Review: The Beastly Earl by Monica Burns (2019)

The Reckless Rockwoods, Book #5

Heat Factor: They succumb to their lust, but it’s not too scintillating.

Character Chemistry: “I’m going to heal your inadequacy complex with my TLC.”

Plot: It’s a lot: wounded war hero, guilty widow, psychopath, vengeful mother, etc.

Overall: I have some concerns.

Historical romance has historically (hehe) been my jam, but in 2019 I confess that I’ve found it to be a little bit meh. There are a number of reasons for this that I can discuss elsewhere, but here we are. 

On the surface, The Beastly Earl looks right up my alley. We have a Scottish Earl, a widow who poses as a governess, forced proximity in a Scottish castle, historical romance. Yum, yum. 

The synopsis is this: 

  • Lousia is widowed after fight with spouse, feels crushing guilt about it for three years.
  • Lousia decides to take a few weeks to herself to become centered once more and move on, gets caught in a storm, is rescued by Ewan, who takes her to his isolated castle.
  • Ewan is physically disabled after a conflict where he was stationed in Sudan and is a huge jerk to absolutely everyone in his life because he can’t deal with it.
  • Louisa meets Ewan’s sad son and decides to masquerade as a governess so she can fix everyone. 
  • Ewan’s mother is terribly cruel to him because …. Unclear until much later in the book.
  • Louisa is a seer.

For the first couple chapters, I thought the prose was going to be difficult for me. Sometimes authors writing historical romance engage in linguistic flights of fancy so that the language in the book seems more “authentic” for the period, but it just comes across as stilted. While the prose in The Beastly Earl is at times turgid, I found the writing overall to be engaging and the narrative to be dynamic and well constructed. 

But the narrative isn’t everything, and as I continued to read, I struggled with a few things in this story. 

  1. This is a bit of a nothingburger, but Ewan wears a kilt as a matter of course. I am not an expert in Scottish history or, more specifically, the history of Scottish dress, but I tend to struggle with heroes wearing kilts as a matter of routine after the Diskilting Act. It is my understanding that the kilt as we know it wasn’t even a thing until after the Dress Acts, at which time it was worn by his or her majesty’s soldiers (and Ewan was a soldier) or as formal dress. I don’t read formal dress as everyday wear, but I am generally willing to shrug this off when I find it Regency and Victorian romance.
  2. People reacted to Ewan’s missing eye and prosthetic arm with horror, or he constantly assumes they will, so Louisa immediately accepting him as-is equals she’s special and different and she’s the one who will fix all his hurts. Also he has nightmares but sleeping with her magically makes them go away. Mmkay.
  3. Louisa’s fight with her husband on the night of his death was because she found out he had sired an illegitimate child before they were married and was paying for the upkeep of the child and its mother. She assumed the worst of her husband, but even if he wasn’t still sleeping with the child’s mother, she couldn’t forgive him for keeping the secret from her. Aside from the fact that her reaction to this situation seemed wholly overblown to me (except maybe as a reason to make her first love seem “less” than her second, “true” love with Ewan perhaps?), what happened to this child? Louisa freaks out about how much Ewan’s son needs love and care, going so far as to turn her life inside out to make sure he gets it, but she DGAF about making sure that her dead husband’s other child still has food and shelter? I really hope he had provided for the mother in his will because yikes, I would not want to be that woman alone in the world. 

And the big problems…

  1. Ewan has brought home with him a teenage boy from Sudan, Asadi. Asadi refers to Ewan as sahib, which I have only ever heard in context of Indian respectful address. I tried to look it up to see if it was more common, but I didn’t find anything. I am aware of a large South Asian population in coastal regions of eastern and southern Africa, but Sudan is not particularly coastal, so I’m at a loss as to how an Indian term (that did originate from Arabic, so maybe?) ends up in Sudan. I really hope it wasn’t just a situation of Asadi is an immigrant servant and immigrant servants use the term sahib. Louisa is referred to as sahibah rather than memsahib, so maybe there’s some research here, but while prosthetics, the Black Watch, and the Speerin are all discussed in the author’s notes, Asadi is not. Also we have an African boy who has devoted himself to serving the white man who saved his life, so that’s not great. He also sleeps on the floor at the door’s threshold where Ewan is because “The boy had still not grown accustom (sic) to the idea of an actual bed.”
  1. The psychopath who vivisects animals and whom we suspect of more nefarious doings when we learn of murdered women in the neighborhood is also described as simpleminded and physically deformed.

Ewan begins putting puzzle pieces together and arrives at:

Up until this precise moment he’d thought his brother a harmless simpleton who mutilated small animals without any real understanding of what he was doing.

Gilbert, the psychopath, has “fat, stubby fingers” and is further described:

Short in stature, his brother’s head was abnormal in size. A large, melon-shaped growth jutted out from the side of Gilbert’s skull. The weight of it forced his brother’s head to fall downward at an unnatural angle until his ear touched his shoulder. Gilbert’s other ear laid flat against the side of his head. He had one eye that was crossed, while the other slanted downward until the eye occupied almost half of his brother’s cheek.

Ewan also arrives at the conclusion that Gilbert is not as simple as he’d thought, but even that doesn’t get us to a place that’s not hugely problematic. It is possible for villains to have disabilities. Many people have disabilities and it would be unreasonable to expect an entire group of individuals to be all the same all across the board. The problem here is that the description of Gilbert’s disabilities and features is designed to demonstrate to the reader a sinister and less-than-human aspect of the villain. In addition, mental illness in a villain can be used to foster a sense that the villain is unpredictable and dangerous. The disability is not simply an aspect of Gilbert’s life that may or may not have contributed to where he is when we meet him. The disability is used to create a sense of foreboding in the reader that contributes to harmful stereotypes about persons with disabilities. Here in particular, we have a combination of mental and physical disability, so that’s a double whammy of problematic representation.

I voluntarily read and reviewed a complimentary copy of this book. All thoughts and opinions are my own. We disclose this in accordance with 16 CFR §255.

Buy Now: Amazon

Synopsis checks all your boxes, but you share Erin’s concerns? Here are some other books to try:

Governess to the rescue!

Och aye, it’s love in Scotland

Trains and corsets! Must be a Victorian

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