4.0 out of 5 stars New Twist on a Romantic Cliche 23 Jun 2013
There is a plethora of romance novels involving heroines with physical or psychological scars, dark, brooding heroes, a precocious child or two, loyal housekeepers, and remote, rural settings with slightly forbidding manor houses, or even castles. To use any of these literary chestnuts these days is dangerous, I think, unless the author is good enough--and sufficiently inventive--to overcome so many clichés huddled under one roof, so to speak.
Jen Black has done that admirably in Victorian Beauty, which succeeds on a number of levels, where others have failed abysmally. Read the plot synopses elsewhere--I`m more interested in the author's skills at making what could have been a hackneyed tale come alive again, fresh and fun to read. First, her writing is smooth, economical and, in quite a few places, graceful and evocative. There was never one of those moments, on the first page or elsewhere, where I had to sigh, hoping the writing would improve as I turned the pages. It was good from the beginning--what a relief! Second, Ms. Black's setting--the North of England--is one she knows, so now I know it as well, or at least that small part of it. Her descriptions are elegant, imparting exactly what's needed to lead the reader fully into the scene, and then move on. That's a neat trick which many authors have failed to master. Most important, however, are her characters, Melanie Grey and Lord Jarrow. Melanie is neither a beauty nor a typical Victorian noblewoman, but most fortunate for the discerning reader, she is not a "feisty" heroine saddled with the ridiculous trappings of the 21st century. She's vulnerable, to be sure, and she has her moments of fear and weakness, but she leavens those with an endearing nosiness--this woman will pry into things in a heartbeat!--a rather endearing refusal to be obsequious to anyone, including her employer, and a bit of rock-solid strength when she needs it. Jarrow has his moments of brooding, but for reasons that become clear only much later in the book, and are quite a revelation. He may be tall, dark, and moderately handsome, but I don't hold that against him--no one will eventually fall in love with a troll. The interactions between these two provide the requisite sparks, conflicting outlooks on the world and how it works, and an intriguing two steps forward, one step back pas de deux that makes an historical romance so entertaining--when it's done right, as it is here.
Ms. Black consistently writes outside the mold, the formula, or the whatever-it-is of historical romance. Her style, to include the sometimes wry, sometimes quotidian, and almost always refreshing take on her characters and the period she portrays, is a breath of fresh air. Additionally, the two main characters are ones you might want to spend time with outside the confines of a Kindle, and the minor characters are equally well-drawn, beyond the trite and true.
There's a lot of junk out there, folks, so spend your time and money wisely. This is a book I can recommend without reservation, and I don't usually like historical romances,
Melanie Grey pulled down the veil attached to her hat and glanced cautiously through the window as the horses slowed and turned into the inn yard. The door of the grey stone building stood open and a grey cat, tail curled neatly around its front paws, sat on the windowsill. Oak trees flourished behind the inn, their leafy branches bowing low over the heavy slate roof. Smoke from the squat chimney coiled and drifted into the still air.
It was a far cry from the grand hostelries of southern England she had frequented in the past. So much quieter here; no sign of frantic stable-boys and grooms hurrying to change the horses before the next coach arrived. Faded paint curled from the ancient sign of a blackbird above the inn doorway.
She heard voices. Angry voices. Frowning, she leaned closer to the coach window. In the dusty space between an abandoned wheelbarrow and the stable door, a tall youth argued with a child. Something the child said made him raise his hand and he slapped the boy, who staggered under the blow.
Melanie gasped, one hand rising to her mouth. The child, no more than eight or nine, did not cower away; instead, crimson with rage, he recovered his balance and kicked out with a hob-nailed boot that connected with the youth’s shin bone. Dancing out of reach, he yelled something that made the older lad snarl and lunge toward him.
Cold with horror, knowing she ought to intervene, Melanie grabbed the leather strap, released the window and their rough voices poured into the coach.
‘Come ’ere, you little guttersnipe!’
‘Not bloody likely!’ The child skipped nimbly out of reach.
‘Stop! Stop at once!’ Because she was afraid, her voice carried no conviction. The young man ignored her, but the boy saw her and offered a swift, gap-toothed grin as he backed rapidly away from danger. He collided with the gentleman leading his horse around the front of Melanie’s coach.
‘Ouf! Steady, lad!’ The man gripped the child’s shoulder to keep him upright. ‘What’s amiss here?’ His expression hardened as the bully, fists clenched, advanced on them both and he pushed the boy behind him.
Melanie, weak with relief, shuffled back into her seat. The boy was saved. She need do nothing. Once she would have been out there in the dust of the inn yard, standing toe-to-toe with the bully and caring not a jot for his regard. Her accident had scarred more than her face, she thought ruefully.
‘What’s going on here?’
‘That’s my uncle Bert,’ the boy’s voice cried.
‘He’s your uncle, you say?’ The gentleman’s cultured, mellow voice sounded faintly amused. Or was it disbelief she could hear in his warm tone? ‘Then he should protect you rather than beat you.’
Edging forward, Melanie risked another glance at the scene outside. The grooms, who should have been changing the horses, loitered in a group by the stable door, grinning.
The child glared at his relative and stuck out his tongue.
The youth, his face ugly with temper, took a step towards the boy. ‘That lyin’ young varmint needs a lesson in doing as he’s told! Come ’ere, Toby Redman, before ah lose me temper and clatter yer ’ead against t’wall.’
Victorian Beauty is available on Amazon Kindle: Here