Thursday 21 April 2016

#CBR8 Book 45: "A Lily Among Thorns" by Rose Lerner

Page count: 308 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Lady Serena Ravenshaw fell for one of her father's footmen and was told in no uncertain terms that they had no future together. Rather than be forced to marry some crony of her father's, she ran away and chose to to become a prostitute. One evening, a drunken young gentleman felt pity for her and gave her his entire quarterly allowance, making it possible for her to buy her freedom and set herself up as one of the most famed courtesans in London. With the money she made from her affairs, she bought herself an inn and worked hard to become successful and prosperous, where she usually employs those in need of a new chance. Now even the Prince Regent occasionally comes to dine there.

Lady Serena, nicknamed the Siren by some, is also known as Thorn among her underworld connections, who have learned that she is a very dangerous woman to cross. Her vast network of informants is the reason her erstwhile saviour, Mr. Solomon Hathaway, comes to her inn. A valuable family heirloom, a set of ruby earrings believed to have belonged to Charles I, have been stolen, and his sister refuses to get married without them. Serena recognises him immediately and insists that he stay at the inn rent-free while she helps him track down the stolen goods, wanting to start repaying her vast debt to him.

Solomon, on the other hand, doesn't recognise the disillusioned young woman he gave money to all those years ago until some time has passed. He's still grieving the loss of his twin brother on the battlefield in Spain a year and a half ago. Having attained a degree in chemistry at Cambridge, he's now more than happy to create one of a kind dyes for his uncle's tailor-and-dye shop, even though all his family seem to believe him meant for greater things. Once he does recognise Serena, he's impressed with how successful she's become and can't help but be smitten with her. He's impressed by her hard work and is very grateful that she claims she'll be able to recover his family's stolen jewelry.

Little do Serena and Solomon realise they are about to be involved in all manner of drama; Serena's father suddenly threatening to have her committed to an asylum; her former business partner returning from France to try to blackmail her into selling the inn to him; accusations of espionage; undercover government agents and more. Their attraction towards one another grows day by day, but Serena can't let herself believe that someone with as soiled a past as she could ever be good enough for a thoroughly respectable and decent man like Solomon.

I've seen Rose Lerner's books raved about in a number of places. They seem to be popular on a number of romance blogs, and Courtney Milan has actually provided the cover blurb for the re-release of this book, which was first published in 2011. I got this in an e-book sale a while back and was curious to see what the fuss was about.

More often than not, the hero of historical romance is titled and wealthy, while it's the heroine who is of lower rank. Here that trope is turned on its head, with the heroine, albeit with a very murky past, of noble birth, while the hero works in trade. Solomon's mother was also highly born, however, but he and his siblings would never have existed had she not fallen in love with and run off with her Latin tutor, their father, who is now a country parson. Solomon being a preacher's son is one of the things that gives Serena pause about initiating any sort of relationship with him, assuming that his family would be appalled by her sordid past.

There is a lot to like in this novel, but there is also a whole lot of stuff going on, and the structure of the narrative is a bit odd. First there's Serena and Solomon's first meeting, at a brothel, while he's still at Cambridge. Then there's the search for the stolen jewels, when suddenly Serena's dastardly father returns from having no contact with her whatsover, threatening to have her locked away, followed shortly after by the return of her former business partner, who is ready to betray her utterly if she won't sell the inn to him. Said business partner is a French spy, who needs to be stopped and his network taken out with him. The search for the jewels seems to be forgotten about while the spy stuff happens, then suddenly that story line ends and I honestly thought the book was about to end, when there's a bit at the end where Solomon insists on Serena coming to meet his family.

I really liked both Serena and Solomon, although Solomon may be anachronistically tolerant, both in his complete disregard for Serena's chequered past, even though they seem to run into her ex-lovers at every opportunity, then in accepting and even supporting the homosexuality of someone close to him, after just a little bit of soul-searching. I found it sweet how very content he was working for his uncle, mixing dyes and designing clothes, with absolutely no loftier ambitions, no matter what his family might want for him. It was refreshing how close he is to his family, both his uncle and cousins and his more immediate one, his deep, heartfelt grief for his brother, who he was also always slightly jealous of and felt inferior to. Serena, on the other hand, is estranged from her family, working so very hard to appear hard, untouchable and ruthless at all times. She's had to manage by herself for so long and is terrified at her self-imposed armour being cracked even the slightest bit.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the unexpected sub-plot featuring a couple of gay characters, if, as mentioned about, a bit disbelieving at how quickly Solomon accepted it after discovering it. There is in fact a nicely diverse cast of characters in the novel, with Serena's second in command being a black woman she took in from the same brother she worked at, an Indian boy being taken in to help him out of a difficult situation, plus the aforementioned gay guys. Anyone wanting a lot of *insert funky bass line here* may be disappointed - there aren't that many love scenes between Serena and Solomon, and the gay characters are strictly fade to black, with their smexy times happening behind closed doors.

I have another couple of Lerner's books from other book sales, and will be interested in seeing how her writing has improved in later novels (this is her second one, I believe).

Judging a book by its cover: The lady on the cover has long dark hair, just like Serena. The guy has blond hair, like Solomon. The dress the lady wears is a vivid orange (very eye-catching), which directly references a dress Solomon designs and personally dyes for Serena in the book. This is all good. Less good is the fact that this book is set in the early Regency, while Napoleon is in the process of being defeated by Wellington. There is NO WAY any dress of Serena's would look like that - the dress on the cover is clearly Victorian in style, not empire-cut, as it should be. The male cover model may have blond hair, but he has very dark stubble and the hair colour looks pretty badly photo-shopped. His suit also looks ill-fitting and not right for the time period. The background is just generic and boring.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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