Trial By Desire
by Courtney Milan, historical (2010)
HQN, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-373-77485-2


Yikes, that is one creepy-looking guy on the cover art. He looks like he'd just drugged a poor woman and he's about to take advantage of her unconscious state to remove her underpants and try them on himself. Fortunately, the story in Trial By Desire is much better than the cover suggests.

The story of Edward Cahart and his wife Kathleen actually started in the previous loosely-related book Proof By Seduction, when Ned was caught in a compromising situation with Kate, a duke's daughter. Still, I personally believe you don't have to read that book to understand this one. I mean, I've read that book and there are things here that still make me scratch my head, heh.

When Trial By Desire opens, Ned is offered an opportunity to embark to China on behalf of his uncle, and he leaps at the chance, ditching the wife three months into the marriage... and coming back home to her three years later. This time he thinks he's ready to be a husband. But how will he and Kate find a way to reconcile? Meanwhile, Kate has appointed herself the Champion of All Downtrodden and Abused Wives. Will she get a medal by the end of the story?

Trial By Desire is in some ways a very well-written story. The prose is easy to read and very engaging, and the author is well attuned to the strengths and flaws of her characters, especially her hero. Ned is an insecure person who has behaved very thoughtlessly in his self-absorbed quest to prove to himself and everyone else that he has a functional set of testes. He often means well, but he isn't the most thoughtful person around, and the author doesn't let him off the hook so easily. Ned has plenty of growing up to do, and he realistically enough becomes a smarter person with still some way to go by the last page. He doesn't transform overnight into the perfect guy, and I appreciate that.

However, while Ned is allowed to have flaws, Kate for some reason is a little too perfect when it comes to her reaction to Ned. For someone who champions the rights of women to the point of risking her life for the cause, Kate holds little regard, it seems, for her own value as a woman and a human being, as her attraction to Ned remains strong and unchanged despite the fact that he dumped her for China for three years, leaving her to fend for herself, manage the place, and face the sneers and gossips on her own. I doubt I would be so sanguine to lecture him as if he was a naughty schoolboy were I in her shoes, much less be so willing to share his bed again.

Therefore, there is a bizarre paradoxical dichotomy in Trial By Desire: the hero's slow discovery of his own worth as a person feels real, but the heroine at the same time does not seem real at all. She's more like a shrink than a wife who had been abandoned by the husband for three years.

It doesn't help that the second half of the story features the external conflict prominently. Here, we have a cartoon villain - the chauvinist monster who hates all women and would rather see them die than let them vote, and who beats his wife - whom the hero constantly makes excuses for for so long. The better to prolong the conflict, of course. Because the wife is too busy championing women everywhere and the hero is struggling to understand what is happening around him, they don't have much time to fully explore their feelings for each other. This is not a good development, in my opinion, because Kate is already an unrealistic character and she needs to demonstrate that she is a human being with feelings. The hero alone cannot carry the show on his own. It also doesn't help that the subplot to squash the Evil Chauvinist Ogre is not particularly interesting - plots with cartoon villains seldom are, after all.

Trial By Desire is a pretty decent show of hand from an author still new to the business, but I personally feel that she has focused too much on the hero's soul-searching and the cartoon subplot about Elmer Fudd's British great-grandfather at the expense of the heroine's character development.

Rating: 79


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