Back in 2000 I reviewed the first book in Susan Wiggs' Chicago Fire trilogy, The Hostage, for The Romance Reader. I loved it. Then in 2001 I reviewed the third book in the trilogy, The Firebrand, for The Romance Reader and loved it. In fact, The Firebrand is one of my Top 5 all-time favorite romances. So where did that leave book two in the trilogy, The Mistress? Sitting in my TBR since 2000. No joke. Now honestly, how warped is that?
Since I adored The Hostage and The Firebrand it will probably strike some as odd that The Mistress was a major slog for me. The only way I can explain it is by stealing KristieJ's It's Not You, It's Me Theory. I have too much history with this book. Having read and loved the other two titles in the trilogy, I already had a good idea what this book was about. Harlequin's back cover copy doesn't help matters either. Basically it's the Reader's Digest Condensed Book version of the first 234 pages! It took me forever to get through them, and I skimmed chunks all the while muttering under my breath, "Yeah, yeah, this is all on the back cover copy. Let's get on with it!"
As the historic fire ignites across town, Kathleen O'Leary finds herself dressed in borrowed diamonds and silk, enjoying a lavish masquerade. The penniless maid has caught the eye of Dylan Francis Kennedy, the rich, handsome gentleman all of high society has been speculating about. The night feels alive with magic. . . and ripe with promise.
Then fire sweeps through the city, cornering the young lovers with no hope of rescue. Desperate to share their last moments together, Kathleen and Dylan impulsively marry. Incredibly, they survive. Now, as the fire burns down to cold ash, Kathleen must tell Chicago's most eligible bachelor that he has married a fraud. But the joke's on her. For this gentleman is no gentleman. While Kathleen had hoped to win Dylan's love, he had planned only to capture her heart and steal her fortune. Dylan Kennedy -- con artist, gambler and ne'er-do-well—has been unwittingly caught in his own game. Now the real sparks are about to fly.
To be fair to Harlequin, they may not have had much of a choice. I remember when The Mistress first came out eight years ago. There were many readers on my various e-mail loops (my pre-blog addiction days) who were horrified by Dylan Kennedy. A hero who is scoundrel?! The shock! The horror! Fake rakes and bad boys who wouldn't know "bad" if it bit them in the ass are just fine - but give them a hero who really is despicable and a case of the vapors ensues. And make no mistake, Wiggs wrote an honest-to-goodness scoundrel. Dylan is a world class liar, a con artist, a charmer who waltzes his way through life when he's not running away from it. It's not until the con man gets conned himself, and finds himself falling in love, that he even begins to contemplate little things like honesty and trust.
Kathleen is a good, hardworking Irish girl who covets a better life. Having been employed as a ladie's maid, she envies the rich and has big dreams. When a couple of the well-heeled girls at the finishing school where she works suggest she masquerade as a proper lady for one evening, she agrees. She's desperate for a taste of the good life and it's not until she finds herself hitched to Dylan that she realizes how wrong she's been.
This is a hard book for me to assign a grade to, only because I don't feel I'm being entirely fair to it. The first couple hundred pages were a real drag for me, but I suspect that's largely because of my own personal baggage. That will learn me to leave trilogies unfinished and read out of order for 8 years. Geez. But on the whole, this is a good entry in what is probably my favorite historical romance series. I love the setting, I love Wiggs' historical voice, and I love the way the author seamlessly blends the fire sequences over the course of three separate stories. Oh, and the characters are pretty good too.
Final Grade = B-