Agents of the Crown, Book 2
Heat Factor: Like hot chocolate on a snowy day. But the really rich, decadent, sensual kind of hot chocolate.
Character Chemistry: Excellent
Plot: Well, it involves someone using a false identity and also courtship lessons. So it’s ridiculous.
Overall: This book gives me the warm fuzzies inside.
This is the first romance novel I ever loved. I’ve read it probably a dozen times in the last 20 years, but it had been a few years, so I figured I’d pull it off the shelf and see if it still stands up, now that I’m actively critiquing all the smut I read.
The answer: absolutely, yes it does. I love this book. I cry through half of it, but in a nice way. And then I giggle through the other half of it, because the characters are fun and a little bit ridiculous, but also in a nice way.
The story follows Elizabeth and James as they circle around each other at the country home of the amazing and crotchety Lady Danbury.
Elizabeth is Lady Danbury’s companion. She’s good at her job, but her salary is not really enough to support her and her younger siblings, much less send her younger brother to Eton. So she’s decided that there’s no choice but to get married. Luckily, she happens upon a guidebook to marriage in Lady Danbury’s library; she has no one to give her advice, so she decides to follow the Edicts found in How to Marry a Marquis by Mrs. Seeton, presumable expert in getting married.
James is Lady Danbury’s nephew, who happens to be a Marquis, and also fabulously wealthy. However, Lady Danbury needs help sorting out a blackmail scheme, so she asks him to come visit her undercover, so he’s posing as her new estate manager.
The plot has three distinct parts:
- Part I: James suspects Elizabeth of being the blackmailer, and Elizabeth is trying to practice the Edicts on James. They therefore have several conversations where they are both trying to charm the other, and subtly wheedle information out of the other while revealing little of themselves. The highlight of Part I is when James thinks he’s going to kiss Elizabeth, but then she slips and he falls into a rose bush.
- Part II: James discovers the guidebook. As he no longer suspects Elizabeth of being the blackmailer, and has decided that he actually rather likes her and wants her to be happy, he decides to give her courtship lessons. In the process, they fall in love, but James feels that he cannot reveal his real identity until he solves his aunt’s blackmail problem. Highlight: The two things she needs to learn are kissing and self-defense. So he teaches her to punch, which results in her gleefully giving him a black eye.
- Part III: James’ identity is revealed, and everyone is angry. This is my least favorite part of the book, mainly because a wisecracking audience arrives, which makes the scenes where Elizabeth and James confront each other silly and manic. I get that the commentary is supposed to increase the humor, but for me, it’s too much. However, Elizabeth’s deep sense of betrayal is well done. And their final reconciliation is beautiful.
One of the great things about this book is that for large bits of it, Elizabeth, James, and Lady Danbury are the only characters around (Elizabeth has younger siblings, but they don’t come to work with her, so they are more peripheral). Them, and Malcolm the Cat. Therefore, Elizabeth and James have plenty of space to play off of each other as they navigate their shifting relationship.
Elizabeth and James have really excellent chemistry. And Quinn is skilled at interweaving sexiness with humor, so the fun sides of their personalities are given space to shine even when they’re lusting after each other:
Elizabeth had time to catch one short breath before his arms closed around her. His mouth met hers with a stunning mix of power and tenderness, and she melted – positively melted – into his embrace.
In fact, her last rational thought was that the word “melted” seemed to be popping up in her mind with increasing regularity.
In addition, it helps that the shifts in plot are intricately tied to what they know about each other, so the changes in their relationship are organically linked to what is already going on.
Beyond Elizabeth and James, Lady Danbury is an excellent creation – the perfect entertaining old lady, who terrifies everyone, but is not so acerbic or terrible than anyone actually dislikes her. She appears repeatedly in Quinn’s oeuvre, doing things like scaring children and talking sense into young men. This book, however, is where we first meet her, and she is delightful.
Lady D shook her head. “Too modest by half. When did women get to be so prissy?”
“When we decided that vomit wasn’t a pleasant topic of conversation,” Elizabeth retorted.
“That’s the spirit!” Lady Danbury chortled, clapping my hands together. “I declare, Elizabeth Hotchkiss, you sound more and more like myself every day.”
“God help me,” Elizabeth groaned.
“Even better. Exactly what I would have said.”
How can you not love this woman? She is probably my #1 favorite humorous through-line that runs through Quinn’s work. (In case you were wondering, #2 is the Smythe-Smith Musicale, an annual tradition of bad music performances. #3 is Mrs. Buttersworth and the Mad Baron, a truly ridiculous Gothic novel read by everyone who is anyone.)
All of this is not to say that How to Marry a Marquis is perfect. It’s not.
One thing that annoyed me this read was the whole money thing. Not that Elizabeth felt she needed to marry into money, but the way she talks about it is weird. On the one hand, there is definitely a scene where she goes without breakfast because there aren’t enough eggs, and do things like grow turnips and catch fish to supplement their meals. They don’t have servants, so they are worse off than the Dashwoods (not that they are ever shown cleaning, but they do get their own meals). However, they have enough disposable income to make ginger biscuits – which means they can afford sugar. And Elizabeth seems less concerned about paying rent when their lease is up or about feeding her family than she is about the fact that her younger brother won’t be able to attend Eton and her younger sister won’t get any more watercolors. I guess the only way for the family to maintain their (admittedly precarious) position, and her brother to claim is place as a Baronet, is if he’s educated and properly networked, but I feel like there could be other avenues open than Eton.
Whatever. Ignore the admittedly weird class dynamics, and go read this book. (Other old Julia Quinn books are also acceptable, though perhaps less amazing.)
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