Monday, March 9, 2015

The Fighter and the Fallen Woman

When digital publishing started to become a "thing," a lot of promises were made to me as the reader.  Digital publishing will be great!  We'll take risks!  We'll give you the variety that those snooty-toots in New York dismiss because we don't have the overhead!  We can take chances on "different" in a way they cannot!  And what did I, the historical romance fan get?

Yeah.  More of the same.  Oh sure, there have been the odd titles here and there from the digital pubs, but by and large?  Harlequin Historical is still my go-to source for "different."

The Fighter and the Fallen Woman is Pamela Cayne's debut and this is what digital publishing promised me all those years ago and finally, finally!, it's here.  Ladies and gents what we've got here is a gritty Victorian.  And by gritty?  I mean, East End, not a titled dandy in sight, and enough dirt under the fingernails that not even bleach is going to make a dent.  I foresee a lot of "reviews" that will claim it's too "depressing" or too "dark" - in which case I'm going to call you dumber than a sack of hair because the back cover blurb (duh, and the title!) pretty much tells you this is a romance between a prostitute heroine and a street fighter hero born in a gutter.
She was a rich man's mistress and he was a rich man's thug, and the two did not mix
My Fair Lady this ain't.

Lady is a high-priced whore, a kept woman of crime lord Hannibal Adams.  She's got the kind of beauty that stops men dead in their tracks and even though she has one client, that doesn't mean she's much safer than a girl working the streets.  Mr. Adams' moods are like the wind, and Lady walks a very fine line on how to play him.  If she plays him wrong?  If he's not in a good mood?  Let's just say Lady has the bruises to prove that he's not a nice guy.

Trigger Alert: There is a sexual assault in the book.  The reader doesn't read about it as it happens - it's spoken about, in detail, after the fact.  

Adams is organizing a boxer tournament and has put two of his bodyguards/muscle into the fight.  King is the best of the two and Adams is convinced he will take the grand prize.  What Adams doesn't know?  Lady and King are drawn to each other and when Adams suggests Lady kiss King for "good luck" before the first fight - a chain of events is set into motion.  Lady, who feels something for a man she's never felt before and King, a man who knows he's not good enough for Lady but wants to rescue her all the same.

This is part romance and part crime novel.  Everyone is playing an angle in this story, sometimes more than one.  Cayne keeps the plot moving forward by introducing two villains, another disreputable businessman in the vein of Adams and his particular boxer, an Australian convict.  Then of course there is Adams, who is obsessed with Lady even as he alternately beats her and drapes her in finery and jewels.  That a man like that would just let his whore run away, taking one of his other employees with her?  Yeah, let's just say that wouldn't end well for either Lady or King.

There was so much I liked about this story.  I liked that King was a brute, tough-as-nails, but was tender with Lady.  This guy is macho but not a jerk - just making the best life for himself with the hand he was dealt.  In turn Lady is smart, she's calculating, she's looking to play the angles to get what she wants - and that is freedom.  An attraction to King is one that could, literally, prove deadly.
"I have to watch all sides, be prepared for anything, and that means keeping everybody close and making them think they're special."
But the real selling point of these two characters?  Why they worked so well for me as a romantic couple?  The simple fact that there is no judgement between them.  King doesn't judge Lady for being a prostitute and Lady doesn't judge King for making his living with his fists.  When these two have disagreements, are at odds with each other, they do not resort to resentment and name-calling.  Lady does what she has to do, King understands that, and vice versa.  Also there's very little of what I call Tortured Trope Angst.  King and Lady both have had less than charmed lives but they don't spend this story wringing their hands over it, playing the poor woe-is-me-sad-sack funeral dirge.  They're too busy working angles, looking for a way to 1) escape and 2) be together.
"Just because I've done what I've had to do to survive doesn't mean I don't get the same chance at love as every other person in the world."
Can I get an amen?

So yes, it's dark, it's gritty, it's not a story for everybody.  It's also very twisty and the plot turns on a dime.  Like I said, everybody (and I do mean everybody) in this story is working at least one angle, if not half a dozen.  I've read crime novels that have taken me on fewer spins.  For that reason the romance does have a tendency to run towards Insta-Love, but given that Lady and King are attracted to each other even before that ill-fated good luck kiss, and given their circumstances, I could roll with some Insta-Love.
Desire started to flare between them, but instead of stirring Lady, it terrified her.  She'd been a whore for so long, did she even truly know what desire was?  Even without Mr. Adams in the picture, could she and King be something?  The fantasy of him was one matter, but the reality of it was quite another.
I darn near loved everything about this book.


Until the ending.  Which seemed a little much to me.  It spins a little out of control at the end.  I suspect the author wanted to wrap it up more neatly and to me it just felt tacked on.  This will be very Inside Romance, but I would have preferred an ending much more in the vein of All Through the Night by Connie Brockway (the most memorable part of that particular book for me), where the characters sort of.....drift off into the night together.  The author ties it all up, we get our happy ending, but it did drag on a bit for me in the final chapters.

Where does that leave me?  This is very good, but not great.  I would say it was a strong B+ for me, but the ending took a little shine off at the finish line.  Still?  One of the more memorable historicals I've read in - well, in a long while.  Even though it faltered a bit at the end, for me at any rate, I'll more than likely be including this on my Best of 2015 list.  Because really - how could I not?

Final Grade = B


azteclady said...

Oh damn you, woman!!! The TBR is unmanageable as it is!



Hilcia said...

Oh! I'm getting this one! I hate the title by the way, but this is right up my alley. Thanks for the heads up!

Kristie (J) said...

LOL - I figured even before you posted this review I'd be getting this one - and I will as a B is pretty darn good as you are much tougher than I am. One question though as I'm a bit confused - is this a first person book - or a third?

Wendy said...

Kristie: I can see how you'd be confused! Some of the text I quoted was actually dialogue and I left off the quotation marks! This is third person :)