Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Tuesday Review: A Gentleman Undone

A Gentleman Undone
By Cecilia Grant
Publisher: Bantam
Release Date: May 29, 2012

Will Blackshear, a survivor of Quatre Bras and Waterloo, is a man with a purpose. Feeling morally responsible for the death of a man under his command, he commits himself to providing for the man’s widow and child. He uses the greater part of what he received from selling his commission, but to make full provision and keep another promise, he needs another three thousand pounds. He decides gambling will be the best way to get the money. He is pleased with the two hundred pounds he wins one evening, but then he loses a hundred and eighty pounds to the mistress of another player. Will is convinced she cheated.

Lydia Slaughter has a goal too. Guilt drove her to enter a brothel “with a plan to extinguish herself from the inside out,” but having survived for two years, the last six months as the mistress of Edward Roanoke, she has determined that two thousand pounds will provide her with the means to live independently. Since her protector has the habit of falling into a drunken sleep over his cards, she has begun playing out his hand. Impressive computational skills and a phenomenal memory allow her to emerge the victor and skim enough off Roanoke’s winnings to steadily increase her nest egg.

Will is first caught by Lydia’s looks, although he concedes that she is “handsome” rather than beautiful, but soon he is captivated by her skill with cards. Lydia’s opinion of men generally is not high, but Will keeps behaving in ways that challenge her conclusions. Circumstances eventually cause the two to collaborate as they target less reputable gambling dens to meet their goals. There is sexual tension aplenty between the two, but it is the duel of wits and words between these two intelligent, vulnerable characters that make this book a standout. Watching them discover and fall in love with the wounded creature that each is behind the carefully preserved façade is a deeply satisfying reading experience

Courtesan heroines have become common in historical romance in recent years, but Grant’s courtesan heroine is uncommon. She chooses to join the women in a notorious brothel as self-punishment. She enjoys the luxuries that are hers as the mistress of a wealthy man, and she enjoys sex with that man. Her desire for independence is motivated by her practical assessment of what her life as a kept woman will be once Roanoke loses interest in her not by regrets over her fallen condition. Even when she is caught up in “if only” thoughts, she recognizes the futility of them. Will is a tortured soul so entrenched in his guilt that he cannot see himself as the truly honorable man he is. Both characters prove themselves capable of sacrifice, and their HEA is achieved with full recognition that it does not come without costs.

Grant’s first book, A Lady Awakened (December 27, 2011), earned praise from some authors I greatly respect and received a lot of online buzz. The combination persuaded me to give her a try even though, despite good intentions, I read few debut authors. Like many other readers, I  was won over by that book. I loved Grant’s fresh take on an established trope and her way with language. I fell in love with these same qualities in A Gentleman Undone. It is a darker book than the first one, but voice, style, and a pushing-the-boundaries approach to the conventions of romance fiction are the same. So is the author’s gift for crafting words and sentences that left me giddy with delight over their precision and perfection. Lydia thinks of Will’s voice as “a kind of promissory note for the touch of his weather-beaten soldier’s hands.” Will admiring his niece see her thusly: “Her downy infant brows pushed together in response, giving her the air of a scientist confronting some puzzling outcome.”  Wonderful!

Will is the younger brother of the heroine of A Lady Awakened, and the Mirkwoods and their infant daughter are minor characters in the new book. The connection does not prevent A Gentleman Undone from working as a standalone read. I don’t know if Grant plans more books in the series. I am interested in Nick, another Blackshear sibling, and would love to read his story. But regardless of what Cecilia Grant writes next, she can count on me as a reader. She’s joined my autobuy list.

What’s your favorite romance novel with a courtesan heroine? How do you feel about HEAs that are not unshadowed?


quantum said...

Janga, If Cecelia Grant is on your auto-buy list then I definitely want to look closer, so have downloaded a sample of 'A Lady Awakened' to try.

My favourite novel with a Courtesan heroine is 'The Secret Pearl' by Mary Balogh. The heroine may have been a prostitute in practice but ranked as a courtesan in spirit. It was my first Balogh and opened a most intriguing door that hasn't yet closed...... wonderful author

Not sure about 'unshadowed' HEAs but always love to see boundaries pushed. A scientist can spend a life time pushing the frontiers of knowledge, so its familiar territory! LOL

irisheyes said...

Wonderful review, Janga. I have Cecilia Grant's A Lady Awakened on my TBR list. I'm hoping to have some time to catch up on my reading once school lets out but I think I'm kidding myself. LOL

Like Q, my favorite is a Balogh, but it is The Precious Jewel. Priscilla and Gerald have stayed with me ever since I read that one years ago. They both have an innocence and vulnerability about them that is disarming.

Janga said...

Q, I hope you like the sample of Grant enough to read her books.

The Secret Pearl is one of Balogh's most popular books, so you have lots of company in favoring it. I like it, but I like A Precious Jewel, which also features a cortesan heroine even more.

Janga said...

Irish, I hope you do have time to read Grant's books. And she confirmed on Twitter the other day that Nick's book is next. I'm so-o-o loooking forward to that one.

See my comment to Q about A Precious Jewel. I also include Eva Ibbotson’s Madensky Square (although Susanna is one man’s mistress rather than a courtesan), Judith Ivory’s Sleeping Beauty, Tracy Grant’s Daughter of the Game, Diane Gaston’s The Mysterious Miss M, Loretta Chase’s Your Scandalous Ways, and Anna Campbell’s Tempt the Devil on my list of favorites.