5 out of 5
Cut to the Chase:
This is my second favorite Laurens novel, and a bit of a guilty pleasure — I know she’s playing on stereotypes and glossing over details, but somehow I just don’t care. With our heroine Catriona, who is a healer and witch, there is an aspect of magic and fantasy that Laurens rarely explores and in Richard, the bastard son of a Duke, we have a noble hero who is nonetheless a bit of an outsider looking in. They are both people whose family situations have been defined for them; watching them discover each other and form a family is enormously engaging and enjoyable.
Catriona Hennessy is called a witch by outsiders, and the Lady by those who serve her and are watched over by her. She is a healer, and rules over the vale in which she lives — she manages everything from the household accounts to the livestock and farming rotation. She’s fiercely independent, and though she knows that she will eventually need to produce an heir (another female to watch over the vale), she envisions a quiet, malleable husband who will fade into the background and allow her to continue about her business.
Fate, in the form of the Lady she worships, has chosen Richard Cynster, the bastard of a powerful duke nicknamed Scandal. She believes Richard to be a warrior without a cause, and far too strong and domineering of a personality to be truly suitable as a long term partner. Though Catriona receives a vision specifically saying Richard “will father your children” she chooses to believe that she doesn’t necessarily have to involve marriage. So she drugs and seduces him, hoping that will fulfill her vision, and allow her to maintain her independence.
While there are a lot of predictable elements to this story (it is a historical romance after all), it’s a wonderfully enjoyable, escapist novel. The two are forced together by machinations from both the Lady that Catriona worships, as well as fate, in the form of a will left by Catriona’s late guardian (coincidentally Richard’s mother’s ex-husband). Once you get over the rather obvious stereotypes, as well as the traditional third act crisis event, it’s really quite enjoyable — they’re married fairly early on, but their emotional bonds and relationship unfurl more slowly, and though it’s not my favorite Laurens, I think it’s definitely my second favorite, just because the characters are more uniquely drawn, and their feelings for each other seem to develop more naturally than usual.
Other Things to Know:
This is chronologically the third book of (originally) six in Laurens’s Cynster series. The six original members of the Bar Cynster are: Devil (Devil’s Bride), Vane (A Rake’s Vow), Richard, Demon (A Rogue’s Proposal), Gabriel (A Secret Love) and Lucifer (All About Love), six cousins who are all amongst the most sought out, elusive bachelors of the town. Don’t be deceived though – while the series follows the six different male protagonists, Laurens’s masculine heroes are more or less interchangeable: they are all exceedingly handsome, accomplished lovers and rakes who are overprotective but fiercely loyal, and they all have the kinds of faults that… aren’t really faults. One specializes in finances, while another is an expert in horseflesh; otherwise, they’re nearly interchangeable. It tends to be the women – the high strung governess that Devil pursues, the spinster in disguise that Gabriel woos, that really set the books apart.
While many make cameo-like appearances in one another’s novels, the series is barely connected, and truly does not need to be read in order. The common thread is chronology (which never impacts the plots) and the Cynster name — something Laurens must have recognized as many of the Cynster cousins, brothers- and sisters-in-laws, and even some of their friends, all later got spinoff books of their own. There’s also at least one prequel following some of the parental Cynsters.
Still, the original six are by far the best – and A Secret Love (followed fairly closely by Scandal’s Bride) are the two with the strongest character and relationship development, and by far the most satisfying and enjoyable.
Comparisons to Other Authors:
Laurens is a very prolific writer, and if you like passionate historical romances that are well-written and articulate, especially if you like to have a dash of mystery along with your romance, Laurens is a top contender by any standard. But she’s so prolific that it sometimes feels as though she’s not necessarily taking the time to edit herself and really individuate her protagonists. She’s definitely more sensual and writes more intense lovemaking scenes than Lisa Kleypas (though Kleypas has better character development and layering) or Samantha James. She also writes longer love scenes than Kat Martin, and tends to spend a little more time on the ending feelings and consequences than Martin does.
The best direct comparisons I can think of are probably Amanda Quick (which is the pen name for Jayne Ann Krentz), who tends to be also quick prolific with slightly domineering male leads, and Virginia Henley. Of the three, I would probably pick Laurens – she’s got less sex than Virginia Henley (it’s hard for me to think of an author that has more scenes devoted to intercourse than Henley), but her characters are far more developed relative to Henley, and the plot proceeds at a less break-neck pace. Depending on the book, it’s a toss-up between Quick and Laurens for me, but overall, I think I’ve read and reread more Laurens than Quick.