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Review: The Player by Stella Riley

Posted November 13, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

An awesome read. The author has a genius for putting her characters into an almost impossible-to-resolve situation and then leaving them to wriggle out of it as best they can. This worked perfectly in The Parfit Knight, but it’s just a shade less successful here.

Here’s the premise: the Earl of Sarre is forced to return from a ten-year exile in France to take up his role as head of the family after both his father and his brother have died. He doesn’t want to, and his mother certainly doesn’t want him home, but duty calls. There’s only one problem: the reason for his exile, a huge personal tragedy and accompanying scandal, mean that society may not accept him, and that makes it tricky to fulfil at least one of his obligations, that of marrying. He still has friends, however, as well as one huge advantage – he’s an actor of incomparable talent, a skill he can use to guide him through society and provide a mask he can hide behind.

Caroline Maitland is a wool merchant’s heiress, in London to make an advantageous match but she’s not finding it easy. Her fortune makes her a target for plausible rogues, and when one of her suitors is Sarre’s mortal enemy, she falls under his vengeful gaze. And Sarre finds himself drawn into a spider’s web of deceit that leads them both into a terrible dilemma.

My main problem with this is a suspension of disbelief issue. For the plot to work at all, it’s necessary for Caroline to not realise something highly significant, and frankly, I never quite bought into that. It just seemed to be a stretch too far. I also disliked the lengths to which Sarre went before telling her exactly what was going on. There were several points at which he should have come clean, but I suppose that was part of his character – hiding behind one or other of his acting personas and never actually being the real man behind the disguises. He’d been acting a part for so long that he no longer knew who or what he was, and that at least was believable.

I have a quibble about the Duke of Rockliffe, too. I know the series is named for him, so he’s in every book, but he’s too much of a magical McGuffin for my taste. He sees all, knows all, understands all and miraculously appears just when he’s wanted to save the day. It’s all just a bit too convenient. However, it’s his series and he’s a cool character so I can live with it.

Ultimately, however implausible it might have been underneath, the way the characters deal with the circumstances in which they find themselves is twelve shades of awesome, and utterly satisfying. I love this author’s creativity, and boy, can she write. A very enjoyable five stars.

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Review: The Mesalliance by Stella Riley

Posted November 13, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

After the joyful surprise of The Parfit Knight, which I regarded as a rare perfect tale, this follow-on was, for me, a far more uneven effort. It’s still well-written, it’s still enjoyable, but it suffered from one major problem and a host of minor niggles.

Here’s the premise: the Duke of Rockliffe has reluctantly decided that he needs to marry to fulfil his dynastic obligations, and provide a chaperon for the debut in society of his high-spirited young sister, Nell. While accompanying her to a nightmarish house party and adroitly side-stepping the social climbing daughter of the house, he meets Adeline Kendrick. He already knows her, having met her some years ago at one of his far-flung estates, where he was drawn to her free-spirited semi-wild nature. Now she’s the little-regarded poor relation, hiding her resentment behind a barbed tongue and a somewhat passive-aggressive style of resistance. Rock is just as drawn to the adult Adeline, although not in a romantic way, more a kind of lustful fascination. So when the social-climbing daughter’s machinations go wrong and Adeline is seemingly compromised by the duke, he decides to marry her, because why not?

So here we have the classic marriage of convenience tale, with a lot of similarities to Georgette Heyer’s The Convenient Marriage, with shades of April Lady and a hint of Venetia, too. To start with, things go well, with Rock acting in a gentlemanly fashion to allow his bride to grow accustomed to her role as a duchess. But when they go to London and start to move in society and events from the past rise up to knock them sideways, everything gets more complicated and frankly, the book goes off the rails somewhat.

Let me deal with the major problem first, which is that time-honoured obstacle, the Great Misunderstanding. I have a rule that if a plot difficulty can be resolved if the characters just sat down and talked to each other, that’s an epic fail, and that’s pretty much what we have here. When Adeline encounters a difficulty, instead of just telling Rock all about it and letting him deal with it (as he should), she attempts to deal with it herself and then gradually involves all his friends in the deception. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Naturally the marriage goes from bad to worse as Rock realises she doesn’t trust him, which (given her history) wouldn’t be too bad, except that she seemingly trusts all his friends above her own husband. Foolish girl. And then he gets grumpy about it and flounces off. Naturally, they do eventually overcome the problem and open up to each other, but it all takes far too long.

Of the minor niggles, these are just me and probably wouldn’t bother most people. This being the second book of the series, a number of characters from the first book pop up, often with important minor roles but not much explanation of who they were, so I struggled to remember some of them. I could have done with less of them, to be honest. I found Adeline’s refusal to open up to Rock inexplicable. He’s a lovely character, who’s very gentle with her, woos her romantically and even explains what he’s doing, but even though she’s in love with him, she never gives an inch. I get that she’s built mental walls to shield herself from the world, but she really needed to meet him half way. The villain of the piece is way, way over the top with a hugely melodramatic outburst in the middle of a crowded ballroom, which I found impossible to believe. There were a couple of minor side romances which were quite nicely done, but I could have done with less of them, too. And a really trivial grumble, this, but I cannot take seriously a duke whose given name is Tracy. Even though it’s historically accurate. Just no.

Having said all this, Riley’s writing is so superb and Rock is such an awesome hero overall (apart from that flounce) that this still reaches four star heights for me. For those who prefer a completely clean story, there’s one bedroom scene, quite graphic although tastefully done. I already have the next book in the series (The Player), but I’ll take a break before trying that, I think.

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Review: The Parfit Knight by Stella Riley

Posted November 13, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

There are not many books that I regard as absolutely perfect, but this is one of them. It hit the right notes for me from start to finish, like one of those wonderful tasting menu meals where each course is so exquisite that you’re mentally ready for the next one to be somehow less, but it never is. Not a disappointing moment to be found. As with many books from this era (1986), there are strong echoes of Georgette Heyer but that’s no bad thing.

Here’s the premise: the Marquis of Amberley is en route to one of his estates when his coach is attacked by highwaymen. He sees off the villains, but his coachman is shot, and the marquis is forced to seek help at the nearest house, with snow beginning to fall. There he finds Rosalind Vernon, alone but for her servants and a badly-brought-up parrot, who take care of the coachman and entertain the marquis for a week until the snow has melted. Rosalind is living outside society for a reason – she has been blind since a childhood accident. She is, however, intelligent and self-assured, not repining over her disability in the least. Needless to say, the two hit it off straight away, and in this aspect, the story reminded me forcibly of Heyer’s Venetia, even to the scene of Rosalind waking on the first morning after Amberley’s arrival happy at the knowledge that she has met a true friend.

Amberley returns to London determined to see Rosalind enjoy society, and only partly so that he’ll be able to see her himself. He persuades her brother, Philip, to bring her to town, but determines that he won’t hover around her so much that he deters other suitors. For there will be other suitors, he’s sure, because Rosalind is exceptionally beautiful.
The Marquis of Amberley is one of those heroes so beloved of Heyer – intelligent, mature, floating effortlessly through the drawing rooms of Georgian high society, admired by men and women alike, a little sardonic, superficially ruthless but morally upright in his private dealings. We see him first at the card tables, apparently leading a green young man into deep waters, but later see him return the man’s vowels (IOUs) without payment, as a lesson to him. In his dealings with Rosalind, too, he’s unfailingly gentlemanly. I loved him, I have to confess – he’s absolutely my kind of hero.

And Rosalind is my kind of heroine, feisty and independent (but in a Georgian not modern way), not at all sorry for herself, living life as it’s offered to her and not as she wished it would be. Most of all, she’s never silly. She waits patiently for Amberley to come to the point, enjoying all the new experiences coming her way in the meantime, neither rushing him nor despairing, but confident that he feels the same way that she does.

But of course in every romance there must be an Obstacle that prevents the lovers coming together too soon, and in this case it’s a humdinger, and I totally understood why Amberley was floored by it. Usually the Obstacle is something trivial, like a previous romantic disappointment that has left hero or heroine disillusioned, or some imagined disparity of rank or wealth, but this is not at all like that. It’s such a disaster that poor Amberley dithers a little too long and then everything starts to unravel, and this is all utterly believable.

This is actually the great strength of the whole book, that everyone behaves entirely according to character, and no one becomes a caricature or acts moronically simply to shift the plot along. The crisis, when it comes, cycles through funny and horrifying and glorious and heart-breaking, with the bad-mannered parrot playing a starring role. And while the men are away attempting to resolve things in their masculine way, poor, poor Rosalind is left to wait alone and gradually shift from delirious anticipation to fear to that dreary despair of knowing that he’s not coming. But fortunately, she’s no passive victim and sets out to wrest control of her own future now, at once, without delay (more shades of Venetia). The ending is quite simply perfect.

Apart from the two wonderful main characters, there’s a host of splendid minor characters – the perpetually misunderstanding Philip, laconic but all-seeing Rock, sensible Isabel, and charming Eloise, and the writing is of a rare quality. A wonderful traditional Regency. Five stars.

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