Rating: 5 stars
CBR14 Bingo: Gaslight (Marian was lied to and manipulated by the duke, book also set in the Georgian era)
Spoiler warning! I'm going to do my best to review this book without spoiling major plot points from The Queer Principles of Kit Webb or this book, but if you want to remain fully unspoiled, you'd probably want to skip this review until you've actually read the book. Which you should (read the book, I mean), it's absolutely marvellous.
Marian Hayes, believed to be the Duchess of Clare until the truth about her husband's first marriage comes out, is on the run. The Duke of Clare was critically injured during a highway robbery, and Marian is not going to stay behind at the duke's estate to wait for the loathsome man to actually die, nor to be asked intrusive questions about the incident where the duke ended up with a bullet in his gut. Unfortunately, Marian doesn't have a lot of people to turn to in her hour of need, and so ends up fleeing her husband's deathbed aided by none other than the man who revealed the truth about the duke's bigamy in the first place - Robert "Rob" Brooks, scoundrel, con artist, former highwayman and currently Marian's (not exactly unwilling) kidnapping victim.
Rob has been on the wrong side of the law for most of his life, and what was supposed to be a rather simple blackmailing plot turned into a months-long correspondence with his blackmailing victim. It also involved her tailing him through the seedier side of London during various nighttime jaunts, and culminated in her drugging him and leaving him tied to a bed just as he was about to assist his former best friend and Marian's sort of stepson-in-law rob the Duke of Clare. So when she shows up in the rooms she rented to keep him captive (he managed to get out of her rather inept knots without too much trouble), covered almost head to toe in blood, utterly furious and infuriatingly enchanting, what's a charming rogue like Rob supposed to do? Leave her to fend for herself?
Marian insists she needs to check on the safety and welfare of her father and she and Rob set off, picking pockets, drinking, bickering (on Marion's part), and flirting (on Rob's part), trying to stay ahead of the law and completing the process that began with their unusual correspondence. Rob was pretty smitten with Marian even before he really spent any time with her. During their unorthodox road trip, his feelings deepen and increase. Marian, on her part, has never exactly been what was considered the feminine ideal. She is deeply disillusioned by her relationship with the Duke of Clare, which wasn't exactly a romantic dream even before she discovered that he was a bigamist with a wife alive somewhere, either in the French countryside or somewhere in England. She's acerbic, sarcastic, deeply practical, and believes herself to be pretty unlovable, her best friend Percy's affections notwithstanding. That living golden retriever Rob, with his good looks, and cheerful demeanour, not to mention a flirtatious look and/or word for everyone claims that he loves her, she has trouble both believing herself worthy and in returning his affections as she feels he deserves.
An additional potential complication in the relationship between Rob and Marian is that, while Marian survived her very difficult pregnancy and the birth of her daughter Elizabeth (who is safely in the care of Kit and Percy, for those of you worried about Marian haring off without her baby), it's also clear that she would not necessarily survive another pregnancy and therefore traditional intercourse could have life-threatening consequences for her. While the Duke doesn't seem to have cared about his young wife's safety at all, Rob is all about respect and consent and is more than creative enough to make sure that he and Marian can enjoy themselves without Marian ever having to be at risk. Both in this and in the rather wounded and seemingly spiky heroine, this book reminded me of The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan, where a rather abrasive (on the surface) heroine has experienced a lot of trauma in marriage and finds true love with a clever, handsome man who utterly adores her. I didn't even know that this was a trope I cherish, but it clearly is when handled deftly by a good writer.
I'm sure this book isn't going to be 5 stars for everyone. The opening correspondence between Rob and Marian is excellent, as is their banter throughout, but I can see that some might find the somewhat disjointed road trip narrative, not to mention Rob and Marian's subsequent further forays into criminal endeavours and trying to find justice for the little people by threatening the rich (it was only after reading a comment on another's review of this on the Cannonball Read that I actually realised that Rob and Marian are obviously meant to be inspired by Robin Hood and Maid Marian, at no point while actually reading the book did this cross my mind). Meanwhile, I had trouble putting the book down, and on the occasions when I had to do so, to eat, sleep, do actual paying work, or take care of my family, I still kept thinking about Rob and Marian and wanting to spend more time in their company. To me, this was a pretty perfect read, and will in high probability be one of my top three reads of the year. So glad I finally read these books.
Judging a book by its cover: I absolutely adore this cover, the way Marian is basically jumping into Rob's arms. It's passionate and playful at the same time and makes me smile every time I see it. I know I gripe a lot about cartoony covers, but this is basically perfection. Love it!
Crossposted on Cannonball Read.