5 out of 5 stars
Cut to the Chase:
This isn’t my favorite Cynsters novel, but it’s definitely up there, and it’s really the one that started it all. We’ve got two equally determined, managing, use-to-being-in-charge protagonists, who are ridiculously attracted to one another, and who fight being together. He wants her, and even wants to marry her, but seeks to be the dominant force, and wants everything on his terms. She, on the other hand, wants independence, is used to getting her own way, and thus very hesitant to enter into an alliance which might, in any way, threaten the autonomy she so treasures. It’s a battle of wills, it’s highly sensual (as are all things Stephanie Laurens) and for once the “mystery” component doesn’t overwhelm the rest of the novel or feel completely tangential/unnecessary. The introduction to the rest of the Bar Cynster is well done, and you can truly see how this is the book (and series) that she became famous for. The characters are emotionally complex (despite the alpha-dominant-outer-layers) and believable. It’s not my favorite, but it is very well done.
Honoria Wetherby is very managing governess. She’s set in her ways, has had a painful past, and is completely unwilling to let any man become the center of her life. Instead of marrying, she wants to travel, see Africa, Egypt, and make life one great adventure. Instead, through pure happenstance (of, in romance word: fate) she meets Tolly, a young man dying of a gunshot wound to the chest, and his cousin, Devil. They’re trapped together, alone in a cottage (with Tolly’s corpse) and Devil decides that, as her reputation’s obviously compromised (spending a night unchaperoned with a known rake), they must marry.
Except (see before) Honoria has no intention of marrying any man, much less someone as controlling as Devil, a duke who seems to live a life blessed by lady luck.
It’s a battle of wills, where Devil is determined to seduce Honoria (emotionally and physically) just enough to get her to agree to his proposal, without surrendering any of his soul. Meanwhile, of course, there’s the mystery of his cousin’s murder to solve…
Ok, like most of the other Laurens novels I’ve read, the mystery part isn’t really that mysterious. We get many, many clues about who the final villain is, and since this is a romance novel, we’re fairly certain that despite the various poison/sabotage/kidnapping-like machinations, hero and heroine will survive safely to the end. In general, to me, the mystery part of the romance is just there, sometimes it’s overdone, sometimes it’s barely there, but here it felt like just enough of a side plot to successfully introduce out cast of side characters (the Bar Cynster set, all of whom eventually get their own books) and to prolong the tension between Devil and Honoria.
Though Devil is controlling and domineering, it’s fun watching Honoria hold her own… and then some. This never devolves into helpless female/hero savior because even though Devil does get to save the girl in the ending sequence, she contributes just as much to the eventual victory. It’s a story then about equally strong, stubborn characters coming together and learning to deal with one another. It hits almost all the right notes both emotionally and from a sensuality point of view, and is a worthy beginning.
It’s a 5-star read for me, and one of my three favorite Cynster novels (though I’ll always prefer A Secret Love).
Other Things to Know:
This is chronologically the first 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 (Scandal’s Bride), 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. It tends to be the women – the high strung governess that Devil pursues, the witch (yes, literally, a witch) that seduces Richard, and the spinster whom Gabriel falls in love with, 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 Cysnters.
Still, the original six are by far the best.
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 someone like 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 and 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.