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Review: Sophie by Jenny Hambly

Posted June 8, 2019 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

I thoroughly enjoyed the author’s previous book, her debut publication, so I looked forward to this with some enthusiasm and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a very different story, but that’s all to the good, and it features another spirited and independent heroine.

Sophie, the widowed Lady Lewisham, has just emerged from her year of mourning for her much older husband. It wasn’t a love match. He was in desperate need of an heir, and she was young, beautiful and available, with parents willing to accept a generous settlement to agree to the marriage. But this is not the conventional story of an unwilling bride and an unpleasant husband. Sophie was perfectly willing to do her duty to the benefit of her family, and Edward turned out to be a kind and considerate husband, who encouraged Sophie to read and expand her mind under his aegis. Even though the heir didn’t happen, he ensured that she became independently wealthy after his death.

So Sophie decides that she will continue to expand her mind by travelling to Italy with her companion, Miss Trew, and that was a pretty intrepid thing to do in those days, without a male or three to oversee everything. Naturally things go wrong as they travel, but luckily they encounter an acquaintance from London, Sir Philip Bray, who helps them out. And since he’s as handsome as she is beautiful… romance ahoy.

Needless to say, it’s not quite as simple as all that. Sophie is enjoying her independence (and her fortune!) and has no desire at all to surrender either to a man. And Philip is a confirmed bachelor and something of a rake. He’s happy with his succession of mistresses and has no intention at all of trading them in for a wife. And so the whole plot is the two of them inching towards their HEA, sometimes taking one step forward and two back, and sometimes veering off at a tangent, but always totally, utterly convinced that they aren’t heading for the altar. No way. Absolutely not.

In lesser hands this might have been rather dull. The interchanges between the two principals tended towards the grumpy, with only occasional bursts of romantic tension to counterpoint their wrangling. There are some minor side plots with an Italian family, resolved rather too easily, and a gentle little romance for Miss Trew, but none of that added much to the main story. Only Philip’s friend, Harry, added some much needed animation and humour to spice things up. But when our hero and heroine do break out of the grumpiness and allow the attraction between them to shine through, the result is breathtaking. There are some sublime moments of high emotion to more than compensate for all that crossness.

The author’s other great talent is in descriptive prose, and this book is superb in that respect, with its lush evocations of both the Italian countryside and the English. Her grasp of the Regency is sound enough to make the description of travelling through Italy perfectly believable. And for people, too, the author is able to create an image of a character in just a few well-chosen words. Wonderful stuff.

If I have a complaint, it’s that the romance is too straightforward. Or perhaps it’s the characters themselves who are too straightforward. They are both intelligent, sensible people without any real flaws (apart from grumpiness and an unwillingness to do their duty as hero/heroine of a romance). There are no real obstacles, except for their own personal resistance to the idea of matrimony, and after fighting against it for the whole length of the book, in the end they cave in rather easily when pushed and everything in the garden is rosy. I think I would have preferred them to take things more slowly and cautiously at this point rather than tipping straight into planning the honeymoon. Sophie needed to be absolutely sure that Philip would allow her to continue to grow as a person, and Philip needed to be certain he’d overcome his personal baggage. But I did like that they both seriously considered the idea of not getting married at all, but simply having an affair. A great instance of the author respecting the customs of the Regency, while also respecting the intelligence of her characters.

An excellent book, highly recommended, and I look forward to reading the irrepressible Harry’s story which I feel sure is bound to follow. Five stars.

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Review: Rosalind by Jenny Hambly

Posted December 27, 2018 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 3 Comments

It’s always a delight to find a new author who respects the traditions of the incomparable Georgette Heyer, and so it is with Jenny Hambly. Heyer afficianados will find echoes of the great lady in the characters, the situations and some of the expressions and cant terms used, and if Hambly doesn’t quite capture Heyer’s sublime touch with sparkling dialogue – well, who does?

The premise is that Lady Rosalind Marlowe is the daughter of an earl who died in impoverished circumstances after gambling away his wealth. She sets out to get her revenge on the men who won large sums from him by breaking into their homes and stealing valuable items from them, not for the money but simply to shame them. But on her last venture, she is caught – not by the elderly Earl of Atherton who had been her father’s gambling crony, but by his handsome son George who has recently inherited. Well, we can see where this is going, can’t we?

He is surprisingly lenient, not only shielding her from the Bow Street Runner who is hot on her trail, but offering her a post as companion to his newly widowed mother. His motives are not entirely altruistic – he finds her very attractive, and really, the gentlemanly thing to do would be to offer help, but keep himself out of it. But the romance has to get going somehow, so I’m not going to complain at a little implausibility at the start.

The Dowager Lady Atherton turns out not to be the traditional dragon, but a charming and very friendly woman, who delights in fostering the budding romance between the two. George has two sisters, both married, and the whole family is a great deal of fun and not at all starchy. I really liked George’s two friends, too, because yes, as in all the best Heyer stories, the hero has a couple of friends to help him into and out of scrapes. It wasn’t clear how they all met (if it was mentioned, I’ve forgotten it), but they seemed an odd bunch. Sir Philip Bray is an ex-soldier, and Lord Preeve is the stammering, gentlemanly, but not terribly bright, comedy turn.

What about the plot? Well, after the excitement of Rosalind breaking and entering, being caught, evading the Bow Street Runner and facing up to her captor, the book becomes a less dramatic drawing room affair. Rosalind sets aside her breeches and mask, and becomes a well-behaved lady again. Well, perhaps not totally well-behaved, for she’s not a woman to swoon at a challenge or leave things to the men, and she’s as often doing the rescuing as being rescued. Still, for a while there’s a little less drama and the problems are of a more domestic nature.

But of course there’s a villain lurking about the place and getting up to his villainous tricks. This was all suitably thrilling and built to a very satisfactory climax and conclusion. I confess to being a little disappointed that the villain’s motivation was George and not Rosalind. It would have been perfect if Mr Villain had discovered Rosalind’s thievery, and she had learnt that her actions could have serious consequences. Instead, George has to appear to be heartless about Mr V to set things off, which seems out of character in such an otherwise thoroughly nice bloke, and all Rosalind learns from her stealing is that if you get caught, you get whisked off to a country estate and have a very pleasant time.

Everything comes right in the end, naturally, and the slightly neglected romance reemerges and reaches its triumphant conclusion, with a delicious proposal and a rather splendid wedding scene. An honourable mention here for a creative use of Pride and Prejudice. So many Regency authors think it’s cute to have the heroine reading Austen, but here the book has an actual role to play in the development of the story, which I thought was very ingenious. Kudos to the author.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this. The author’s liking for comma splices took some getting used to, but there were so few other issues that I set it down as authorial style and therefore intentional. Otherwise, the writing is spot on, with lots of great period detail, Heyer-esque dialogue and an elegant way with description that the author in me greatly admired. A terrific debut, although a few plot issues keep it to four stars. Highly recommended for anyone looking for a clean traditional Regency. I’m now waiting for the next book, which will feature the charming and wise Sir Philip.

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