by Kasey Michaels, historical (2005)
HQN, $6.99, ISBN 0-373-77038-3
Shall We Dance? is, to me, one of those unexpectedly amazing books written by an author when she is struck by lightning or something. This one is pretty ambitious as it tries to weave a "What if?" scenario of the possibility that King George IV and his hated wife Queen Caroline had another off-spring after Charlotte was born, but fearing that this child would be taken from her the way Charlotte was, Caroline kept the existence of this child to herself. The heroine of this story - and the loyal companion, attendant, and punching bag of Queen Caroline - Amelia Fredericks may or may not be this child all grown up.
When this story open, bonkers King George III had finally kicked the royal basket and the fellow more well-known among historical romance readers as the fat and reviled Prinny finally gets his chance to plop his rear end onto the throne. However, becoming King also means that he has to make Caroline, the wife that he cannot stand and cannot divorce no matter how many times he's tried to do so, the Queen. Because of this dilemma, the coronation of King George IV is delayed for a week while the King, with the backing of the Tories in the Parliament, attempts to find evidence to discredit the Queen as the slut of the universe in order to get rid of her once and for all. Meanwhile, the Whigs tentatively back Caroline, hoping that this horse will help them to counter the influence of the Tories in the Parliament.
As the Whigs and the Tories gear up for the inevitable power struggle masquerading as the public crucifixion of Caroline in the good name of the King, Henry Brougham manages to persuade Caroline to return from her sojourn in the rest of Europe to stand in trial before the rest of England as once again her husband tries to divorce her by proving that she is the grandmother of all the Monica Lewinsky types in the world. Caroline, wanting to spite George by forcing him to crown her his Queen, drags herself and her entourage to London like a circus that has come to town. The Whigs are happy.
The Tories however will not just stand there and let the circus take over the town. The Kenneth Starr of sorts is Sir Willard Humphrey who is charged to find evidence of Caroline's carrying on with randy Italians and such. Willard in turn charges his nephew Perry "Nevvie" Shepard to get close to the Queen to find such evidence. Perry balks at such a task but when he realizes that his uncle has also send Perry's enemy on the same mission, he decides to cooperate, if only to prevent this villain from causing more harm than he has already done. He realizes soon enough that the key to the Queen's secrets is Caroline's faithful companion Amelia. You can guess what happens when he knows Amelia better, I'm sure. But as the sharks circle around the besieged Caroline, I have to wonder how these two are ever going to work things out with each other.
Meanwhile, as our main characters dance around each other, little do they know that they have an overzealous Whig sympathizer and a crazy Prinny-obsessed stalker among the staff, heh. There is also an amusing secondary romance revolving around a good-natured nobleman and Caroline's friend.
It is interesting to note that while this author has portrayed Prinny as a bumbling and selfish but often humorous dolt in the past, here she depicts the man as a complete villain who is not above destroying Caroline to get his own selfish whims indulged. Ms Michaels, however, doesn't canonize Caroline in the process. Poor Caroline is a selfish mercurial woman here who is used to demanding that everything goes her way, but at the same time, the author makes it clear that she doesn't believe that any woman, royalty or not, deserves to be dragged through the circus that Caroline went through in this story. And yet, despite being what she is, Caroline also exhibits an occasional selfless and thoughtful side, which only breaks my heart as I turn the pages in this book. Ms Michaels' greatest triumph in this story is her portrayal of Caroline as a larger-than-life character who defies easy labeling. In this book, Caroline is a fighter as well as a victim. The author does an excellent job in showing me Caroline's vulnerabilities without beating me in the head about how she thinks I should view Caroline. There are much to cringe at when it comes to Caroline, but there are also much to admire or at least like about her. Caroline can be pitiful, but at the same time, she is a fighter that I can respect even as my heart breaks for the scared and lonely woman that Caroline is at the end of the day.
Ah, Amelia. Normally I would shudder at heroines who want to be noble above everything else in romance novels especially when these heroines often want to be martyrs at the expense of everything else, but here Amelia's determination to stand by Caroline makes sense. She is an orphan picked up by the Queen - or so she believes - and over the years she has woven a pleasant fantasy that she may be the Queen's secret child to fill all the lonely places in her heart. Oh, I'm not saying that Amelia is delusional; I'm just saying here that for Amelia, her entire existence revolves around the Queen. She's loyal to Caroline for her own sake as well as Caroline's because she has very little of anything else in her life to live for. She knows Caroline probably better than anyone else and therefore I can see why she loves Caroline as much as the crazy woman can drive her up the wall at times. Heck, I think I adore Caroline myself, what with her craziness and all. As a plus, Amelia may trust Percy too much at the start, but she is on the whole an intelligent heroine.
I like the fact that Percy's feelings for Amelia take root beyond superficial lust when he realizes how loyal she is to Caroline when everyone else, including himself, is out to use the Queen. Percy could have been a rather stereotypical "spy with a dandy cover" Scarlet Pimpernel-type hero, but in this book, he actually kills to protect Amelia without batting an eyelid. Naturally, because I am a twisted and bloodthirsty Hun when it comes to my reading, I all but swoon at such a romantic gesture. Unlike other so-called dangerous spies pretending to be dandies, Percy is dangerous, adorably nonchalantly so. The later portions of the book when he moves mountains - or a dead body into the ground when he has to - for Caroline and Amelia are so sweet.
Sure, the story has problems, especially when things get rather rushed towards the end. But throughout it all, I find myself amazed at how Ms Michaels manages to make a very amusing comedic romp out of a story that contains some pretty sober and even heartbreaking elements in the plot. I find myself laughing and sighing as Percy and Amelia do their courtship dance. And always, Caroline is at the center of everything, the tragic prima donna who knows that she cannot win but is determined to take one last shot at George anyway.
Shall We Dance? puts me through the emotional equivalent of a meat grinder as if I'm nothing but easy meat in Ms Michaels' hands. I laugh hard, I sob like a silly blubbering twit, and I bid farewell to the cast in this story most reluctantly at the end of the day. There is no hesitation whatsoever on my part to put this book on my keeper shelf.
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