The Best of 2017 – My Favourite Books of Last Year.

It’s something of a tradition to put together a “favourite books of the year” list around Christmas and New Year – I’m a little late with mine this year, but here’s the Best of 2017 list I put together for All About Romance.  Did any of them make your Best Books of 2017 list?

I had to make some really tough choices – here are some of the books that also deserved a place on the list, but which I just couldn’t fit in!

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The Captain’s Disgraced Lady (Chadcombe Marriages #2) by Catherine Tinley

This title may be purchased from Amazon

When Juliana Milford first encounters Captain Harry Fanton, she finds him arrogant and rude. There’s no way she’ll fall for his dazzling smile! Her visit to Chadcombe House was always going to prompt questions over her scandalous family, so she’s touched when Harry defends her reputation. She’s discovering there’s more to Harry than she’d first thought…

A man so plagued by the demons of war, he’s sworn he’ll never marry, no matter how tempted…

Rating: C

The Captain’s Disgraced Lady is Catherine Tinley’s second novel, and tells the story of a young woman whose family history has always been shrouded in mystery and an army officer who is so haunted by the things he has seen and done that he believes himself defiled.  It’s not an especially original plotline, but it’s generally handled well – until Ms. Tinley decides to introduce a number of extraneous plot points that clutter up her canvas to the extent that everything starts to feel overly contrived and which, ultimately, led to an overall feeling of dissatisfaction on the part of this reader.

The book opens as Miss Juliana Milford and her mother, who normally reside in Brussels, have returned to England for a short time in order to visit Juliana’s dear friend, Charlotte Wyncroft, who has recently married the Earl of Shalford (Waltzing with the Earl).   Mrs. Milford has been greatly unsettled by the channel crossing and seems to Juliana to be unnerved by simply being back in England, but Juliana is used to her mother’s somewhat uncertain health and mental state, having run their household since she was twelve.  The ladies are settling into a private parlour at the nearest inn when they are interrupted by two military gentlemen, one of whom – who introduces himself as Captain Harry Fanton – assumes they will happy to share the parlour with them.  Infuriated by the captain’s arrogance – and concerned for her mother’s health – Juliana tells him what she thinks of him in no uncertain terms and sends him away with a flea in his ear.

Subsequent encounters with the terribly handsome but extremely annoying Captain Fanton only serve to reinforce Juliana’s opinion of him as conceited and rude – although she has to begrudgingly admit that she is grateful for his solicitousness towards her mother and eventually to acknowledge that perhaps she allowed her temper to get the better of her.  But as she is unlikely ever to see the captain again, Juliana doesn’t dwell on it – even though she finds it difficult to banish his handsome features from her mind.

A few days later sees the Milford ladies settled at Chadcombe House, the Earl of Salford’s estate, and Juliana happily catching up with all her friend’s news and reminiscing about their time at school in Brussels.  I’m not sure how Juliana fails to connect the name Fanton with Charlotte’s new husband, but in any case, Harry is the last person Juliana expects to see at Chadcombe, and she is astonished when Charlotte greets him and introduces him as her brother-in-law.

Juliana and Charlotte also make the acquaintance of their nearest neighbours, the social climbing Mr. and Mrs. Wakely who have recently taken up residence at Glenbrook Hall.  It seems there is a dispute as to the Hall’s ownership and the Wakelys  have been allowed to live there while the executors of the estate of the late Baron Cowlam (a relative of Mrs. Wakelys) establish her claim.

During their stay at Chadcombe, Juliana and Harry are thrown into each other’s company on several occasions and find themselves gradually warming to each other, enjoying their spirited discussions and verbal sparring matches.  Harry, who has determined never to fall in love, finds it increasingly difficult to ignore the truth of his feelings for Juliana, but he can’t bear the thought of tying her to a man as broken as he is. When the spiteful Wakelys make public some information they have learned concerning Juliana’s parentage – which, Juliana realises, must account for her mother’s nervousness at being back in England – Harry is forced to face the truth; he’s fallen irrevocably in love with a woman he can never marry.

With Juliana’s reputation now severely blemished, she and her mother arrange to return to Brussels, no matter that it seems as though England and France will very soon be at war once more.  Harry rejoins his regiment and finds himself in the thick of the battles of Quatre Bras and Waterloo…

As soon as I’d finished reading, I realised that the main thing I’d taken away from The Captain’s Disgraced Lady was that there was rather too much going on, which gave the impression that the author wasn’t quite sure what story she wanted to tell.  Is it an opposites-attract romance?  Is it the story of a young woman searching for the truth of her birthright?  Is it the story of a couple separated by war?  It’s all of those things, but the narrative feels episodic  – shifting from one plot point to the next – rather than cohesive with the various threads woven together throughout.  The final section – which sees Juliana returned to Brussels and Harry to the army – is the most gripping; before that I was only mildly interested in the romance because Juliana’s instant dislike of Harry has such a ridiculously flimsy basis and is so obviously a contrivance to kick-start an antagonistic relationship.  And the clues as to the identity of the missing heir and Juliana’s identity are so clearly telegraphed early on that there is no surprise when the reveal is finally made. On top of all that, we are informed – around a third of the way though – that Harry believes himself to be some sort of monster; and later that he’s too flawed and broken to deserve someone so innocent and pure as Juliana and the only thing to be done is to protect her by breaking with her without explanation.  The whole “I am not worthy, so must cut you from my life completely” plotline is one I dislike intensely, so that aspect of the story didn’t work for me at all; plus, Harry’s self-loathing and inner torment never really feel integral to the story (and vanish quickly), and instead come across as yet another contrived road-block on the path to happy ever after.

With all that said, there are things to enjoy in The Captain’s Disgraced Lady. Harry is an attractive, if somewhat stereotypical hero, and while I didn’t like Juliana that much to start with, she grew on me,  proved to be possessed of good sense and courage, and by the last part of the book I was rooting for her to succeed and to find her HEA with Harry.  The writing is solid, and the middle section of the story – in which Harry and Juliana begin to lower their defences and allow each other to see their true selves – is nicely done, with, as I said earlier, the final part being the most compelling.  Unfortunately, however, those things are overshadowed by the overabundance of plotlines which make the book feel overstuffed; and I can’t help thinking that perhaps a firmer editorial hand could have helped thin them out and develop the rest into a more cohesive story.

Scandal at the Christmas Ball by Marguerite Kaye and Bronwyn Scott


This title may be purchased from Amazon

One Christmas house party leads to two Regency love affairs! 

A Governess for Christmas by Marguerite Kaye 

At the glittering Brockmore house party, former army major Drummond MacIntosh meets governess in disgrace Joanna Forsythe, who’s desperate to clear her name. Both are eager to put their pasts behind them, but their scandalous affair will make for a very different future…

Dancing with the Duke’s Heir by Bronwyn Scott 

As heir to a dukedom, Vale Penrith does not want a wife, and certainly not one like Lady Viola Hawthorne. So why does London’s Shocking Beauty tempt him beyond reason? Dare he try and tame her, or is a Christmas seduction the best way to bring her to surrender?

Rating: B (B+ for the Kaye, C for the Scott)

Scandal at the Christmas Ball is the second collaboration between historical romance authors Marguerite Kaye and Bronwyn Scott, and, like their previous work, Scandal at the Midsummer Ball, takes place at the country estate of the Duke and Duchess of Brockmore, a widely liked, respected and highly influential couple who are regarded as powerbrokers within the ton and whose invitations are much sought after.

Among their guests this Yuletide are the duke’s nephew and heir, Vale Penrith, Lady Viola Hawthorne, a shockingly fast young woman who goes out of her way to do and say outrageous things, and a former officer of the Scots Guards, Drummond MacIntosh, whose army career ended somewhat ignominiously three years earlier, just after the Battle of Waterloo.


A Governess for Christmas by Marguerite Kaye (Grade: B+)

Ms. Kaye is one of the few authors of historical romance who regularly writes about untitled, non-aristocratic progatonists, and she continues that trend in this poignant, tender and sometimes heart-wrenching story about an ex-army officer and an ill-treated, down-on-her-luck governess who find each other one Christmas but who will face some difficult choices if they are ever to make a life together.

Drummond MacIntosh has lived a somewhat reclusive existence for the past three-and-a-half years owing to the huge scandal that attended his catastrophic fall from grace.  With his reputation in tatters, he has finally accepted that he needs help if he is ever going to claw his way back from ruin and carve out a new and useful existence.  No less a personage than the Duke of Wellington himself arranged Drummond’s invitation to the Brockmores’ Christmas house party, but as Drummond wryly notes, the Duke wouldn’t have done such a thing if it hadn’t been ultimately useful to himself; he needs a man of Drummond’s good sense, practicality and ability to lead men at his back and is presenting Drummond to Brockmore “for inspection” as it were.  The whole thing leaves a bitter taste in Drummond’s mouth; he doesn’t want to be beholden to Wellington (or to anyone) and certainly not on terms which attempt to brush years of exile under the carpet and blame Drummond for acting as his conscience dictated.

Drummond’s situation is mirrored by that of Miss Joanna Forsythe, a governess who has been invited to the party so she can meet a prospective employer.  Joanna had a comfortable position in the household of Lady Christina Robertson, but has been reduced to teaching at a ramshackle school in return for her bed and board, after she was wrongly accused of theft and dismissed without a character. Like Drummond, she has been invited to the Brockmores with a view to improving her situation, but also like him, the hoped for “improvement” falls short.  Joanna had hoped for an apology after her innocence was discovered and the real culprit owned up. But instead, her former employer wants to buy her off by the offer of an excellent new position and a sum of money.

Even before they know of the similarities of their respective situations, Drummond and Joanna are strongly drawn to each other and very soon find themselves exchanging confidences… and increasingly heated kisses.  I admit that the pair progresses to this stage rather quickly but Ms. Kaye creates such a strong emotional connection between them, and imbues their burgeoning relationship with such depth and longing that it’s possible to overlook its somewhat speedy beginning.  This is a pair of ordinary people in very difficult circumstances who demonstrate the importance of a spotless reputation to those who had to earn their living, for without it, there was little to no chance of their ever securing decent employment. But with Drummond on the verge of a prestigious appointment and a return from the cold, how can Joanna – and her tarnished reputation – stand in his way?

This is a beautifully wrought, heartfelt romance between two people in difficult circumstances.  I was completely gripped by Drummond’s story and applaud Ms. Kaye for the introduction of a character motivated by compassion whose actions were so misunderstood and reviled.  He’s not a character-type I’ve read in historical romance before, and I could be singing the author’s praises for that alone.  But added to a very well-crafted romance and a strong, determined heroine in the form of Joanna, A Governess for Christmas  makes my list of favourite seasonal reads.


Dancing with the Duke’s Heir by Bronwyn Scott (Grade: C)

In this story, a rather proper gentleman finds himself reluctantly fascinated by the most unsuitable sort of woman he could ever have imagined would attract him.  Vale Penrith, heir to the Duke of Brockmore, has still not recovered from the deaths of his father and older brother some years ago, and continues to find his role as a ducal heir somewhat ill-fitting.  He really would prefer to be left to his own devices in the library, but knows he will have to do his bit and take part in the various activities planned for the duration of the party.  He is also aware that while the Brockmores’ Christmas parties don’t have the same match-making reputation as their summer affairs, his uncle has a prospective bride lined up for him – something else he doesn’t want anything to do with.

Lady Viola Hawthorne, daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Calton, is a determined, high-spirited woman whose deepest desire is to go to Vienna to study music.  “The Shocking Beauty” as she is known, has quite the scandalous reputation, all of it designed to put off any suitors so she can remain unwed and pursue her dreams of Vienna and a musical career.  She reckons that one final, massive scandal at the Brockmores’ party should do the trick once and for all and cause her parents to give up on their attempts to marry her off.  Hence her decision to climb a ladder to hang mistletoe from a chandelier in the hall while wearing no underwear; perched at the top, affording the crowd of young men below a glimpse of her ankles (and possibly other things besides) she manages to achieve her end just before the ladder wobbles and she falls – literally – into the arms of Vale Penrith, who is appalled and annoyed at such reckless, outrageous behaviour.

Viola likes what she sees, but Penrith, while gorgeous, is a stuffed shirt and not at all the sort of man she’d be interested in.  But when her friend, Lady Anne, tells Viola that her parents are trying to arrange a match with Penrith while she – Anne – is in love with someone else, Viola agrees to help her out by providing a distraction.  The problem is that she finds herself being distracted by Vale – who is not at all the cold fish she had first imagined – as much as he is distracted by her, and the more time they spend together, the more they discover about what lies behind their social masks and the more they are drawn together.

I have to say straight off that I really didn’t care for Viola in this story.  I admired her desire to forge her own path in her life, but her methods – which are, basically, to shock as many people as often as possible – are childish, and she behaves more like a mistress or courtesan than a duke’s daughter, drinking spirits, smoking and playing billiards with the men.  I’m sure not all young ladies at this time were as pure and virginal as fiction would have us believe, but Viola goes a little too far in the opposite direction for my taste.  Vale is much more likeable, but because I disliked the heroine, it was difficult to understand what he saw in her beyond the physical and I found it difficult to believe that two people possessed of such opposing personality types could forge a lasting relationship.

If you’re more tolerant of the spoiled and outrageous type of heroine than I am, this story might work better for you than it did for me.


Ultimately, Scandal at the Christmas Ball is something of an uneven read, but is worth it for the Kaye story alone.

The Lady and Mr. Jones (A Spy in the Ton #4) by Alyssa Alexander

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Born in the rookeries, the hard life is something Jones is all too familiar with. Saved as a young boy, he was trained to be a spy, one of the best–elite, in fact. He now spends his days serving His Majesty in espionage, hunting rogue spies.His latest assignment, though, has him tracking a fellow spy…

Cat Ashdown is a baroness. Nothing is more important than protecting five hundred years of heritage. She knows every detail of every estate that commands the largest income in Britain— yet her father placed her inheritance in trust to her uncle who is forcing her to marry a man she has no desire for. The baroness’s battle against law and convention leads her to Jones and results that are surprising … and possibly unwanted.

Rating: B

The Lady and Mr. Jones, the fourth and final (I think?) book in Alyssa Alexander’s A Spy in the Ton series turns the spotlight on the eponymous Jones, a secondary character in previous books and a member of the elite spy ring that includes Shadow, Angel and the Flower.  Picking up some of the threads laid out in the previous book, A Dance with Seduction, Ms. Alexander has crafted a tender cross-class romance which plays out alongside an engaging suspense plot which sets spy against spy in a perilous, high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse.  I enjoyed the book and the characters, although the ending is a little weak and brought my final grade down a notch.

Jones – who doesn’t appear to have any other names – is a lad from the streets; an orphan from the rookeries who was plucked from poverty and trained by the best of the best in the art of spycraft.  Deeply loyal and honourable to a fault, Jones is so discreet, skilful and efficient that he is the man his superiors turn to when they need to keep an eye on one of their own.  In A Dance with Seduction, we met the Flower and her handler, Henry, Lord Wycombe, another member of Britain’s intricate network of spies and informants.  As the story progressed, it became clear that Wycombe was involved with something underhand and that his position had become compromised in some way – and now, Jones is assigned to keep watch on him and discover the truth about his activities and allegiances.

Lady Mary Elizabeth Frances Catherine Ashdown, the Baroness Worthington, is one of the richest women in England – or she would be if her late father hadn’t tied up her money in such a way that she is dependent on her guardian – her uncle, Viscount Wycombe – until she marries or reaches her thirty-fifth birthday.  Cat is one of the few women in England to bear a title in her own right (the barony is over five hundred years old, and as is the case with some of the oldest titles, can be held by a female) and she takes her responsibilities to her title and those who depend on her very seriously.  But her requests for funds to make improvements and repairs to the estate at Ashdown Abbey are continually blocked by her uncle and trustees and she is increasingly suspicious of Wycombe’s motives. She’s also furious, but her uncle is a dangerous and unpleasant man and she knows better than to reveal her feelings; instead she decides to pay for the repairs to her tenants’ cottages using her allowance.  Well aware that not all the servants at Worthington House are loyal to her, Cat slips from the house in order to post her letter of instruction to her steward – but on the way back, is accosted by a ruffian who tries to abduct her.

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

Courting Danger with Mr. Dyer (Scandal and Disgrace #1) by Georgie Lee


This title may be purchased from Amazon

A stolen kiss from a spy!

Working undercover for the government, Bartholomew Dyer must expose a nefarious plot to make Napoleon the ruler of England! He needs access to the highest echelons of Society to find those involved, so he’s forced to enlist the help of the woman who jilted him five years ago—Moira, Lady Rexford.

Moira’s widowed, yet still as captivating as ever, and Bart’s determined not to succumb to her charms a second time. But as they race against time Bart suspects it’s not their lives at greatest risk—it’s their hearts…

Rating: C+

I’ve read a number of books by Georgie Lee over the last few years, and while I’ve enjoyed some more than others, she has yet to write the book that wows me and turns her into an auto-read author. Unfortunately, I’m still waiting, because although Courting Danger with Mr. Dyer, is a more than decent read, it doesn’t have the wow factor, either.

The eponymous Mr. Dyer – Bartholomew – is the fifth son of Lord Denning, who doesn’t care all that much about his children beyond his heir and his spare. Bart’s choice of career has alienated him from his father even further; as a successful and high-profile barrister, his name frequently appears in the newspapers, something his father dislikes intensely. What Denning doesn’t know, however, is that Bart also works for the Alien Office as part of a department dedicated to rooting out traitors working to undermine England’s safety and stability. The irony that the one part of his life that would probably make his father proud is the one part of it he can’t tell him about isn’t lost on Bart.

The book opens when Bart’s close friend and colleague, Frederick, Earl of Fallworth tells him that he will no longer assist him in his quest to foil the plot by a group known as the Rouge Noir to overthrow the government and hand England over to Bonaparte. Bart is frustrated and angry; someone like Freddie has the entrée to circles that are not easily accessible to Bart but Freddie is adamant. Since the loss of his young wife he has been a broken man, drinking heavily and taking little interest in the running of his home and estates. But now, he is determined to do better, and is unwilling to risk his safety – or that of his young son – any longer. Bart is surprised when their heated discussion is interrupted by Freddie’s sister, Moira, the widowed Countess of Rexford, and the woman whom, five years earlier, Bart had hoped to marry but whose family disdained him and encouraged her to marry elsewhere.

Knowing that the Rouge Noir has something big planned, but not yet having discovered its nature, Bart is willing to grasp at straws in order to get closer to the ringleaders and suggests that if Freddie can’t or won’t help, perhaps Moira could do so instead.  A lady of her rank moves in the same social circles as his prime suspects and could be of great help – but Moira turns him down, unwilling to risk her life by becoming embroiled in his dangerous schemes.  It’s only later, when she starts to consider her position in her brother’s household; how, when he remarries, she will be relegated to the status of hanger-on, and how stifled she had been in her own marriage that the idea of agreeing to help Bart takes hold of her mind.

Ms. Lee has crafted a strong, intriguing plotline and thrown in some nicely judged red-herrings along the way as Bart and Moira gradually uncover the truth about the Rouge Noir’s plans, but there’s a distinct lack of romantic chemistry between the principals that has affected my final grade for the book.  Added to that, the hero is barely two-dimensional. Bart’s estrangement from his father is believable and their meeting late in the story is very well done, and his dismissal by Moira’s family five years earlier obviously still rankles, but other than that and the fact that he can never get married because his way of life wouldn’t be fair on a wife, I never felt as though I knew much about him.

Moira is the more strongly dawn of the two leads.  She is a young woman at a crossroads in her life, realising she has outlived her usefulness to her family and, after five years of marriage to a much older man, wanting to experience a bit of adventure – but there’s no denying she has a couple of close-to-TSTL moments that made me wince.  For someone with no experience of espionage, she manages to say all the right things to the right people on her first attempt and gets closer to the suspects quite easily – maybe I’ve been spoiled by the likes of Joanna Bourne, but I expect more complexity when it comes to spy stories.

Courting Danger with Mr. Dyer has a well-constructed plot that leads to an exciting (if rather too quick) dénouement, but the romance is sorely lacking. There’s only one reason given for the fact that Bart and Moira are unable to be together, and If we were told once that “she wanted a family and he wasn’t the man to give it to her”, we were told a dozen times, and I really dislike being hit over the head with the same plot point over and over again.  Especially when it’s one that simply evaporates at the end.  If you’re looking for an historical spy-fix that focuses on that aspect of the story more than the romance, then you might enjoy this book, but if you want one in which the romance takes equal-billing, then it’s probably not the book for you.

Beauty Like the Night (Spymasters #6) by Joanna Bourne

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Sèverine de Cabrillac, orphan of the French revolution and sometime British intelligence agent, has tried to leave spying behind her. Now she devotes herself to investigating crimes in London and finding justice for the wrongly accused.

Raoul Deverney, an enigmatic half-Spaniard with enough secrets to earn even a spy’s respect, is at her door demanding help. She’s the only one who can find the killer of his long-estranged wife and rescue her missing fourteen-year-old daughter.

Sèverine reluctantly agrees to aid him, even though she knows the growing attraction between them makes it more than unwise. Their desperate search for the girl ​unleashes treason and murder. . . and offers a last chance for two strong, wounded people to find love.

Rating: A-

Beauty Like the Night, the eagerly awaited sixth book in Joanna Bourne’s widely acclaimed Spymasters series, tells the story of Séverine de Cabrillac, whom we first met as a very young child caught up in the revolutionary terror of late eighteenth century Paris in The Forbidden Rose.  Ten years after being brought to England by William Doyle, Sévie ran off to war where she joined Military Intelligence and gained an impressive reputation as a spy, a woman who took many names, who wore many disguises, who was always frighteningly effective. Returned to London and now in her late twenties, she operates a small investigative agency – and is still frighteningly effective.  But her involvement with politics and espionage is far from over, as is shown when she becomes involved in the hunt for a murderer, a missing child… and a traitor.

Séverine’s reputation for getting results as an investigator is every bit as remarkable as her reputation as a spy.  Clever, uncompromising and tenacious, she is known to never back down or be frightened off, and it’s said that once she is involved with a case, it’s as good as solved.  Her name and reputation are partly responsible for leading Raoul Deverney to her bedroom late one night, when he casually requests the return of a twelve-year-old girl named Pilar, who has been missing since the murder of her mother – his wife – some three months earlier.  The girl is not his daughter, but she has in her possession, an amulet, a family heirloom he is anxious to recover. Séverine knows nothing of the girl or the amulet and is, not surprisingly, rather alarmed by the sudden appearance of a man bearing a knife at her bedside.  Yet nothing of this shows in her demeanour as she coolly denies all knowledge of both girl and amulet, assessing the intruder and deducing he’s either mad or deadly – quickly realising he’s not the former.  Their discussion ended,  he disappears into the night, but not before he has promised they will meet again – and ventured a brief touch to her cheek, which Séverine finds oddly unsettling.

Raoul Deverney is well acquainted with the name of de Cabrillac and has no doubt that the woman he encountered in Spain a decade earlier could have committed or been involved in the murder of his estranged wife.  But would she be party to the kidnap of a young girl?  He can’t be so sure about that.  Yet his search of his late wife’s  apartment revealed the words ‘amulet’ and ‘de Cabrillac’ scratched into Pilar’s bedframe – so there’s no question Séverine is involved in some way.  He just has to work out how.

That first, late-night encounter between Raoul and Séverine sets the tone for their interactions throughout the story.  Both are cautious, fiercely intelligent and almost terrifyingly capable; they don’t trust easily or often and find the strong attraction that sparks between them to be a major inconvenience.  But it’s impossible to ignore.  The sexual chemistry between the pair is delicious and understated, which makes it even better; there’s no overdone mental lusting, just a simmering attraction that builds inexorably as they join forces to investigate murder and treason.

Readers of the previous books will already know that Séverine is part of the inmost circle at the top level of British intelligence, very much one of a close-knit family united by bonds of friendship and loyalty, if not by blood. Her brother-in-law is Adrian Hawkhurst (Hawker) and her adoptive father is William Doyle, both of them incredibly shrewd, intelligent and dedicated men who do what must be done to protect England from the threats it continues to face.  Some of my favourite parts of the book were the interactions between Hawker and Doyle and I loved those little touches that reminded me of how far Hawker has come from the scruffy, teenage street-urchin of The Forbidden Rose.  It’s obvious that these two know each other so well that verbal communication is almost unnecessary – although Hawker’s never going to shut up so that won’t happen! – and that they would do anything for each other.  It’s a wonderfully written friendship/familial relationship (they’ve always been like father and son) that gladdened my heart whenever they appeared on the page.  Their relationship with Séverine is equally well-done; they are protective and want to be even more so, but recognise that she can take care of herself and would not thank them for their interference, especially when it comes to her complicated relationship with a certain handsome former freedom-fighter and possible traitor.

I liked both central characters very much.  Séverine is an admirable heroine, confident in her abilities yet not oblivious to the fact that her way of life can a dangerous one, and Raoul is the sort of hero I always fall for. Intelligent, witty and coolly competent (because there’s nothing sexier than a man who knows what he’s doing!), he’s perfect for Séverine and it’s clear that theirs is a meeting of understanding as well as hearts, and that they will go through life as equals.  If I have a complaint it’s that he’s probably TOO perfect – but I was so charmed by him that I really didn’t care.

The historical romance sub-genre is littered with spy stories, and some of them are very good.  But then one reads a book by Joanna Bourne and the difference between ‘good’ and ‘great’ is brought into sharp focus.  It’s not just that Ms. Bourne’s writing is sublime, the relationships are well-developed and the characters are attractive and well-rounded; it’s her amazing subtlety, her ability to convey things that aren’t said, and the way she imbues her characters with incredible spirit and intelligence but allows them to be vulnerable, too.  Séverine is tough and capable, but she is haunted by some of the decisions she made during the war, most notably the one which ultimately led to the death of the young French officer with whom she had fallen in love. And when Raoul – who is every bit as formidable as Séverine  (and possibly more so in some areas) – realises that Pilar was shamefully neglected, his wilful blindness is brought home to him and he is assailed by the guilt which ultimately drives him to find her.

The story is insightful and intelligently written, boasting an engrossing plot, a well-developed cast of secondary characters and two compelling and well-matched principals who thoroughly and obviously relish the challenge to their wits and their hearts presented by the other.  It is perhaps not as high-stakes as some of the earlier books in the series, but it’s no less enjoyable for that; there are still plots to be foiled, evil-doers to be defeated and truths to be uncovered – and I was glued to the story every step of the way.

Beauty Like the Night is a great read and a terrific addition to what is easily one of the finest series of historical romance novels around.  Unlike most of the earlier books in the series, this one can work as a standalone, although I think readers will get more out of it if they’re familiar with the other stories and characters – and if you haven’t read them, my advice would be to do so at once.  You’re in for a rare treat.

A Dance with Seduction (A Spy in the Ton #3) by Alyssa Alexander

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Vivienne Le Fleur is one of London’s most sought after opera dancer and one of England’s best weapons: the spy known as the Flower. When a French agent pressures her to change allegiance by abducting her sister, Vivienne is forced to seek the help of the only man in London who doesn’t want her.

Maximilian Westwood, retired code breaker, doesn’t like surprises or mysteries and The Flower is both. When she sneaks into his study in the middle of the night with a coded message, he’s ready to push her out whatever window she arrived through. Except Maximilian is unable to turn away a woman in trouble. Determined to rescue Vivienne’s sister, they engage in a game of cat and mouse with French spies that requires all of Vivienne’s training and Maximilian’s abilities. Bound together by secrecy, they discover there is more between them than politics and hidden codes, but love has no place among the secrets of espionage…

Rating: B

It’s been a few years since I’ve seen a new novel from Alyssa Alexander, so I eagerly pounced on A Dance with Seduction, which, while released by a different publisher, is a continuation of her A Spy in the Ton series. I enjoyed her last book, a tightly written, sexy historical thriller and looked forward to more of the same. The plot – which pairs a female British spy with a bookish former code-breaker (I do love a nerdy hero!) – is intriguing and well put-together, and sees our intrepid heroine trying to thwart the attempts of a dangerous French spy to turn her into a double agent and involve her in a treasonous assassination plot. It’s a good read, but didn’t quite meet my expectations which, I admit, were high based on how much I’d enjoyed her previous book, In Bed with a Spy.

Vivienne La Fleur – the Flower – was recruited to a life of espionage when she was little more than a girl, and even though the Napoleonic Wars have ended, she continues to work for the British government at the direction of her ‘commander’ or handler, Lord Wycomb. Her public persona is that of one of London’s finest opera dancers, and as Wycomb’s mistress, but while she does live as a kept woman, he does not share her bed – although she suspects he would like to.

During the war, Vivienne was frequently in contact with Maximillian Westwood, the country’s top code-breaker. When the war ended, he retired from government service and now puts his facility with something like eleven different languages to use by working as a translator. He might be the scion of an aristocratic family, but as a younger son, he has to make his own way and his own living, which he does by translating documents, books and whatever else comes his way. He’s done with secret codes and espionage but it seems that secret codes and espionage aren’t done with him when the Flower pays him a late night visit and asks him to decode a short message for her.

Maximillian – who thinks Max is a ridiculous appellation – has no desire to become entangled with secrets and intrigue once again, and points out that he no longer works for government spymasters. But Vivienne explains that this is something personal, and clearly, the message is of some importance to her, so he agrees and tells her to come back in the morning.

The code is complicated, but presents no real problem for Maximillian apart from the final symbol, which is something like an Egyptian hieroglyph but isn’t – and which is oddly familiar.  Disgruntled because he can’t place it, he tells Vivienne that he hasn’t been able to completely finish the work, but she isn’t concerned.  The message is clear, and while she doesn’t care to enlighten Maximillian as to the signatory, she knows all too well who it’s from – an elusive, ruthless French agent known as the Vulture – and the instructions contained in the note are telling her to steal a document from an Englishman… and deliver it to a Frenchman.

Vivienne is chilled to the bone, because she knows what this means.  The Vulture wants her to work against the British, probably to become a double agent, but she is determined to resist – until her younger sister, Anne, is abducted, which changes everything.  Vivienne had kept the existence of her sibling a secret, making it seem as though she was nothing more than a maid in her household to try to prevent Anne being used as leverage against her. Somehow, the Vulture has discovered the truth and Vivienne is distraught.  Frantic to discover her sister’s whereabouts, Vivienne risks everything, walking a tightrope between espionage and treason; between trying to make it seem as though she is co-operating with the enemy while at the same time scheming to bring him down.  She has become so used to relying on herself and herself alone, that Vivienne doesn’t even tell Maximillian the whole truth. She lets him believe she is concerned for a girl in her employ who has gone missing, his insistence on helping her, standing by her and trusting her to know what she’s doing just adding to the burden of guilt she already carries for failing to keep her sister safe.

I enjoyed the pairing of the resourceful spy with the rather grumpy scholar. Maximillian is an endearing beta hero who really steps up to the plate when he realises Vivienne is in trouble, despite the fact that he’s unfamiliar with her world of shady characters, late night break-ins and shadowy double-dealing.  He never talks down to her or treats her as anything less than the highly competent operative that she is; in fact, he’s the only man who really sees Vivienne as anything other than the exquisitely beautiful dancer, the delicate ‘flower’ she pretends to be.  It’s obvious from the start that he is attracted to Vivienne, but also that he has firmly quashed those feelings because he believes her to be under the protection of another man, while Vivienne has to maintain the appearance of being another man’s mistress and also feels that she can’t allow herself to be distracted by her growing attachment to Maximillian, no matter that he’s handsome, kind and honourable – and that he refuses to let her to push him away.

Vivienne has long believed that her line of work is incompatible with relationships, and continues to think that, but she’s never wanted a man as much as she wants Maximillian and decides at last that while there’s no ‘forever’ in their future, they can at least enjoy each other for a while.  There’s a nice frisson of sexual tension between the pair which eventually translates into some sensual kisses and love scenes, but reality intrudes when the Vulture attempts to force Vivienne’s hand and Maximillian realises how little she has trusted him.

Ms. Alexander has penned an entertaining story and created a couple of attractive protagonists and a strongly drawn secondary cast, but Vivienne’s failure to confide in Maximillian – who repeatedly shows himself to be trustworthy and to have her best interests at heart – goes on for too long.  This becomes frustrating and sometimes makes her difficult to like, although her inner conflicts – her need to protect her sister, and her doubts as to who the real person is beneath the spy – are well expressed.   The writing is strong, although I can’t help feeling that the editor should have picked up and eliminated the majority of the constant references to Vivienne’s ‘lithe dancer’s body’ or ‘strong dancer’s legs’ or ‘dancer’s grace’ – honestly, it got to the stage when it seemed there was mention of her profession on every page and it became very distracting.  I also hope that ‘Carleton House’ will have been corrected to ‘Carlton House’ in the finished product (I read an advance copy), an error which jumped out at me every time I read it.

Overall however, I’m happy to recommend A Dance with Seduction to others.  It’s well-written and well-conceived and I’m pleased that Ms. Alexander has re-surfaced and am looking forward to reading more of her work.