3.5 out of 5 stars
Cut to the Chase:
A slight twist on the Faustian bargain, Heartless is a rather serious, borderline melancholy romance about a fourteen-year-old tenant’s daughter who agrees to become a lecherous earl’s mistress in exchange for a lady’s upbringing/education. The earl dies in the first couple chapters, leaving Ariel to fulfill the pact with his bastard son. They’re both, in some ways, social outsiders trying to carve out a place for themselves within a more rigid British hierarchy – but unfortunately, this particular aspect remains a little underdeveloped. Nonetheless, there are interesting villains and murderous side plots to go along with the more expected lovers’ misunderstandings. Martin’s a talented writer, and you’ll care for both characters by the end… it’s just a little darker and perhaps thus a little less repeatable than other offerings.
Ariel Summers has always dreamt of better things – her mother died while Ariel was still young, her father is a bad-tempered drunk, and Ariel comes to believe that the Earl of Greville could be her ticket to a better life. At the precocious age of fourteen, she approaches him, saying that she’d be willing to be one of his “ladies” if he were willing to provide an education and lifestyle for her. They are to theoretically consummate the relationship when she turns eighteen, but fortunately/ unfortunately Greville dies, and having no other heirs, must legalize his bastard son Justin Ross.
Justin is one of those characters who genuinely believes himself to be worse than he is — in Justin’a case, he presents himself as a cold, heartless bastard man despite the fact that we keep getting enticing glimpses of his genuinely caring and honorable nature (for example, he masks his concern with children who work at one of the mills he buys by saying improving conditions would be economically beneficial, as opposed to merely the right thing to do). He and Ariel start off misunderstanding one another (as she is in the arms of Phillip Martin, his arch nemesis upon their first meeting) and this is a theme that gets repeated a little too often throughout the book.
They are clearly two people who are physically drawn to one another, but because they can’t get together too quickly (otherwise we’d have a much shorter novel) there are continual misunderstandings and trust issues that surface… again and again. It does eventually get a little tedious, and despite the fact that we’re given some interesting side villains to keep the plot moving along, we’re left feeling as though without the benefit of outside influences (a maniacally bitter and vengeful half-sister, Phillip Martin, and another old lecherous lord who’s thrown in for kicks) these two otherwise intelligent people would never get together… which is a little disappointing, because we want to not only believe in our protagonists, we want to relate to them, and that’s a little more difficult when they’re always so susceptible to the machinations of others…
Also, this is a tense book – there’s tension between siblings, tension with former enemies and lovers, and a lot of bitterness about everyone’s parents… so while the characters are compelling enough to make this a good read, it’s not exactly lighthearted. Still, I enjoyed the novel despite its flaws – it’s one of only a couple Kat Martin books that I own, because I know that in the right mood (serious historical romance with lots of memorable plot), it’s a good fit.
Other Things to Know:
Though it’s not technically billed as a series, both Clay Harcourt (Justin’s best friend) and Kitt Wentworth (Ariel’s best friend) are introduced not only as interesting side characters, but also are set up for conflict as their fathers have jointly decided that a marriage between their progeny would be beneficial to their various business affairs.
Comparisons to Other Authors:
I think Kat Martin is perhaps most similar to Lisa Kleypas in that they both tend to have sensual, but slightly more serious, plotlines, and both will mention social issues in the background. Still, to me, Kleypas’s works feature more thoroughly developed characters with less rushed plotlines.