Royal Rewards, Book 3
Heat Factor: Warmish
Character Chemistry: Pretty good
Plot: Part 1: art theft caper, in the spirit of How to Steal a Million. Part 2: angsty introspection
Overall: Promising beginning, but it ultimately left me cold.
I really wanted to like this book. It has a lot of things going for it. Engaging leads with solid chemistry, an interesting premise, and feminist undertones. All good things! But it didn’t quite work for me – a case of the whole being less than the sum of its parts.
Here’s the story: Lady Isabel Morrow has recently discovered that her deceased husband, an art dealer, was in the habit of making copies of artwork and passing them off as the originals – while keeping the originals for himself. In order to protect the reputation of her ward, she decides that she needs to steal one of the forgeries and replace it with the original. Specifically, a study of the three dancers from Boticelli’s Primavera:
However, Lady Isabel doesn’t have much experience with breaking and entering. Enter Officer Callum Jenks, a Bow Street Runner (sorry, Officer of the Police), who investigated the late Mr. Morrow’s death 18 months previously. Because of attraction and also a dedication to justice, if not the letter of the law, Callum agrees to help Isabel perform a switcheroo.
From this set-up, I’m expecting some vaguely illegal and maybe comedic high-jinks, along with some serious sparks as Callum and Isabel prepare to sneak into a Duke’s study in the dead of night. There’s not a lot of comedy here, but the plot moves along as Isabel and Callum bring their respective skills to the table.
Sidenote: You may wonder what kind of skills Isabel is contributing to this caper. Romain doesn’t do that thing where she gives her upper-class heroine some secret background in picking locks. Instead, she reframes feminine communication as a tool in and of itself:
As Isabel had hinted to Jenks, a woman trained in the manners of high society possessed a formidable arsenal of weapons. There was the knife cut of a snub, the club of a set-down. The slow poison of a veiled insult. The scattershot volley of gossip.
Men underestimated these women, yet women used them daily to shape society. Let the gentlemen have their Parliament; the ladies held sway in the ballroom.
Romain and her protagonists are acutely aware of the space that they inhabit and the ways in which that space can be shaped by subtle means. I dig it. (Callum and Isabel also have more overt conversations about different axes of privilege, and while I appreciate this foray into intersectionality, it felt sort of shoehorned in, rather than a cohesive component of the plot. But I digress.)
Isabel and Callum also bring some simmering heat to the table.
Blinking his eyes open, he saw her before him flushed and starry, and he copied her own actions. Touching the beautiful lines of her face, learning them in soft candlelight. He took her shoulders in his hands, drawing her nearer, and found her lips again with his. Like that, each in their own chairs, they kissed, and they kissed, their hands sedate and their lips saying everything they had not been able to speak.
I don’t know what about this passage is so hot, but it just works for me.
And then… they successfully steal the painting at about the halfway mark.
So now what?
Well… there’s a bit of a problem with the Duke, who knew that he had a forgery. And there’s a bit of interaction with a crime lord to whom the Duke owes money. And there’s the ongoing mystery of what actually lead Mr. Morrow to commit suicide.
But the biggest answer to the question of “now what?” is: ANGST. If they no longer have a partnership to get this specific job done, what kind of relationship can there be between a wealthy widow of the ton and a Bow Street Runner? The angst is compounded by Isabel suddenly wondering what kind of life she would like to have, now that she’s finally moving out of mourning. What kind of person will she be, when she is not shaped by others?
Because of all the angst, the plot felt unbalanced. Like, yes, it makes sense from an interpersonal perspective that Callum and Isabel need to figure things out before they can be together, because they do come from dramatically different worlds, and it was much harder for a woman to marry down than for a man to do so. But from the perspective of crafting a narrative arc, it meant that much of the tension left the story about half way through – none of the smaller incidents matched the impending danger of the planned burglary. Even the big climax at the end, where All Is Revealed regarding Mr. Morrow’s secrets, was anticlimactic.
Finally, some thoughts on Romain’s prose. Her style is spare for a romance novelist. The language isn’t that flowery. Sometimes it really really works – see above passage where Callum and Isabel kiss. And sometimes, Romain can get a bit didactic – she above passage where she talks about the weapons of high society ladies (I like the sentiment, don’t love the prose). But what really bothered me about her writing is that she does this intertextual reference thing where she repeatedly loops back to previous passages. I think it’s supposed to add depth, but I found it grating. Prime example:
Streets away, in the Duke of Ardmore’s study, Botticelli’s three Graces danced. Wrapped in a sword stick, or maybe smiled upon by Angelica Butler, three much younger Graces made an endless circle.
Antique and new, none of them smiled as they danced.
Amazing, though, Callum did smile. Not his usual crimp of lips, of duty fighting for control over amusement. This was real. Sharp and sweet and happy.
I read this and… I can’t find the words to express how much this passage annoyed me. Like, why can’t we just jump to the last paragraph, without rehashing the idea, introduced previously, that the Graces are Sad (a metaphor for Isabel’s life, surely). Smart writing is good; excessively twee bits are unnecessary.
Look, here’s the takeaway: while there is a lot about this book to commend it, the combination of angst and prose didn’t work for me. If you care more about characters than plot, or if sometimes stilted prose doesn’t bother you, this might be the book for you. I may give Romain another shot, so if you’re a fan and have a favorite, let me know in the comments!
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