements of a romance novel with elements of historical fiction, only to succeed considerably but not completely. There is too much telling when it comes to the romance. Still, the story is a very engrossing read especially in its second half, and there is always the charm of reading a story that is different from the usual fare. If you are a fan of stories by the late Kathleen Givens, I suspect that this one may be an interesting title for you to check out the next time you go shopping for books.
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