Cold-Hearted Rake by Lisa Kleypas is her first historical romance in five years and the anticipation among romance fans has been palpable. I was lucky enough to score an ARC at a library conference (I know, right?!) and I spent last Friday decadently reading it from cover to cover. My thoughts? Well, if you're looking for a squee'ing fangirl review, you should probably turn back now. This story was a real mixed bag for me. What I liked, I really liked, and what I found problematic? Well, read on McDuff.
Devon Ravenel has just inherited an earldom thanks to his hot-headed cousin getting thrown from a horse and breaking his neck. This is the late Victorian era, and Devon is a rake. So inheriting the earldom not only puts a crimp in his style, but thanks to the exploding Industrial Revolution in England, the peers have found their coffers considerably depleted. There just ain't no money in land and farming anymore and Devon's inherited estates reflect that. They're practically falling down around his ears and with no money to make necessary improvements? He's hoping to sell the lot and be done with it. The fly in the ointment? His cousin's widow, Kathleen Ravenel.
Kathleen was married for three days before she found herself in widow's weeds and here's the new earl, with his drunkard of a brother, talking of selling her new home out from under her. She's concerned for herself, of course, but more so her three sisters-in-law - the impetuous, rambunctious twins, Cassandra and Pandora, and quiet, reserved Helen. None of whom have a dowry. This rake in their midst is planning on throwing them all out on their ear. Well, not if Kathleen can help it!
What follows is a feisty war of words, a battle of the minds. Devon truly is a rake. He beds women, he carouses, he says some hurtful things when Kathleen gets his temper up. "Feisty" is now a dirty word among some romance fans, but that's what Kathleen is in the best sense of the word. She's not immune to Devon's barbs, but she gives as good as she gets and there are some moments during their exchanges where I laughed out loud.
This book started out as a strong B+ for me, but as it goes on for 380+ pages it began to slide south. Kleypas spends a lot of time on setting up her series and the secondary characters. There is a stretch in the middle of the book where Devon heads back to London and frankly Kathleen is spending so much more time with his brother, West, that I began to wish that he were the hero of the story. The sisters all get their various moments in the sun, along with some of the servants, which means less page time devoted to the romance. I liked all these secondary characters, and they were great. What wasn't so great is that by the end of it I wanted way more of them and a lot less of the main romance, which I had begun to grow weary of. Kathleen and Devon continue battling to the bitter end and after 380 pages I was kind of over it.
The love scenes didn't really help this state of affairs since I found them problematic. To call them "forced seduction" is overstating it (I think). But they're very much of the no-yes-no-yes-no-yes variety. Kleypas writes Devon a bit rough around the edges. This seems an odd thing to be hung up on, since actual criminals seem to be romance hero fodder these days, but he's definitely Alpha with a capital A. I'm not going to lie, while I didn't feel it was "forced seduction" - I did still find the love scenes a pinch uncomfortable. And then there's a the Big Secret that Kathleen is hiding. I won't reveal it because it's a Huge Honkin' Spoiler - but let's just say it's going to be a hot button for some readers (it was more eye-rolling for me).
The relationship between Kathleen and Devon is very much push-pull-push-pull. Couple this with the fact that Kleypas sets the groundwork for Helen's romance in her next historical - I found myself weary of the battling between Kathleen and Devon and wanted a lot more of Helen's romance. In fact, I'm really looking forward to her book (Marrying Mr. Winterborne - May 2016) - even though her hero (a department store owner!!!!!!), is another rough-around-the-edges sort. In fact, he does something towards the end of this book that I think might be beyond the pale for some readers (I'm, admittedly, hesitant myself but man, I really liked Helen a lot).
A final word: we currently live in a time when the genre is exploding and authors feel a lot of pressure to publish a new book every other week. Some authors can do this and quality doesn't slip. Some authors cannot, and readers sometimes find themselves wading through slapdash product. That's the exact opposite of what we get here. This reads like a story that the author took care and time in writing and her publisher took care and time with editing it, packaging it and delivering it to readers. It's sad that the current state of the genre now makes me point out things like this - but here we are. Obviously I had issues with this book, and I wasn't madly in love with it - but damn if I didn't inhale it in one sitting.
Kleypas has set the stage to continue this series for a while, and this will likely be a series where I won't read every single book. I'm dying for Helen's story, and I think West will make a dynamite hero if he (hopefully) gets his own book. I'm less enthralled by the twins. They're fine as secondary characters, but their impetuous, rambunctious nature makes me think my eyes would bleed reading their romances - unless something happens to alter their personalities somewhat.
If you're a Squee'ing Kleypas Fangirl, nothing in this review is going to deter you from this book (in fact, you're likely not reading this review - because hello? Why would you?). But if you're not a fangirl (like me) and just looking for a quality historical romance? This one left me conflicted. I'm glad Kleypas is back with a new historical series, and even if I didn't love this? I did like parts of it, and I appreciated a great deal of it. It will be interesting to read the subsequent reviews that will likely flood GoodReads and Romancelandia. As it stands for Wendy...
Final Grade = C+