by Deborah Raleigh, historical (2009)
Zebra, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-8217-8045-9
Deborah Raleigh's Seducing The Viscount has a very familiar plot: a man-slut of a rake heads off to the country where he encounters an innocent and virginal bluestocking. However, it is pretty amazing to see how the author puts everything together in a manner that makes sense.
Our hero Ian Beckford is one third of a trio of friends who have one thing in common. They are all illegitimate sons who had been taken in and cared for by Mr Dunnington. Mr Dunnington ran a service where he would take in kids unwanted by their parents for whatever reason, and this is how the three men met and became friends. When Mr Dunnington died, it came to their attention that the wily old coot had been blackmailing each of the three's family relatives. In Ian's case, Mr Dunnington had been blackmailing Ian's estranged father. Ian, therefore, can't help being curious when this story opens. What secret does his father hold so dear to his heart that he would pay Mr Dunnington so much money in exchange for his silence? Ian decides to head back to his reclusive father's estate, Rosehill in Surrey, to snoop around while pretending to be merely visiting his aunt Ella Breckford. In the process, he finds himself enchanted by Ella's companion, the studious Mercy Simpson who has gratefully accepted Ella's invitation to escape her overbearing parents.
Ian is a predictable hero. He's a man slut who is secretly nursing a wounded heart bruised and battered by years of cold treatment by his father, and you know, at the end of the day, he is just a woobie looking for the right woman to set him onto the right path. As for Mercy, she is a familiar heroine too. She's a bluestocking heroine who has no idea that she's an alluring beauty and, until she's met the hero, she has very little experience with men in general.
But here is where the romance deviates a little from the derivative script: Ms Raleigh actually takes great lengths to ensure that there is a very good reason for her to incorporate what could be rightfully considered clichés of the genre into this story. As a result, this story doesn't feel like a paint-by-numbers affair, but instead, a story that has every right to be the way it is.
For example, Mercy is a great heroine here - she's not a dumb dingbat, for a start. If she is a sheltered innocent, it's because her parents had raised her to become their unpaid servant - until Ella offered her a temporary escape from her parents, she didn't have much of a social life because she was too busy being her parents' Cinderella. And it was only recently that her rigid childhood training began to crack and she was starting to - oh dear - resent her parents' determination to make her sacrifice her own life to make them happy. I don't think Mercy will be receiving the Mary Balogh Medal for Virtuous and Uncomplaining Martyrs anytime soon, and bless her for that.
And because Mercy doesn't realize that she is missing out on life until recently, she grabs what Ian is offering - eeuw, that sounds dirty - the way a heroine in a historical romance by Stephanie Laurens will happily do the wazoo with the hero everywhere and anywhere. And in this story, Mercy's behavior makes sense. She is a dutiful daughter who believes that it is her obligation to go back to her parents, so if Ella offers a brief moment where Mercy can breathe and explore her passion for history, Mercy is also willing to experience what Ian can offer her. I can understand completely what Mercy is doing in this case.
And as for that part about being so willing to go back to her parents, don't worry. Mercy isn't a martyr here - there is a pretty reasonable psychological reason for her doing so. I'm not saying that I agree with her in this case, but thanks to Ms Raleigh, I understand why she is determined to go back to her old life even when Ian ends up offering her his heart and more.
As for Ian, I really like how much he stays in character for a long time in this story. He's not a fake rake or a gentleman slapped with the reputation of a rake. While he does exhibit the hypocritical "I do not seduce innocent high-born ladies" attitude that romance authors love to use to make their rake heroes "palatable", he is also a convincing debauched rake here. He's also not too over the top like Susan Johnson's walking twenty-inch erections. Ian doesn't transform overnight into the gentleman of the year after falling for Mercy. His transformation is more subtle than that and, therefore, more believable. He's arrogant, convinced that he's the greatest gift to women everywhere, and when he falls, he falls so hard that the joke is on him. In a way, he can be too stubborn for his own good, especially where his father is concerned, but Ms Raleigh does a great job in showing me that Ian is a lost and very lonely young boy inside, a boy who still couldn't understand why his father treated him in such a manner all his life.
Ian and Mercy have a pretty good romance here. The sexual tension is there, of course. I also like how Mercy can give back as good as she gets from Ian - she manages to have the last word pretty often, turning the tables on him in ways that make me laugh. Also, it soon becomes clear why Ian is so infatuated with her: Mercy, having been raised by her vicar father to be a caregiver, is the complete package for Ian. She's his mother as well as his girlfriend. When Ian is lost and confused in this story, it's Mercy he seeks out. The whole romance may not seem healthy when I put it this way, I know, but seriously, just read the story and you may just understand why I'm saying that this romance feels just right and I can definitely believe that these two will be fine together.
If there is one thing I don't like about this romance, it's Ian's repeated calling of Mercy as his "wood sprite". The term of endearment is awkward enough, but have it repeated so often in this story makes me cringe.
The mystery of Ian's father is very easy to guess even before the author starts dropping in the clues in her story, but I have to say, watching the two men try to reconcile but more often than not botch up their efforts despite their best intentions is an unexpectedly poignant experience. I also like how Ms Raleigh gives Ian more realistic reconciliation with his family. There is no sitcom-style hugs-and-aww ending where everything is forgiven. He's willing to put the past behind him, but the hurt may take some time to heal.
Seducing The Viscount may seem like a familiar story at first, but it's actually a very refreshing take on an overused storyline. The main characters are really appealing to root for and the story is a most entertaining read. The only thing that is keeping me from giving this book a keeper grade is the author's use of secondary characters late in the story to heavy-handedly talk some sense into the hero. These characters are so heavy-handed to the point that they sound more like guest psychiatrists on Oprah than anything else. I love how the characters manage to come to sensible epiphanies, but the method used by the author to help them get there comes off as really artificial to me.
Still, this book comes really close to being a keeper for me. I'm starting to think that, at this point, Deborah Raleigh is probably one of those authors that you should be reading, but aren't, if you enjoy humorous historical romances with an often unexpectedly intense emotional core, such as those by Sabrina Jeffries and Teresa Medeiros. If you do, maybe you may want to give this one at the very least a quick browse the next time you're at the bookstore.
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