Lady Merry's Dashing Champion
by Jeane Westin, historical (2007)
Signet, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-451-22192-6


Were not for the author's name on the cover, I find it hard to imagine that Lady Merry's Dashing Champion is written by the same Jeane Westin who came up with two often too melodramatic Restoration-era romances in the year before. This one is stripped of melodramatic speeches. In fact, the heroine is actually shockingly intelligent and sane compared to the heroines of the author's previous two books for Signet. The biggest problem of this story is the bizarre Madonna/Whore overtones that permeates every page of this story. If this book is a person, I'd say the person clearly has Mommy issues and needs to see a shrink.

Meriel St Thomas, our "Lady Merry", is a lady's maid who has been taken in and treated very well for someone in her position by her employer Sir Edward. When she follows Sir Edward and his family when they move to London, Meriel finds herself neck-deep in intrigue when she realizes that she is a dead ringer for Felice, the wife or Giles Harringdon, the Earl of Warbarough. When Felice is captured and imprisoned for being a spy for the Dutch, Meriel is enlisted by King Charles II and his spymaster without her consent to impersonate Felice. Giles doesn't know of this. Further making things more complicated is the fact that Giles hates Felice. Felice, you see, is the caricature of the Slut in the romance genre. She's cheated on him with every guy around the place, she has aborted the child she'd conceived with Giles, and worst of all, she has a small bust compared to Meriel. The last is a big deal because Meriel's bigger breasts will be mentioned quite often as a sign of her moral superiority over Felice.

Apart from the ridiculous contrivance of the spymaster insisting that Meriel has sex with her "husband" to prove to him and the King that she has fooled Giles completely with her masquerade - every romance novel needs an excuse to force the heroine to part her legs for the hero without incriminating herself for the sin of Having Selfish Bodily Lusts, after all - this could have been a pretty good spy story as Meriel is a pretty smart heroine with some street smarts and plenty of survival instincts. She doesn't let the bad-asses walk all over her and she can stand up for herself. She can also put two and two together. In other words, she's a complete turnaround from the useless heroines of the author's previous two books. She actually makes a convincing spy.

But her characterization is ruined when it comes to her romance with Giles because this romance is not convincing at all. She has already fallen for Giles when she saw a bust of him even before she met Giles in person. Her feelings never change. Even when Giles could have easily raped her in a rage, she is not afraid of him because she tells herself that he is perfect. Indeed, she actually tells someone that she finds Giles to have no flaws at all after she has just met Giles for the first time. Her constant and unchanging beliefs that Giles can walk on water make me wonder whether this is romance or a case of a woman with a perplexing case of hero-worship. As for Giles, he hates "Felice" so, so, much until he learns that she is actually Merry and it's then shag-shag-shag time. Like Meriel, Giles doesn't really show much evidence of credible affection for Meriel. Then again, he gets a girlfriend who looks like his wife, only with bigger breasts, and who is also convinced that he can do no wrong. What's not to love, right?

The unconvincing romance is a direct consequence of the perplexing Madonna/Whore complex that this story is steeped in. Women in this story are portrayed in two extremes - as whores or good girls who are good because they only take it up everywhere from the hero. On the other hand, the designated good guys are inviolate and flawless. The author expresses an admiration for King Charles II and it shows. One would imagine that Barbara Castlemaine forces poor Charles II to take her on as a mistress, judging from how differently the author portrays these two characters. Likewise, Felice is the cartoon evil woman character with no redeeming features, with her treatment of Giles poorly explained. Giles hates her. Meriel hates her. I am supposed to hate her as well.

But ah, this is what the author has to say about Giles when it comes to Giles' slutting around:

True, he had matched her cuckold for cuckold. Though in truth he took only a man's release in it, no one would ever know he had anything but delight in other women. Especially not Felice.

So, Felice is a slut for sleeping with other men, but it's okay for Giles to sleep with other women? A "man's release" is okay but a "woman's release", I assume, is not? Felice is tarred for being an unfaithful wife. Giles hates such a woman. But when he sleeps with the wives of other women, he's making unfaithful wives out of them. That's rather... hypocritical of him, don't you think? Can I assume that he never impregnated his lovers and therefore they never aborted the kid that resulted, unlike Felice who is such a disgusting abortion-loving whore?

Two wrongs don't make a right, but judging from how Ms Westin portrayed Giles and Charles II in this story as opposed to her portrayal of the women who sleep around, having a penis certainly makes it right.

Lady Merry's Dashing Champion is a pretty decent story under any other circumstances, but boy, it sure has issues when it comes to female characters.

Rating: 76


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