Tag: lancaster

Review: Petteril’s Corpse by Mary Lancaster (2023)

Posted March 10, 2024 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This is book 2 in the series, and although this could be read as a stand-alone, it will certainly be more meaningful if you read the first book beforehand. This is another short read, an intriguing murder to solve, some interesting locals in the frame, a mini-romance on the side and (the star attraction) the developing and most unusual relationship between the hero and heroine.

Here’s the premise: Piers, Viscount Petteril, is getting used to the title he’s unexpectedly inherited which has dragged him away from an academic life at Oxford. Having tidied up his London house, it’s time to turn his attention to his country seat. I couldn’t quite work out where this was (if a county was mentioned, I missed it) but since he drove there in his curricle without difficulty, it’s got to be close to London. Although I was a bit surprised to hear that the countryside was devoid of humans – only fields and woods, apparently. Whatever happened to all the villages strung along every road in England?

Piers chooses to take his reclaimed thief from book 1 with him, now reluctantly assuming her proper identity as a girl (April instead of Ape), complete with long skirts and a servant’s cap. She’s his ‘assistant’, apparently, despite having only just begun learning to read and write. Just as they come within the environs of Piers’ land, April smells smoke and not the healthy kind – someone’s burning clothes, and her gutter-bred soul is outraged by this waste. But when they investigate, they find it’s a lot worse than that – a man’s naked body, stabbed through the heart. Without his clothes, how can they possibly identify him?

Thus begins the murder investigation, which goes the way such tales usually go. There’s a range of possible suspects, all with motives to possibly want the man dead, but which of them did it? I have to say, I didn’t find this one difficult to work out, but then the fun of a book like this is not the identity of the murderer, but the hoops the protagonists have to go through to get there.

Along the way, Piers is tentatively getting to know the neighbours, who remember him as the runty youngest of the cousins, who was pushed around a lot and no one thought would ever amount to anything. April is finding her feet as an ‘assistant’, while also helping out in a multitude of different ways around the house. She it is who takes over the organisation of an afternoon party from the housekeepers, and this is one of the bones of contention I have with this book. April has (presumably) spent her whole life in the gutter, living from hand to mouth, and mingling with the worst sort of lowlifes in the slums of London. But give her a hand out of there, teach her a bit of reading and writing, and in no time she’s taking copious notes for Piers, and telling the housekeeper (a woman trained over many years in the ways of the aristocracy) how to organise a party. The words ‘Mary Sue’ hover in very close proximity to her head.

Piers isn’t much better. Runty academics tend not to know much about dead bodies, but Piers talks quite happily about rigor mortis to the magistrate, and arm-waves it away with a casual reference to knowing some medical students at Oxford. His other superpower is not recognising people’s faces unless he’s seen them a lot, but this is something that flickers on and off, as the plot requires it. He also appears to be an Oscar-worthy actor, again, when the plot requires it. So what with that and April’s astonishing learning ability, there’s quite a bit of suspension of disbelief required.

One other (minor) complaint. There’s quite a bit of sloppiness in the writing, as if the author forgot a final edit. There are words missing, incorrect punctuation, repetition (we’re told a character has no grey in her hair twice just a few paragraphs apart). It’s not a big deal, it just looks untidy.

But overall, this was a fun read, and for anyone who likes a blend of cosy mystery in a Regency background, I recommend the series. Only those over-powered main characters keep this to four stars.



Review: Petteril’s Thief by Mary Lancaster (2023)

Posted March 10, 2024 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

NOTE: not a Regency romance as such, more of a Regency cosy mystery.
This book had a difficult start – the hero is first encountered on a high balcony, contemplating suicide. Although he doesn’t jump (obviously!) and goes on to behave far more sensibly, I found it hard to get past that opening. Can a man who is suicidal really recover his spirits so quickly? Creative licence, perhaps, but to me it was a jarring note.

Here’s the premise: Piers Withan is an academic at Oxford, happily buried in his books and not interested in the world outside. But when a number of family deaths lead to him inheriting a viscountcy, he reluctantly leaves the world of academia and returns to London to take up his role as head of the family. This is where we first see him, so miserable that he contemplates ending it all. But he’s rescued from the brink by the unlikely person of Ape, a sneak thief, sent into the seemingly empty house to steal whatever could be found. There’s not much – the Withan family have already been through it helping themselves, including swiping a valuable ruby necklace.

This sets in train the mystery. Piers tracks down Ape and recruits the thief to help, with a job as a groom and as the tiger who rides on the back of his curricle. Piers has to try to decide which of his resentful and greedy relations actually stole the necklace, and he finds himself increasingly drawn into their convoluted affairs. They, in turn, realise that he might be small and bookish, but he’s cleverer than they are and won’t be pushed around.

This is a short book but it covers a lot of ground, setting up the two principal characters of Piers and Ape as well as the basic plot. Book two sees them off to the country to see what’s brewing at Viscount Petteril’s estate, which I have already bought and plan to read immediately. This would be five stars but for that dismal opening, so four stars it is.


Review: The Earl’s Promised Bride by Mary Lancaster (2024)

Posted March 2, 2024 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This is a bit of a curate’s egg of a book for me — some parts that were meltingly romantic, some parts that were ho hum, some parts that were out-of-the-blue shocking (OK, to me, anyway) and some parts that were boringly predictable. And a couple of parts where I just wanted to bang heads together and say: just talk to each other, for heaven’s sake. But you know what? After a slow start, I just tore through it, so the author has me right where she wants me, I guess.

Here’s the premise: Lucy Vale was betrothed at birth to an earl she’s never met, purely because their mothers were best friends and thought it would be a good idea. Well, okay, I suppose. By the Regency, we’re well into an age when betrothals of that nature aren’t even legal, let alone binding on either party, so why they don’t just laugh at the quaintness of it is beyond me. But that’s the premise of the book, so whatever. The mysterious Earl of Eddleston has requested a meeting with his ‘betrothed’, but he hasn’t yet appeared. Lucy isn’t minded to give him the time of day, but if he comes, she’ll have to be civil to him, she supposes. Then she can reject him and her life will be her own again.

While she’s waiting for her supposed betrothed to appear, she attends the Blackhaven ball with the rest of her family, where she meets a mysterious stranger. This is one of the good parts of the book for me — the description of Tyler, and his interactions with Lucy, were breathtakingly fabulous. He’s not even the sort of character I usually like (that whole almost magically clever and perceptive and creative and acrobat-level agile is all too much; I prefer my heroes a bit more down to earth). But the author was going for just that out-of-the-ordinary vibe, and she succeeded in spades. In fact, all the scenes with just Lucy and Tyler were wonderful. I wasn’t so keen on Tyler the guy who’s planning to change the world for the better, but that’s just me.

But of course we have to have a subplot, so step forward Miss Hester Poole, heiress, and her fortune-hunting suitor, Mr Harold Irving. It isn’t long before Lucy is getting herself into the middle of a situation that’s really nothing to do with her, because she doesn’t like Mr Irving and wants to protect Hester from him. And Tyler seems to have the same idea (as well as a myriad other projects — he’s a busy boy).

One of the ho hum parts arises purely from the premise of the series. Everything is constructed around a single night, when all the various Vale children meets their matches, so as Lucy’s story is unfolding, we’re also getting snippets of the other stories, where they cross and recross Lucy’s. We see little bits of Julius’s story, which was book 1, and there are glimpses of the other Vales, like Cornelius and Delilah, who are also busy about their own lives. And because there was a whole huge series set in Blackhaven previously, there are swathes of characters from those books with walk-on parts. It would be really helpful if readers could have a) a full list of the Vale children, their ages and parentage (because some of them are illegitimate); and b) a list of characters from earlier books still lurking in odd corners of Blackhaven, because I don’t remember them, and frankly I don’t see that they add anything to the story. But maybe I’m being churlish just because I have trouble with this.

I’m not going to talk about the out-of-the-blue shocking thing, because that’s just me. I should have guessed it, but I had such a mental disparity between… let’s say, two things, that I never would have guessed the truth.[1] There was another revelation that was blindingly obvious to me regarding Hester Poole, so I’m not totally oblivious to clues. Only some of them.

But this is the point where the book went slightly off the rails for me, because when the revelations happened, both Lucy and Hester made totally stupid decisions, and that was the point where I wanted both of them to just sit down and talk things through, instead of jumping off cliffs (metaphorically speaking). And as if that wasn’t enough, we have to have that hoary old chestnut, the Elopement. Because it’s a Regency romance so there has to be an Elopement or a Kidnapping or a Highwayman, or possibly all three.

I know all these grumbles sound as if I didn’t enjoy the book at all, but that’s not true. I took a while to get into it, but after that I read it avidly, and yes, I thoroughly enjoyed it. My grumbles are just me saying ‘It would have been perfect if only…’. Mary Lancaster’s writing is as polished as ever, she does the swoony kisses brilliantly, and if the sex scene felt a bit gratuitous, it was tastefully done. The only historical glitch I noticed concerned the postilions and hired horses, which don’t work quite the way the author thinks they do.[2] But who cares? It all made for a good story. A good four stars.



Review: The Captain’s Old Love by Mary Lancaster (2023)

Posted January 24, 2024 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This was a whole heap of fun. A second chance romance between a couple who were thwarted ten years’ earlier. He went off to sea and concentrated on his career. She instantly married someone else, had a son and was then widowed. Now they meet again, and the outcome is never in doubt. But there are still problems (of course).

Here’s the premise: When Royal Navy man Julius Vale met Antonia Temple, it seemed like a match made in heaven. They were soon betrothed but were driven apart by circumstances that only gradually become clear. Now he’s retired from the navy as Captain Sir Julius Vale, and has returned to his old Blackhaven home with a multitude of siblings in tow, not all of them legitimate. He’s thirty-six and never got over the loss of Antonia, so he’s reluctant to accompany the siblings to a ball. He plans to leave as soon as they’re settled, walk home along the beach within sight of his beloved sea and have a quiet evening. But just as he’s slipping outside, he sees the last person he expected – Antonia.

Their early encounters are filled with anger and pain, but there’s still something between them and they are inexorably drawn together. He discovers that her husband is dead, but that a poor marriage settlement has left her in difficulties, so she’s taken a position as paid companion to a wealthy lady, who travels about with her brother, and is presently in Blackhaven to take the waters. And as they circle warily round each other, they discover the truth: that each of them thinks the other broke it off ten years before, and that they have been repeatedly lied to.

Inevitably, they end up reigniting the same passion that drew them together in the first place, and this time there’s nothing to stop them from marrying and being idyllically happy for the rest of their lives… or is there? Well, of course, things are never that simple, especially as they reach this stage at about the halfway point in the book. From there onwards, their enemies circle ever closer around them, trying to drive them apart, there’s a subplot involving stolen horses and worse, and that marriage settlement is significant, too.

It’s great page-turning stuff, but I have to confess it’s all wildly improbable. I had a particular problem with Antonia. Firstly, when the man she loves apparently jilts her without a word, what does she do but immediately go off and marry someone else. Who in their right mind does that? Even if you believe the web of lies being spun around you, why rush into marriage with another man? Marriage was literally a life sentence in those days. The only rational reason is because she was pregnant, and for a while I wondered about that, but it doesn’t seem to have been an issue. Her parents told her to marry, so she did.

And then, when her present happiness is about to be snatched away from her, again she does what she’s told, and, what is worse, she jilts Julius without a word all over again. What kind of cruelty is that? To do all over again the thing that hurt him so badly the first time. And even though she comes round fairly quickly and starts thinking of ways out of her dilemma, I just can’t forgive her for not telling him at once what was going on.

Julius, on the other hand, is everything a hero should be. His huge family is intriguing (I’m assuming that all the siblings will get their own story eventually, which I look forward to reading). For those who read through the very long original Blackhaven series, lots of the characters from that pop up here in cameo parts, but it’s not necessary to remember them all (fortunately for me).

I very much liked the way the whole plot, in all its disparate parts, came together at the end very elegantly. I didn’t notice any historical errors, although I was a bit surprised that one character managed to ‘pretend’ to be a solicitor (and was more likely to be called an attorney in those days), and the guardianship of the child was airbrushed away at the end. However, I was very pleased to note that the author has discovered that Blackhaven would have been situated in the county of Cumberland in Regency times, not the modern invention of Cumbria. There’s one sex scene, not particularly graphic, and a few references elsewhere. Just one other grumble – I would have liked a list of all the siblings with their ages. It was really hard to get them straight.

If I were judging this book just on plausibility, it would probably rate three stars, but I enjoyed it so much, tearing through it in only two sessions, that it merits a good four stars, and I look forward to whatever comes next.


Review: Beloved by Mary Lancaster (2023)

Posted October 24, 2023 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

One of very few books whose release date I marked in the calendar! Couldn’t wait to read Victor’s story (the most interesting character of the series), plus the explanation for how the duke died in the duel. Was it worth the wait? Absolutely! I loved Victor, as I suspected I would, and although the revelation of what happened at the duel wasn’t particularly surprising, there was enough real tension to drive the plot along very nicely. One word of warning: because of the nature of the plot, which culminates in all the principal characters in Brussels at the time of the Battle of Waterloo, it makes far more sense to have read the preceding books first.

Here’s the premise: Victor, the new Duke of Cuttyngham, has been left behind at Cuttyngs, alone but for the servants. He sent away everyone but his stepmother and sister, but even they have jumped ship and gone off to Brussels. But into his quiet, studious life comes Olivia, the natural daughter of Victor’s cousin and heir, to warn him that his life may be in danger. Which is lovely and all, but she’s the daughter of Victor’s cousin and heir presumptive, Anthony Severne, who is no friend to Victor, so how can he possibly trust her? And she, of course, has her own concerns about putting herself forward. But she knows something about the duel and so she feels she has to speak out.

I’m not going to say much about the duel, except that the secrets behind it come nicely to the boil in Brussels. Let’s talk about the romance, instead. As with the entire series, everything happens fairly quickly – far too quickly for credibility, perhaps. But it’s all very nicely done, and it was lovely seeing the curmudgeonly and reclusive Victor, thoroughly abused by his father because of a malformed leg, but with a very good brain and far more heart than his father, stepping forward and becoming a true hero. And he likes being the duke at last, and making things happen, instead of being nothing but an irritant to his father. I liked how decisive he was when he set out for Brussels, making careful plans and protecting Olivia and the servants, as well as himself.

Olivia was not quite such a striking character for me, not because there was anything lacking but purely because she was overshadowed by the towering personality of Victor. If you’re the sort of reader who loves to meet up with characters from earlier books, then you’ll adore the second half of this one, where everyone from the entire series is gathered in Brussels. I got muddled over who was whom, but that’s just me. The villain was suitably villainous, and if the identity was obvious from the start, that didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the ending one iota.

The author does a terrific job of showing the atmosphere in the build-up to the Battle of Waterloo — the British insouciance and determination to carry on as normal and not be frightened by the French, and yet the growing tension. We see some of the aftereffects of the battle, and the scale of the carnage is not hidden, but it’s not graphic (I’m allergic to war stories, so I’d have bailed if there had been anything gruesome).

This was a wonderful conclusion to the series. No, it’s not particularly plausible, but it’s a hugely entertaining romp from dramatic start to equally dramatic finish. I loved it. There is some mildly graphic sexual content, for those who like to know about such things, but for me this was a wonderful five stars.



Review: Deserted by Mary Lancaster (2023)

Posted August 11, 2023 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This is the third book in a series dealing with the repercussions of a duel wherein the much disliked Duke of Cuttyngham meets an untimely demise. The first book focused on the other duellist, Major Giles Butler, and the widowed duchess. The second book dealt with the duke’s daughter, Lady Hera, and the attending doctor at the duel, Justin Rivers. This book is all about one of the seconds, the Earl of Frostbrook, and the former betrothed of Major Butler.

Here’s the premise: Sophia Wallace, living a miserable life as the put-upon poor relation to cousins, was scooped up in book 1, for fairly contrived reasons, and deposited at the ducal residence, Cuttyngs, ostensibly as companion to the now widowed duchess. When the duchess departs, Sophia is to act as chaperone for the late duke’s daughter, Lady Hera. But even she has taken herself off, so what is Sophia to do now? The new duke, Victor (by far the most interesting character in this whole saga, by the way) doesn’t much mind if she stays on, but it’s not quite proper and anyway the widowed duchess had a mind to live in the dower house before she left, so Sophia sets herself to restore it to habitability and live there until such time as the duchess returns.

Into this rather pleasant, if lonely, existence, she meets a man with whom she had a brief but unforgettable encounter some time previously. In her role as unpaid slave to her cousins, she had been required to walk some distance at night to bring a forgotten item to the young lady of the family who’s at a party. Exhausted and not at all happy, she leaves the house to set out on the return walk, only to be accosted by a somewhat drunk Earl of Frostbrook. Mistaking her for a servant girl, he amuses himself by dallying with her and eventually kissing her. Sophia is shocked and gives him a piece of her mind, but secretly she rather enjoyed the experience. Now Lord Frostbrook has turned up again, and remembers her, and so is set the scene for the gentle development of the romance. By the time Lord Frostbrook sets out to stymie his mother’s matchmaking attempts by introducing Sophia as his betrothed, there’s not much doubt how things are going to end.

Of course, a smooth path to the happy ever after is anathema to any well-devised Regency, and here it’s the unpleasant cousins who throw a huge spanner in the works. I never quite understand why such people have to be so relentlessly nasty, when they could have achieved their aim in much gentler ways but there we go, and the reason for them to decamp to Brussels and there join up with the main characters from the previous books is too implausible for words. But you know what? It doesn’t matter a bit. This is a rollicking good read, with plenty of action, a spirited heroine, a heroic hero and villains who get their comeuppance. There’s a little sex in it, but nothing terribly graphic, and it certainly helps to have read the previous books, but it’s a great read. Four stars, and I’m very much hoping that Victor gets his story in the next book.


Review: Captured by Mary Lancaster (2023)

Posted August 11, 2023 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

I enjoyed the first of this series, built around the death in a duel of a duke, no less. The first book told the story of the duke’s young widow and the man who challenged him to the duel. This one features the duke’s sister and the doctor who attended the duel, and although it could be read as a standalone, it makes a lot more sense if read after the first book.

Here’s the premise: Lady Hera Severne is released from the oppression of her father, the Duke of Cuttyngham, when he dies in a duel. Uncertain what to do with her life now, she decides to become a paid companion, and finds a position surprisingly easily. Now this is a huge plot contrivance (why on earth would a duke’s daughter become a companion? It makes no sense, but I’m prepared to allow a book one contrivance at the start, so I’ll go with the flow here). Hera finds that her duties are light, and concerned less with her mistress, Lady Astley, than with her husband’s adult ward, who seems benign enough, if a little eccentric, yet is kept under constant watch living separately from the family. George is locked in with his nurse at night (shades of Jane Eyre and the madwoman in the attic), and even doped with laudanum when the family have guests to stop him disturbing the guests. An accidental overdose of laudanum causes Hera to send for the local doctor, who by a huge coincidence is the very same Doctor Rivers who attended the duel (that’s the second big contrivance). Doctor Rivers saves George, but he agrees with Hera that they have to ‘rescue’ him from his captivity.

It’s an odd thing, but this is the second Regency book I’ve read recently to feature an autistic person, but this one I found far less convincing. George was supposedly so disturbing as a boy that he was locked away, and the world told he was dead, yet when Hera and Justin set him loose in the world, suddenly he’s able to cope pretty well, with no more than mild eccentricity. I’m sorry, but even a non-autistic person who’d been locked away in a very restricted world for twenty-odd years would have serious trouble adjusting to the real world, so this element of the story didn’t work at all for me.

However, I was happy to whizz past all that with no more than a raised eyebrow, since the romance was charming and far more convincing, despite an outbreak of I’m-not-worthy-itis from the good doctor. But the couple (and George) end up in Brussels with the characters from book 1, where, with only a mild episode of melodrama matters are resolved in a satisfactory way. As is usual with Mary Lancaster’s books, there is some sex in the story, but it’s not terribly graphic. Despite the surfeit of contrivances, this is so well-written and enjoyably entertaining that I gave it four stars.


Review: Entangled by Mary Lancaster (2023)

Posted August 11, 2023 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

I’m a big fan of Mary Lancaster, and enjoyed quite a few of her long Blackhaven series, although I never made it to the end. This one is a curious one. I enjoyed it totally, but I have to say it’s wildly implausible, and there was rather too much deus ex machina involved for my taste.

Here’s the premise: Major Giles Butler is en route to join Wellington’s army when he and his fellow officers encounter the obnoxious Duke of Cuttyngham at an inn. The duke insults a former commander of Giles’, who promptly calls him out. It’s purely for honour, with no thought of killing on either side, and Giles duly aims wide. Despite that, the duke ends up dead. Giles is determined to do his bit for his country with Wellington before dealing with the consequences of his actions, so he heads off for the coast, but not before going to the duke’s home to tell them what happened. He thinks better of that (wisely) but as he waits outside the gates, by chance he encounters a young woman running away. She tells him she’s a relation of the duke’s, so Giles agrees to help her.

And thus becomes entangled with the young (and newly widowed by his hand) Duchess of Cuttyngham. But since he doesn’t know who she is, and she doesn’t know that her husband is dead, they get along quite merrily and pass the time by falling inconveniently in love with each other. And so the plot unwinds, with Giles being chased by the law, Rosamund being chased by the duke’s people, then haring back home when she realises she’s a widow, and eventually chasing after Giles again. So there’s a whole heap of backwards and forwards, and (here’s the deus ex machina) important people jumping into the fray to help them. And along the way (shades of Georgette Heyer here) there’s a very young couple eloping to be helped and advised and generally sorted out. And somehow, in the midst of all this frenetic action, there’s time for a masked ball (because what self-respecting Regency romance doesn’t have a ball in it?).

It’s all tremendous fun, there’s a little steaminess, but nothing to frighten the horses, and it’s every bit as well written as Mary Lancaster’s works usually are. I might even have given it a resounding five stars except for the sheer number of times our heroes are improbably rescued by Very Important People who might have been expected to have more urgent things on their mind on the eve of battle than sorting out the romantic entanglements of insignificant nobodies. But it makes for a cracking good plot, so I’m not going to complain too much. Four stars. I’ll probably continue the series, partly in the hope that the intriguing new duke, Victor, gets his story told, and partly to find out just what did happen at the duel, how the duke came to die instantly and who the mysterious female is who was seen nearby.


Review: The Wicked Governess by Mary Lancaster

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

Mary Lancaster’s books are always entertaining, so I knew I’d enjoy this right from the start. There was less in the way of piracy and other shenanigans in this book, which is very much a plus for me, and the romance, while a little insta-lust, is still very well developed.

Here’s the premise: Caroline Grey, the governess at Braithwaite Castle in the previous book, is summarily dismissed for an alleged misdemeanour, finding work at the sinister Haven Hall instead. Her pupil is mute, but not physically, so it’s presumed there’s been some traumatic incident. Also at Haven Hall is the slightly bonkers aunt and the child’s darkly mysterious father, Javan Benedict. When Caroline arrives, the family is very reclusive, so needless to say, she attempts to draw them out into society. They are surprisingly willing (well, the book would be quite dull if they weren’t), and so they are, inch by reluctant inch, rehabilitated.

Caroline is a likable character, and although she’s the wicked governess of the title, there isn’t really anything wicked about her, except in the fevered imaginations of some Blackhaven residents. She does have some family issues, but they aren’t terribly dramatic.

Hero Javan, on the other hand, has a whole shedload of issues. We’re into Beauty and the Beast territory here, since he’s the wounded and scarred beast to Caroline’s beauty. I’m not a huge fan of the instant hots for each other scenario, but it’s something of a feature in Lancaster’s work, so I’m used to it by now. There’s also some fairly physical lusting and one graphic sex scene, so traditionalists beware.

There isn’t anything wildly original about the plot, and readers can work out almost from the start how it’s going to go, but it’s nicely done, as always, it feels believably Regency, and there’s enough action to sweep the plot along without overwhelming the romance. I liked Caroline a lot, and although I had less patience with Javan, I understood his reluctance to commit himself. Honourable mentions for Rosa, the mute daughter, who was a wonderful character in her own right, and the mischievous cousin, Richard. I hope we see more of him (and I’m likely to get my wish, because the author loves to bring in characters from previous books).

Great fun, and a nicely written book that fulfils all expectations of the series without becoming boring. Four stars.


Review: The Wicked Marquis by Mary Lancaster

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

Every Mary Lancaster book is a cracking read, and this is no exception. A spirited heroine, an unusual but very hot hero, a one-look-across-a-crowded-room insta-love (although it was an orchard in this case), loads of passionate kisses and a whole heap of shenanigans of the smuggling/spies/thieves variety. It’s all very entertaining, and for those who enjoyed the first four books in the series, this is more of the same. For myself, I’d have liked a little bit of variety on the basic plot, and there were several loose threads left dangling, but it was still a great read.

Here’s the premise: Lady Serena Conway, sister to the Earl of Braithwaite, has been sent home from London to Blackhaven after the disgrace of jilting a dull but respectable baronet. Stuck at Braithwaite Castle with only her younger sisters and their governess for company, and strictly forbidden from venturing into society, she’s soon bored witless by her captivity. But then she spies an odd looking man from the window, entering the castle’s orchard. And naturally, she rushes out to find out who he is.
He turns out to be the impoverished Marquis of Tamar, although it’s some time before Serena learns who he is, and so we have the amusement of her thinking the scruffy painter who treats her with casual friendship will be shocked when he realises who she is, when in fact she’s shocked to discover he outranks her. But he’s wildly ineligible, being completely broke, and somewhat disreputable.

Needless to say, as is pretty usual with Mary Lancaster’s books, the two are magically drawn to each other from the start, and are soon sharing passionate kisses, described in some detail. But of course there’s always an obstacle, and Tamar’s past soon comes back to haunt them.

There are no fewer than three dramatic subplots – some mysterious goings on in the castle cellar, the theft of some of Tamar’s paintings and a bailiff who’s hanging around him, even though peers of the realm can’t be thrown into a debtor’s prison. The first comes to the boil quite early in the book, the second is very easily solved and the third seemed to fizzle out after the bailiff was given a bit of a talking to. Or maybe I missed a vital point, I don’t know. There were a couple of other dangling threads that puzzled me. One was the cheerful actress who helps Tamar out and seems to be there merely to throw Serena into a bout of jealousy, but he never seemed to explain it properly to her. Again, maybe I missed it. The other weird part was the collection of jewellery dumped on Tamar at an awkward moment. What was that all about? I clearly missed the point of that entirely. But then these books always have so much going on that it’s very easy to get swept up in the excitement and read so fast that details just whizz by.

The romance… I don’t know why, but it didn’t grab me. I’m not a big fan of insta-love, or of well-brought-up young ladies who immediately fall panting into the arms of the most unlikely characters, and somehow, despite the nicely drawn descriptions of Serena’s feelings (the author does this so well), somehow I wasn’t convinced. Perhaps it was because, compared to some of the previous Blackhaven heroines, Serena felt rather ordinary. Or perhaps there was so much else going on that the romance felt a bit rushed. Tamar, on the other hand, is rather a charmer, completely open about his admiration, and so swept up in his obsession that he has to paint her instantly, now, this very minute.

Of the other characters, there are quite a few popping up from the earlier books. It’s not necessary to have read them, but it would have been handy to have a little guide to remind me. The Dowager Countess was the usual type, fairly stiff and a bit domineering. Serena’s brother Braithwaite was an interesting character, although his switch from dead against the marriage to let’s-call-the-banns was breathtakingly swift. I loved the reason for it though (which I won’t spoil the surprise by mentioning). And I loved the children, and long-suffering Miss Grey, their governess.

Another rattling good yarn in this series. Four stars, and since the next book is about the governess, I’m going to have to go straight on to that.