A Reflection of Shadows (The Elemental Web Tales #3) by Anne Renwick

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Shunned for her odd eyes and an unnerving habit of slipping into shadows, Lady Colleen Stewart refuses to be caged–should she decide to marry, it’ll be for love and to a man of her choice. After all, she’d rather be racing over rooftops than waltzing across ballroom floors. So when the only man to ever tempt her heart invites her on a covert mission, she leaps into danger.

Nicholas Torrington, Queen’s agent, is running out of time. While work has him chasing his tail, his sister grows increasingly ill, and Colleen, the woman he would make his bride, has acquired another, determined suitor. To coax his favorite thief back into his arms, he’ll break every rule and lead her through the underbelly of London on a hunt for a mad scientist and a cure for his sister.

But the discovery of a burned-out laboratory provides more questions than answers, and they find themselves caught in a deadly game where they have become the prey. Surviving the ambitions of their pursuers will bring everything into sharp focus as they risk their very lives.

Rating: B-

A Reflection of Shadows is the third (and latest) book in Anne Renwick’s  Elemental Web Chronicles – part of her steampunk series set in an alternate Victorian London.  Each of the books features a different central couple and self-contained plot, and are thus designed to work as standalones; however, coming late to the party did have an effect on my reading experience,  as I found myself a little lost to start with.  With six books and a number of novellas and short stories set in this world already published, I’m guessing most of the worldbuilding was done in earlier books; had I read some of those, I may have got up to speed more quickly. But it’s often the reviewer’s lot to review series books out of order, so all I can do in this instance is say that if you like the sound of this one, you should probably pick up some of the earlier books in the series first.

Lady Colleen Stewart is just three days away from her twenty-fifth birthday, which will see her come into her inheritance of Craigieburn in Scotland, and into the fortune that goes with it.  After her father’s death, her uncle, Lord Maynard, became her guardian, and she can’t wait to finally be free of him and of London – although she’ll miss her aunt Isabella, who is expecting her first child.  While Colleen and her uncle don’t get along, he has at least never put any pressure on her to marry – until now, when he seems desperate to ensure her marriage to one Mr. Glover (whom Colleen had once – stupidly, she now acknowledges – taken as a lover).  Colleen refuses in no uncertain terms; not only does she not want to marry Glover, she resents the attempt to force her into marriage.  Besides, she is strongly attracted to Queen’s Agent Nicholas Torrington and has just agreed to allow him to court her.

Nicholas is a scientist – a cardiophysiologist – as well as a Queen’s Agent, and is desperate to find a treatment for his sister, whose heart is seriously damaged and could give out any day.  He’s heard whispers of a scientist who has invented some sort of electrical device (akin to a pacemaker from the sound of it) that could save Anna – and learning the man is obsessed with the concept of transmutation gives Nick the opportunity to combine his current investigation into the operation of a shadowy organisation dabbling in sorcery with his search for the device.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

The Rogue of Fifth Avenue (Uptown Girls #1) by Joanna Shupe

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Silver-tongued lawyer.
Keeper of secrets.
Breaker of hearts.

He can solve any problem . . .

In serving the wealthy power brokers of New York society, Frank Tripp has finally gained the respectability and security his own upbringing lacked. There’s no issue he cannot fix . . . except for one: the beautiful and reckless daughter of an important client who doesn’t seem to understand the word danger.

She’s not looking for a hero . . .

Excitement lies just below Forty-Second Street and Mamie Greene is determined to explore all of it—while playing a modern-day Robin Hood along the way. What she doesn’t need is her father’s lawyer dogging her every step and threatening her efforts to help struggling families in the tenements.

However, she doesn’t count on Frank’s persistence . . . or the sparks that fly between them. When fate upends all her plans, Mamie must decide if she’s willing to risk it all on a rogue . . .

Rating: B

I was really pleased when I learned that Frank Tripp, high-flying lawyer to the rich and famous of Gilded Age New York, would be getting his own story in The Rogue of Fifth Avenue the first book in Joanna Shupe’s new Uptown Girls series. Handsome, charming and urbane, Frank made for an attractive, somewhat enigmatic supporting character in the recent Four Hundred series, and I was more than eager to read his story.  Frank is a great character who undergoes significant growth throughout the course of this novel, and once the main plotline gets going – a legal thriller which will pit Frank against the society he’s worked so hard to fit into – I was fairly gripped by it.  But I wasn’t as drawn to the romance, mostly because I didn’t care for the heroine all that much.  Up until now, I’ve enjoyed Ms. Shupe’s female leads; they’ve been spirited and intelligent women who are determined to do more than be simply ornamental. Marion – Mamie – Greene is very much in that mould, but while she displays an admirable social conscience, she’s also naïve and reckless.  It’s hard to root for a couple when you believe one of them – in this case the hero – deserves better.

For the third or fourth time in as many months, Frank Tripp finds himself ‘escorting’ the daughter of one of his biggest clients away from a gambling hall. He tries (unsuccessfully) to extract a promise from her never to go there again, but Mamie, not content with the role life has allotted her as a woman destined merely to marry well and spend her life going to parties, isn’t going to give in, especially given the altruistic motives for which she gambles and picks pockets:

She gave the money either to a charity or directly to a tenement family herself. There were too many needy families in the city, and the charities were oftentimes more concerned with temperance and religious conversion than distributing aid. Mamie would rather not see any restrictions placed on relief, which was why she traveled downtown herself a few times a month.

Which makes stealing perfectly okay, apparently.  Yes, I understand why she’s doing it, and yes the idea that charities would make religious conversion a condition of giving aid to someone in need is utterly disgusting.  But instead of doing something that would benefit even more people than she can help alone, like establishing an aid society or charity of her own, Mamie gambles and steals.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

The Brooding Duke of Danforth by Christine Merrill

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Stranded at a house party…

…with the mysterious Duke…

When a storm hits, outspoken Abigail Prescott is trapped at a house party with Benedict Moore, the Duke of Danforth—the very man she was once betrothed to! Wishing to know the man she’s to marry, Abigail had called off their sudden engagement. But reunited once more, Benedict seems determined to win her back and make her his Duchess. His method: irresistible seduction…

Rating: C-

You know that feeling when, after finishing a book, you sit and wonder what on earth you just read?  That’s me after finishing Christine Merrill’s The Brooding Duke of Danforth.  It had the potential to be an engaging second-chance romance/courtship story played out against a look at the way gossip and rumour affected the relationship between the two principals; he, a wealthy duke who, by virtue of his gender and title is practically bullet proof, she the product of a union between drunkard and a social–climbing cit who has to care about what people think and say.  The trouble is that the book is… well, a bit of a mess.  There’s a Big Mis that could (and should) have been cleared up before the story even started but which isn’t really tackled until almost the half-way point and even then, isn’t completely cleared up until the second half; the romance is almost non-existent, the heroine’s willingness to jump into bed with the hero is out of character and even when the pair talk out their differences, they still manage to screw things up at the eleventh hour.

In the book’s prologue, we’re introduced to Benedict Moore, Duke of Danforth, and his long-standing friend, Lenore, the widowed Lady Beverly.  Benedict has decided it’s time he married and is thus attending Almack’s Assembly Rooms with the intention of looking about him for a suitable bride.  His attention is captured by a lovely and poised young woman who is accompanied by her loud, obnoxious father and overdressed mother.  Danforth immediately determines to rescue her from her father’s obvious tirade by dancing with her, but is impressed when he realises she doesn’t need rescuing at all, handling her father’s anger with coolly controlled aplomb.

Chapter one opens three months later, and we find Abigail Prescott and her mother taking refuge from a broken-down carriage and some terrible weather at Comstock Manor, home of the Earl and Countess of Comstock.  It turns out that Abigail did indeed receive – and accept – a proposal of marriage from the Duke of Danforth, but that she jilted him on their wedding day, realising she couldn’t marry a man who hadn’t spoken to her since he asked for her hand, and had shown no signs of being interested in her or of wanting to get to know her.  Sadly, the weather and carriage problems aren’t the only bad news Abigail is destined to receive that day – Danforth is one of the Comstocks’ guests, and meeting him again is going to be unavoidable.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

A Rogue by Night (Devils of Dover #3) by Kelly Bowen

a rogue by night

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Baron. Physician. Smuggler. Sir Harland Hayward is living a double life as an aristocrat by day and a criminal by night. As a doctor, Harland has the perfect cover to appear in odd places in the dead of night, a cover he uses to his advantage to bring in all sorts of illicit cargo from across the English Channel. He’s chosen this life to save his family from financial ruin, but he draws the line at taking advantage of the honest and trustworthy Katherine Wright.

Katherine has returned to Dover to find that her family is working for a mysterious new crime boss. Growing up in a family of smugglers, she knows it’s only a matter of time before they are caught—and killed. So after her brother is shot, she convinces her family to move away and start over. After they honor their last contract, of course. With her injured brother and elderly father unable to work, Katherine reluctantly steps back into the life she had left behind. And straight into the path of the merciless Harland Hayward.

Rating: B

I’ve read and enjoyed a number (nearly all?) of Kelly Bowen’s historical romances, and have particularly admired her ability to create strong, determined heroines who manage (mostly) to operate within the conventions of the time period in which her novels are set.  Yes, they have unusual professions or ambitions – a fixer, a bounty hunter, a professional gambler – but they’re not generally obvious about it and don’t go about proclaiming their unconventionality.  The same is true of the heroine of A Rogue in the Night, Katherine Wright, a young woman born into a family of smugglers who became very good at that particular ‘craft’ until she fell in love and followed her lover to war, where it appears she developed her knowledge of the healing arts to become a highly competent surgeon.  But this time around, I couldn’t quite buy into it.  I know there were women who disguised themselves as men in order to train as doctors, so I’m not saying it could never have happened; my problem with it here is that I was just asked to accept that she’d been a battlefield surgeon and was told nothing about how she became one other than that the army surgeons were grateful for the help so hadn’t minded that she was a woman – which seemed rather… convenient.  It was easier to believe that the hero – having two independent sisters and, as both a peer and a doctor, being unconventional himself – could so quickly and unquestioningly accept Katherine’s abilities, but the fact that he insisted on introducing her as Dr. Wright, when he surely must have known no woman could actually hold that moniker (and anyway, surgeons in the UK are addressed as Mr./Miss not Dr.) came across as gimmicky.

Harland Hayward, Baron Strathmore, is an unusual peer of the realm in that he is a doctor and surgeon who served on the battlefields during the Napoleonic Wars.  Society frowns upon the idea of a nobleman actually having a profession, but Harland doesn’t care – being a doctor is more than a job to him, it’s who he is. Faced with the ruin of his family’s shipping business after a number of terrible losses, Harland made a deal with King, the enigmatic, ruthless crimelord who has appeared in several of Ms. Bowen’s other books (and whose story I continue to await with bated breath!), which saved the business and his family, but at quite a cost.  Harland now works for King, co-ordinating smuggling runs off the Kentish coast and secretly acting as a liaison between the smugglers and purchasers.  Katharine’s brother Matthew is a member of one of these gangs, and when he’s shot while on a run, she’s surprised when Harland – Lord Doctor, as she calls him at first – turns up at their cottage to offer his help.  She’s suspicious of titled men and she’s wary of him, even though she’s attracted to him, too.

But when Harland not only helps treat her brother but also hides him from the soldiers who arrive to search the cottage, Katherine starts to unbend a little, and agrees to allow him to transport Matthew back to Avondale House (where the summer school run by his sister Clara, Duchess of Holloway operates) so he can be properly cared for.  He hits on the idea of asking Katherine to teach the medical students at the summer school – an idea Clara supports enthusiastically – and Katherine, after her initial surprise, is pleased to accept.

Not long after this, however, Harland receives a dangerous commission from King, and knowing he’s likely to need a skilled medical practitioner to help him, asks Katherine to accompany him.  The pair embark upon an adventure which carries them from London to the French coast and back as they dodge bullets, hide from soldiers and face up to past mistakes. The plot is fast-paced and well-executed, but ultimately, all the action in the story detracts from the romance between Harland and Katherine, which is of the insta-love variety and not nearly as well-developed as I’ve come to expect from this author.

I liked both characters, particularly Harland, a dedicated professional who is determined to do his best for his family no matter the heavy price.  (And I would completely dispute the adjective “merciless” applied to him in the synopsis!) Katherine is similarly motivated, her talent and competence making her a good match for Harland, but there isn’t a great deal of chemistry between them and the sex scenes seemed forced and ‘for the sake of it’ as a result.

Given the current deplorable state of the historical romance sub-genre, it was a pleasure to read a novel featuring well-developed characters and an intriguing plot by an author capable of penning focused, satisfying prose. I enjoyed A Rogue in the Night and liked it considerably more than the previous book (Last Night With the Earl), but the under-developed romance was a disappointment.

TBR Challenge: Heart of Iron (London Steampunk #2) by Bec McMaster

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In Victorian London, if you’re not a blue blood of the Echelon then you’re nothing at all. The Great Houses rule the city with an iron fist, imposing their strict ‘blood taxes’ on the nation, and the Queen is merely a puppet on a string…

Lena Todd makes the perfect spy. Nobody suspects the flirtatious debutante could be a sympathizer for the humanist movement haunting London’s vicious blue blood elite. Not even the ruthless Will Carver, the one man she can’t twist around her little finger, and the one man whose kiss she can’t forget…

Stricken with the loupe and considered little more than a slave-without-a-collar to the blue bloods, Will wants nothing to do with the Echelon or the dangerous beauty who drives him to the very edge of control. But when he finds a coded letter on Lena—a code that matches one he saw on a fire-bombing suspect—he realizes she’s in trouble. To protect her, he must seduce the truth from her.

With the humanists looking to start a war with the Echelon, Lena and Will must race against time—and an automaton army—to stop the humanist plot before it’s too late. But as they fight to save a city on the brink of revolution, the greatest danger might just be to their hearts…

Rating: B+

Bec McMaster has created a detailed and original world for her London Steampunk series, a steam-powered but recognisable version of Victorian London that is populated by humans, mechanoids and blue bloods and ruled over by the Echelon.  When I reviewed the first book, Kiss of Steel, I gave a brief outline of the London Steampunk world, so I won’t repeat that here; I’ll assume that if you’re reading this review you know what blue bloods, mechs and verwulfen are and what the Echelon is (and if you don’t, just click on the link above to find out. Or better still, read the books!)  Although each novel features a different central couple, there’s an overarching plot running throughout the series, which means it’s helpful to read them all in order – and there are likely to be spoilers in this review.

Heart of Iron is the second book the series, and it takes place about three years after the events of Kiss of Steel. In that book, we first met the Todd siblings – Honoria, Lena and Charlie – and Honoria, who had worked alongside their scientist father as he attempted to find a cure for the Craving Virus found her HEA with Blade, a rogue blue blood who has made an empire of his own among the rookeries of the East End.  Honoria’s sister Lena never felt at home in the Warren (as Blade’s home is known); not scientifically minded in the way that Honoria was, she was usually overlooked at home, and was brought up on lessons on etiquette and things young ladies should know, prepared for a life in blue blood society.  When the Todds moved to the Warren, seventeen-year-old Lena became fascinated by Will Carver, the big, handsome verwulfen who was Blade’s right hand man, but when, one night, she gathered her courage and kissed him, Will rebuffed her and “he told me he would tolerate my childish little games for Blade’s sake, but that he would prefer it if I didn’t throw myself at him.”  Hurt but determined not to show it, Lena left Whitechapel shortly afterwards with the intention of making her delayed début and returning to society.  Moving into her half-brother Leo’s London mansion as his ward (Leo Barrons is the heir to the Duke of Caine, and can never publicly acknowledge his relationship to the Todds), Lena plunges herself into the social whirl, a whirl which can be an extremely dangerous place for young women like her, who are seen as easy pickings for any blue blood lord until they sign a thrall contract with one, exchanging blood rights for his protection.

But while Lena moves in that dangerous world by night, she is also determined to gain a degree of independence, and to that end, continues to produce incredibly detailed, skilfully-wrought clockwork pieces for Mr. Mandeville, the man to whom she’d once been apprenticed.  Through him, Lena has become involved – albeit peripherally – with the growing humanist movement, who want to oust the Echelon and gain the rights and opportunities they are currently denied.  Lena principally acts as a messenger, carrying encrypted messages from the humanist leader known only as ‘Mercury’ (messages she receives via Mandeville) to the humanists’ contact within the Echelon, whose true identity is also unknown to her.

Will no longer lives at the Warren either, having left the day after Lena kissed him.  He’s still Blade’s muscle, the ‘Beast of Whitechapel’, and visits regularly – although he always times his visits so that he never meets Lena there.  His rejection of her was never because he didn’t want her; he did and still does, but there’s a reason verwulfen are forbidden from taking human mates and Will has no intention of putting Lena in danger.  He was infected with the loupe virus when he was just five years old and it almost killed him; he was then sold to a travelling showman who caged and beat him and exhibited him as a freak. He refuses to risk infecting Lena or to subject her to the horrors and indignities he suffered simply for being who and what he was.

There’s a really well-conceived sub-plot in the book concerning the political manouevering required to broker a treaty between the Echelon and the Scandinavian verwulfen clans against the growing threat posed by fanatical factions in France and Spain.  Barrons asks Will if he will act as a kind of liaison and help win over the more hard-line factions in the Scandinavian party; in exchange, the Echelon will revoke the law that outlaws verwulfen and create a new one that will give verwulfen the same rights as blue bloods. Will isn’t used to mixing in political circles and isn’t comfortable with the idea, but the promised rewards are too good to pass up. He agrees to the proposal – and then asks for Lena’s help to teach him how the ins and outs of blue blood society, not because he longs to spend time with her (hah – you tell yourself that, Will!) but because it will mean he can keep an eye on her and protect her from unscrupulous predators.   Lena decides to use the opportunity to get a bit of her own back on Will, to torture him a little with her nearness and a little flirtation – only to find it backfiring as she realises she’s as desperately attracted to him as she ever was.

Having read the spin off series – London Steampunk: The Blue Blood Conspiracy – I was pleased to meet some of the characters who will play main roles in those stories, most notably Adele Hamilton, who notoriously entraps the enigmatic Duke of Malloryn (who also makes notable appearances here) into marriage.  There are also appearances by a number of the other secondary characters who move seamlessly in and out of the series; another of the things I so enjoy about this author’s work is the way she never shoe-horns in secondary characters just for the sake of it and they’re all integral to the story.

I liked both Will and Lena, although sometimes I found Lena a little too impetuous and apt to leap before she looked.  Will on the other hand… *sigh*…  is your classic big, brooding and tortured hero who will stop at nothing to keep his lady-love safe, even if it means denying himself the only thing he has ever truly wanted.  On the surface, they’re constantly at odds, but beneath, they’re a seething mass of warring emotions that neither knows how to deal with. I did wish Will had told Lena the real reason behind his rejection earlier than he does, but that’s really my only niggle.  Mostly, their romance is really well done; the sexual tension and chemistry between them burns bright and the eventual love scenes are sexy and romantic.

Bec McMaster again achieves a terrific balance between the various different elements of her story, combining a sensual romance with intriguing plotlines and memorable characters.  Heart of Iron is another terrific read and the London Steampunk series deserves a place on any romance fan’s bookshelf.

The Earl’s Countess of Convenience (Penniless Brides of Convenience #1) by Marguerite Kaye

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A countess in name only…

…tempted by a night with her husband!

Part of Penniless Brides of Convenience: Eloise Brannagh has witnessed first-hand the damage unruly passion can cause. Yet she craves freedom, so a convenient marriage to the Earl of Fearnoch seems the perfect solution! Except Alexander Sinclair is more handsome, more intriguing, more everything, than Eloise anticipated. Having set her own rules for their marriage, her irresistible husband might just tempt Eloise to break them!

Rating: C

It isn’t always easy to write a review of an average or sub-par book, and it’s even less so when it’s an average or sub-par book by a favourite author, so I’m sorry to say that The Earl’s Countess of Convenience, the first in Marguerite Kaye’s new four-part Penniless Brides of Convenienceseries is a – fortunately rare – misfire.

In it, we meet Eloise Brannagh, her twin sisters Estelle and Phoebe and their aunt-by-marriage and guardian Kate, Lady Elmswood (in whom I was immediately more interested than the heroine, which wasn’t a good sign), with whom they have lived since the deaths of their parents some five years earlier.

The book opens as Kate has received a letter from her absent husband (the girls’ uncle) in which he suggests that Eloise may wish to consider a friend of his, the Earl of Fearnoch, as a prospective husband. Fearnoch needs to marry quickly in order to secure his title and estates – and with no dowry and no social position to attract suitors, the sisters are not likely to be inundated with suitable offers of marriage, so the possibility of marriage to an earl – albeit a marriage of convenience – is not something to be sneezed at. Eloise agrees to meet the earl and to see if she thinks they will suit; she’s not prepared to sacrifice her life to misery and even though such a match would enable her to support her sisters and attain a degree of independence, she won’t go consent to it if she and the earl don’t get on.

When Alexander Sinclair arrives at the appointed time, Eloise can’t help but wonder why such a gorgeous man would need or want to marry a nobody like her – surely there must be ladies of quality queueing around the block to marry someone so eligible and handsome! Alexander quickly dispels that thought, and the conversation he and Eloise engage in here is refreshingly frank, which I liked; after all these are two complete strangers contemplating a lifetime arrangement for purely practical purposes, so I was pleased that they were both upfront with each other about their plans and motives. Alex explains that the nature of his work – he’s a Victualling Commissioner at the Admiralty – means that he spends a lot of time out of England, and he is adamant that Eloise should realise their relationship will never be anything other than a convenient arrangement for them both. He doesn’t expect or want them to develop feelings for one another, and children are categorically out of the question. Having seen her own parents’ marriage implode because of her mother’s infidelities, her father’s desperate love and their frequent rows, Eloise has absolutely no wish for love or intimacy, so doesn’t see those stipulations as in any way problematic. And because she has no experience of men and her only female role model is a woman living in a loveless, sexless marriage who hasn’t seen hide nor hair of her husband in the entire six years since they wed, she has no idea what those tummy flutterings at the sight of Alex’s smile might mean.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

Never Deny a Duke (Decadent Dukes Society #3) by Madeline Hunter

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He is the last duke standing

. . . the sole remaining bachelor of the three self-proclaimed Decadent Dukes. Yet Davina MacCallum’s reasons for searching out the handsome Duke of Brentworth have nothing to do with marriage. Scottish lands were unfairly confiscated from her family by the Crown and given to his. A reasonable man with vast holdings can surely part with one trivial estate, especially when Davina intends to put it to good use. Brentworth, however, is as difficult to persuade as he is to resist.

The Duke of Brentworth’s discretion and steely control make him an enigma even to his best friends. Women especially find him inscrutable and unapproachable—but also compellingly magnetic. So when Davina MacCallum shows no signs of being even mildly impressed by him, he is intrigued. Until he learns that her mission in London involves claims against his estate. Soon the two of them are engaged in a contest that allows no compromise. When duty and desire collide, the best laid plans are about to take a scandalous turn—into the very heart of passion . . .

Rating: B+

I was really relieved to discover that Never Deny a Duke was a big improvement on the previous book in the series, A Devil of a Duke, which just scraped a C grade from me last year. And I liked the premise of this one – and the way Ms. Hunter handles it – quite a lot. Davina MacCallum has come to London in order to petition for the return of the Scottish lands and title she believes were unfairly … ‘diverted’ to an English nobleman following the Jacobite uprising in the mid-1700s, but although the King (George IV) had given her reason to believe he would support her when they met during his recent visit to Edinburgh, when he returns to London nothing happens, so Davina comes south to further her cause. It turns out that the lands in question were given to the Dukes of Brentworth, and the current holder of the title – reserved, discreet and formidable Eric Marshall – has no intention of just handing over part of his estate. This story could so easily have been one of those “feisty-heroine-stomps-her-foot-a-lot-while-driving-reserved-hero-round-the bend” stories, but Ms. Hunter instead presents two grown-up, sensible characters who, while striking sparks off each other, approach the situation with a degree of common sense. They are opponents and neither wants to give way, but they’re not stubborn for the sake of it and while each wants to be proven right, there’s no sense that they’d resort to underhandedness to do it.

Dabney Grinnan and I discussed this latest book by Madeline Hunter over at All About Romance.