3.5 out of 5 stars
This isn’t one of Stephanie Laurens’s best books… it isn’t even one of her best Cynster-universe-novels. The characters feels like mere shadows of the original Cynsters (from their passions to their worries) and the murder side-plot has a familiar presence (increasingly intense, familiar climax, etc). You could probably interchange the love scenes between this and almost any other Laurens novel. That said, it’s an enjoyable, artist meets and rescues muse romance/mystery. It drags a little every now and again, but it’s the tried-and-true Laurens formula. The mystery is slightly more compelling than usual (in that there are multiple red herrings and also a spoilers-ahead serial killer as opposed to single-murder) and none of the misunderstandings drag on for too long. It’s not a great book for someone who’s never read Laurens before (see recommendations below), but if you generally like Laurens, this is perfectly within her wheelhouse. It’s a nice escapist read that doesn’t challenge any new heights, but does what it’s supposed to do. Think of it as Laurens-light.
First, a warning, we’re starting with some moderate plot spoilers: the starting conceit of this story (and one that carried through) is that Gerrald Debbington (who we first met in A Rake’s Vow) is not only a talented and renowned artist, but also that paintings, specifically portraits, can convey either guilt or innocence. See, Jacqueline, who’s father commissioned the portrait, is secretly afraid that his daughter murdered his wife. He hopes that Gerrald’s portrait of Jacqueline will convey, via art, whether Jacqueline is innocent or guilty.
I’m not a very artistic person, so I don’t know how common such a belief/conceit would be (I can’t usually get past: pretty, not pretty, some-emotional-tug)… personally, I found this distracting, the way they kept all referring to how important this portrait was, that Gerrald (because he knows and trusts almost immediately that Jacqueline is innocent) will paint a portrait that clearly portrays her innocence, and that everyone in their small village will see it and agree.
That aside… the characters are mostly likable. If you can talk yourself into the idea that everyone in the entire village things Jacqueline is a murderer (without a trial, and with the magistrate going along with the idea that they’re just going to sweep the murder under the rug and not investigate) and also that a painting will prove her innocence, it’s an enjoyable read. They fall in love gradually and spend quite a bit of time trying to decide/internal monologue about whether what they feel is physical passion or emotional connection. There are nice descriptions of everything from the clothes to the dancing/social machinations. There is Lauren’s trademark vocabulary (lots of shuddering and shattering and cynosure, supercilious side characters and obstreporous tangents), everything moves nicely along and, though the villain-reveal is still fairly predictable, there were thankfully more red herrings than usual, to keep you interested/invested.
Other Things to Know:
This is chronologically the 12th book in Laurens’s Cynster universe. 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.
The expanded universe Cynster novels are really barely-Cysnter-esque, but some are still 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 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.