by Kasey Michaels, historical (2012)
HQN, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-373-77639-9
The synopsis of Much Ado About Rogues can be a bit convoluted, so please bear with me. There's a lot of back story happening, that's for sure. It all began a few years ago.. Meet the Fonteneau family: our heroine Thessaly, her twin brother Rene, and their father Sinjon. Sinjon is French, but he served England as a spy during the days between the rise and fall of Napoleon Bonaparte. Tess and her brother found themselves competing for their father's approval. Sinjon wanted a son, but Tess turned out to be a far better student of the "trade", so to speak. Still, Tess was still only a daughter, and she soon found herself displaced from her father's side displaced by Jack, her father's new apprentice.
She and Jack had a lust-hate relationship that culminated with lots of heated passion and declarations of love. Unfortunately, their blissful time together came to an abrupt end when a gig came to a disastrous end, resulting the Rene's death. Tess blamed Jack for the death of her twin brother, and they broke up after harsh words were exchanged.
That was then. Since Bonaparte's unceremonious forced vacation to Elba, Sinjon found himself no longer needed by the Crown, who never trusted him completely anyway. And since the Crown doesn't fully trust him, those folks are starting to wonder whether it is wise to let Sinjon, who knows plenty of England's dirty little secrets, walk around without a care....
When the story opens, Sinjon has vanished, and Jack, now an agent for the Crown, is asked to track down Sinjon and kill that man if Jack learns that Sinjon has done anything shady. Guess who is Jack's best lead to Sinjon. Alas, Tess doesn't know the answers either, and they soon join forces to locate her father. Oh, and don't mind that brat - it's just their secret baby who is now grown up. Cute fellow, really. And my, there are some really ghastly skeletons in the closet of both their families...
Much Ado About Rogues is the last book in the Blackthorn Brothers series, unless I am mistaken and there are another three brothers hiding under the table. While this book can stand alone to a considerable degree, the story also focuses on wrapping up the messy melodrama of the Blackthorn brothers' parents, and readers new to the series may not appreciate this aspect of the story as much as readers who have followed the series from day one. And since the entire late third of the book is devoted to the opening of the closet doors to show off the skeletons inside, you may want to at least read the first book before tackling this one.
Jack is actually Don John Blackthorn, the oldest brother who appeared in the previous two books as Black Jack, built up to be the most arrogant and capable spy ever. Now that he has his own story, however, Jack turns out to be surprisingly... normal. Okay, he does show a nice streak of ruthlessness by easily deciding that he'd betray his own country if needed to keep Tess and their son safe, but most of the time, he's just that nice guy who happens to know a hundred ways to kill a person without really trying hard. If you are looking for that dark emo hero of the previous two books, I can only suggest that maybe aliens had kidnapped that fellow. Not that I'm complaining about this version of Jack. He gets things done, and there's something really endearing about his willingness to go all out for Tess and his son. The story starts out like a standard misunderstanding tale between two bitter people, but they soon talk and clear the air between them, allowing Jack ample opportunity to drop that tired "me hate you, but me want to shag you too" act and become that gallant sociopathic anti-hero type that I just adore.
Tess, however, is a hot mess of a disappointment. She's emotional, whiny, and all-out annoyingly weak. Tess is that annoying type that refuses to let the hero do away with the bad guy permanently because she's all about patting unicorns while twirling under a rainbow. She has self-esteem issues, she cries a lot, and she often behaves emotionally at the most inconvenient moments. The world as she knows it is ending, the hero is risking everything for her, and here she is, stumbling teary-eyed and wondering whether she will ever be loved and wailing that the hero will never take her son away from her.
Normally, such bag of irritating antics is par for the course - in romance novels, you can't swing a baseball bat without hitting at least five such heroines in the face. But Tess is built up to be this capable person who has learned spy stuff from her father, outshining her twin brother and being eclipsed only by Jack. Therefore, her so-called abilities turn out to be merely informed ones. Heaven knows, she is a bit slow in putting two and two together at times, and she certainly doesn't act or think like a spy much. She's an emotional windbag who is right only once in a while. Tess doesn't have a defined personality. She's defined by the men in her life. She is that daughter who is desperate to please her father, the sister torn up over her twin's death, and a mother to her son. Who is she? What does she want for herself? I have no idea. The men in her life define what and who she is. This and her being set up as La French Nikita make it even more disappointing when Tess turns out to be such a typical romance heroine.
The plot is even more of a disappointment. This is a curious odd case where the book hits its stride in the middle of the book. The first third and late third of the book are mediocre, it is the middle third that really shines as secrets, lies, and passion all come a head and collide in a spectacular manner that has me at the edge of my seat. The first third is a standard "I blame you, you blame me, but we still wanna shag" stuff, but once Jack and Tess put the past behind them, things become really good. Thus, it is even more disappointing than usual when the story lurches into the late third after a spectacular high and collapses in a mess of unbelievable melodrama. The Blackthorn family secrets turn out to be a lurid and often unintentionally hilarious over-the-top saga of crazy people (when the nicest person is the one who suffers from a mental handicap, that's... something).
Okay, so melodrama ain't that bad. South American soap operas thrive on unbelievably crazy melodrama delivered by hot guys in skimpy swim trunks. But the twists in this story end up destroying plenty of things that are unique about the series in the first place. The Blackthorn patriarch has a very unconventional relationship with his wife, and while it's an unhealthy relationship, it's a fascinating showcase of how love can be irrational to the point that the main players don't care that their sadistic love play wound deeply the people around them. The twists here reduce this relationship into a standard sordid soap opera of lies, sex, and deceit, turning the characters involved into standard "happy family in a novel by VC Andrews" archetypes. The author also ties the secrets of Tess's family and Jack's together in a way that is hard to believe. There are coincidences in a small world, and then there are these twists that seem like a hamfisted attempt to provide the most convenient solutions to a messy plot in the easiest manner possible.
All things considered, Much Ado About Rogues is a rather difficult book to grade, because it's uneven all over. The hero is adorable, and sometimes, the story is so good to read that it's sublime. But the heroine is annoyingly weak for what she's supposed to be, and the plot twists can be too ridiculous for words. I have a great time reading this book at first, but the more I think about the story, the more I realize that the story is actually nowhere as good as I initially thought. Perhaps that is the key to enjoying this book: don't think, just read.
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