Top critical review
A fun read with some deep internal flaws
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on September 8, 2016
I'll start by saying I'm a huge fan of Sarah MacLean, and the first book in this series, A Rogue by Any Other Name, is one of my favorite hist-roms in recent years. The second book, One Good Earl Deserves a Lover, was also very good. The third, No Good Duke Goes Unpunished, was logically flawed but pretty decent. This one appears to be continuing the downward trend of the series for me. I bought the book ages ago because I figured I should finish the series, and it sat on my Kindle, unread and forgotten. This was mostly because, although the revelation that Chase was actually female was kinda-sorta interesting, I was skeptical that her story would amount to much more than an anachronistic, modern-feminism-in-petticoats romp with too little depth and too much repetitious language structure (the latter was a problem in book 3). Turns out I was right to be skeptical.
First, the good stuff: Having read some poorly written material by other authors prior to reading this book, I found MacLean's deft use of language and sound story structure a profound relief. This is not amateurish garbage--her characters all have interesting backstories; she weaves in plenty of emotion (the prologue is heartbreaking and perfectly done) and chemistry between her H & h (unlike some other reviewers, I loved the alcove scene; super hot); and the conflict, while a bit contrived and nonsensical, definitely FEELS real, if only because it's repeated so very, very often in endless paragraphs of stewing and angsting and navel-gazing. But I digress. MacLean also deserves props for tackling the sheer challenge of Chase's story. A ruined woman (an aristocratic, single mother in the 1830's, no less) trying to re-enter society while leading a double life as the owner of a notorious gaming hell? It takes real guts to tackle a hill that high as a writer, because, while the premise is original, making Georgiana's story believable to readers who've invested in the series is a very hard thing to do. So kudos to her for wanting to do something difficult. Many authors don't bother. MacLean can write--and does write--some of the most engaging hist-roms out there. So don't let what I'm about to say put you off her other books.
Now for the not-so-good stuff: Much of this was mentioned by other reviewers, so I'll just touch on a few things that bothered me, some minor, some major. Let's start with minor stuff. I suspect this book either was edited too much or not enough. Exhibit A, she drifted several times out of the point-of-view of the character whose head the reader is occupying during a given scene. For example, during the aforementioned alcove clinch between Georgiana and Duncan, we're seeing everything through Duncan's eyes--that is, until he says something unexpected, and "she was again struck by how well he saw what few others did." He wouldn't be thinking that, obviously. She would. It's a basic editing mistake that either should have been caught or was created when MacLean was told by her editor to reframe the whole scene from the H's POV and missed a spot or two in the rewrites. Just a guess. Exhibit B, the repetition of language and sentence structure. This was a problem in the last book and has been hammered to death in the reviews, so let's just say that it gets old. It gets tedious. It gets tiresome. So tiresome, you want to take a nap. So tiresome you're tired of being tired. So tiresome, you want to send a repetitious note to the author. Or stop reading. Or complain to your dog. Or throw your Kindle at the wall, even though you paid perfectly good money for it. Even though it's the best technological marvel you've ever ... you get my point, right? :) It appears to be a nervous tic MacLean has developed in her writing over the past three or four books, and a little goes a very long way. Her editor should help her out with that.
Now, for the major stuff. First, the historical credibility problems. Historical romance should be a love story first and a trip in the way-back machine second. I totally get that. However, this story struck me as overly modern on multiple levels. From basic things like the presence of an indoor swimming pool in 1830's London, or Georgiana wearing pants instead of a gown for no apparent reason (it wasn't a disguise, just a preference, and a risky one at that), all the way up to the larger issue of Georgiana attempting to re-enter society after being ruined in a way very few women could ever come back from. At that time in those circles, if you had a child out of wedlock, duke's sister/daughter or not, being accepted back into the fold was a no-go, and someone as savvy and jaded as Georgiana would know that. Had her daughter been kept a secret, maybe this plotline would have worked. Alternatively, if Georgiana had continued to eschew the society that had rejected her and, rather than try to find some poor viscount to blackmail into marriage, if she had instead targeted Duncan West for a bit of revenge for the ugly cartoon he published, waging a battle with him that threw off both public and private sparks, MacLean might have avoided the gaping holes in the plot. Marriage to a viscount would not solve a single problem for her. It would not make her illegitimate child any more acceptable to society. It would only bring unwanted attention to said child because Georgiana is back circulating among the ton, taking her daughter out for public strolls in Hyde Park. Georgiana/Chase is established as a very sharp cookie who would have known all this, so the basic premise is flawed. I'm sure the author is aware that the social mores of the 1830's were less forgiving (and, incidentally, less casual about using epithets such as "Christ" and "g**damn") than she portrays. Maybe she liked the storyline too much to worry about it. That's understandable. But it's also a little distracting and even, at times, dubious.
Second major set of problems: Characterization. Georgiana is this ruthless, super-savvy woman WAY ahead of her time in terms of defying societal dictates, who has established a thriving business in which she squarely holds her own with three alpha-male partners. And yet all her decisions are designed to obtain the very thing she loathes--a return to society. I get she's doing it for her daughter, but it makes no sense and doesn't align with the character MacLean established. Speaking of her daughter, a nine-year-old who occasionally says something insightful or mature is both charming and realistic. A nine-year-old who ALWAYS sounds like that makes a reader wonder if another character (maybe a 30-year-old best friend or something) was edited out of the story, and the wise, too-precocious-by-half words were put in the mouth of a child to streamline the cast. I don't know. But the kid seemed weirdly old to me by the end of the story. Finally, there's Duncan West. Unlike some other reviewers, I didn't find his jealousy overbearing or unbelievable. I thought it was the most real thing about him. Guys get jealous. They're human. It happens. Those who criticize the portrayal of his jealousy of Chase as unreasonable should try flipping the circumstances around and ask themselves if Georgiana had been a HE (George, let's say) and Duncan had been a SHE (Delilah, let's say), and it was well known that George had a famous courtesan as a mistress, might Delilah have felt a bit of jealousy, especially if George kept protecting the courtesan's identity and took his sweet time about assuring Delilah the courtesan was not his mistress? Yep, it seems more reasonable when the shoe is on the other foot, doesn't it? So, I have to defend MacLean on that point.
And that brings me to my biggest (personal) grievance with this book, one which I expect many readers to disagree with. The unthinking feminism. Oh, I'm far from anti-feminist. I'm what you might call fair-minded. Equal rights. Equal opportunity. Equal treatment under the law. I'm totally there. But when a protagonist of any story willingly sleeps with a guy, fully intending to flout society's conventions and knowing she's running a HUGE risk with her reputation, and then later whines that--literally--it's all "society's fault" that things didn't work out so well, I'm pretty disgusted with that protagonist. Blaming society for your mistakes or the "unfairness" of life is a big, ugly cop-out. It is also the least empowering thing I can think of, whether you're male or female. Taking personal responsibility for one's own actions and mistakes, as well as the consequences of those mistakes--that's real empowerment. There's a big trend in romantic fiction right now in which some authors try a bit too hard to incorporate modern-feminist themes into their novels, even when these concepts clash with time and setting and the simple logic of the story. Women have known oppression in the past, and many still do, there's no doubt about it. But this particular character was not oppressed. She was wealthy, privileged and pampered. She threw it all away because she was young, naive and rebellious. That was HER choice, not society's. I would have much preferred a more evolved Georgiana to emerge--one who took ownership of her mistakes, even one who felt tremendous guilt over saddling her daughter with a difficult future. There was a thread of that, but it was so underdeveloped as to be nonexistent. My guess is that the author was too busy condemning pre-Victorian society for its rules, most of which, while appearing archaic to our modern sensibilities, were designed to protect women from being impregnated and abandoned, as Georgiana was. A recognition of this basic fact would go a long way toward deepening the story, enriching it with the complexity that many women of that time faced.
To sum up, this is a generally well-written book with numerous internal flaws most fans won't give two hoots about. If the things I mentioned above seem nitpicky to you, you'll likely enjoy it a lot. Hence, the 3 stars. Duncan West is a yummy, sensitive, unrealistically evolved hero. Georgiana is a strong, capable, sometimes sympathetic, sometimes head-scratchingly dense heroine, and their relationship has moments of real beauty and heat. If you don't take any of it too seriously, it's a decent read. But for a GREAT read, start back with books 1 or 2.
Heat rating: 6 on a scale of 1 to 10
Overall grade: C-