Bringing Down the Duke (League of Extraordinary Women #1) by Evie Dunmore

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Oxford, 1879. A beautiful bluestocking is about to teach a duke a lesson . . .

Brilliant but destitute Annabelle Archer is one of the first female students at Oxford University. In return for her scholarship, she must recruit influential men to champion the rising women’s suffrage movement. Her first target is Sebastian Devereux: cold, calculating and the most powerful duke in England.

When Annabelle and her friends infiltrate his luxurious estate, she’s appalled to find herself attracted to the infuriatingly intelligent aristocrat – but perhaps she’s not the only one struggling with desire. . . Soon Annabelle is locked in a battle with rising passion and a will matching her own. She’ll need to learn fast just what it takes to bring down a duke.

Rating: B+

Evie Dunmore’s Bringing Down the Duke is the first book in the A League of Extraordinary Women series, and is a very strong début from someone who promises to add a much-needed fresh voice to historical romance.  The writing is sharp and clear, and displays a really good sense of time and place; the characters feel true for the time period, and I was particularly impressed by the heroine, who is forward-thinking and progressive without being one of those contrary-for-the-sake-of-it, look-at-how-unconventional-I-am types who annoy the crap out of me.

Annabelle Archer has lived under the roof of her cousin, a country clergyman, since the death of her parents.  She’s an unpaid skivvy; she keeps house, looks after his children and endures his continual complaints about the fact that her father over-educated her – why on earth would a woman need an education?  So when Annabelle is offered a place at Lady Margaret Hall (in 1878, LMH was the first Oxford college to open its doors to women) he’s  far from pleased, but when she says she’ll fund the cost of a replacement housekeeper (somehow), he begrudgingly allows her to go.

Some months later, we find Annabelle in London with a group of her friends, like-minded young women who, under the leadership of Lady Lucie, secretary of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, are planning to approach various men of influence with a view to getting them to support changes to the Married Women’s Property Act.  The strategy – identify a man of influence, approach him firmly, but with a smile, and deliver a pamphlet boldly declaring The Married Women’s Property Act makes a slave of every wife! – isn’t difficult to grasp, but at this period, just walking up to a gentleman unannounced and unchaperoned wasn’t the done thing and could lead to worse things than a refusal to listen.  Annabelle is understandably nervous, but nonetheless determined to do her bit when she notices a man who appears to be exactly the sort of man of influence she needs to approach.

Sebastian Devereux, thirteenth Duke of Montgomery, is one of the most powerful and respected men in England.  He  has a reputation for being cold and severe, and devotes most of his time to the running of his numerous estates and is particularly concerned at present with regaining possession of his family seat, Castle Montgomery, which his profligate father lost in a card game.  The Queen (who was, sadly, one of the biggest opponents of female emancipation) promises her support for his cause if he will take on the role of chief strategic advisor for the Tory party in the upcoming election – a job he doesn’t have either the time or the inclination to perform.  But he can’t refuse what is tantamount to a royal command.

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

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

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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.

It also affords him an unusual way to court his lady. Knowing of Colleen’s nocturnal activities as an operative for Witherspoon and Associates – a company that handles ‘private matters’ with discretion – her love of a challenge, her ability to move swiftly through London’s shadows and her keen night vision, Nick asks for her help in searching Dr. Farquhar’s laboratory – but their plans are thwarted when they arrive to find the house on fire – and Farquhar missing.

With Nick on the trail of an underground organisation believed to be experimenting on humans in the attempt to prove the existence of shifters, his search for a cure for his sister, and Colleen becoming unwittingly entangled in her uncle’s nefarious dealings, there’s quite a lot going on in this novel, but Ms. Renwick cleverly weaves her plot-threads together, arriving at the climax of the story to expose a truly despicable scheme.  The villain is a really nasty piece of work, and the author creates a strong sense of peril as Colleen and Nick have to use all their ingenuity and determination in order to keep themselves alive and try to find a way out of a seemlngly hopeless situation.  (And there are a few moments that are not for the squeamish!)  I found myself racing through the second half of the book, as the plot twists and pacing kicked up – although the way things were resolved was something of an anticlimax.

A Reflection of Shadows was an entertaining read with a well-constructed plot, a pair of engaging protagonists and a handful of nicely-drawn secondary characters.  I liked Nick and Colleen, who clearly knew and understood one another well and has the good sense to admit they’d met their match in each other.  But on the downside, I felt as though the romantic and character development must have happened in the previous books in the series, because  their relationship here is pretty much a done deal, so what we get is an established couple working together to bring down the bad guys – which is fine; they’re well-matched and work together well.  But it’s not what I was expecting.

The writing is strong and Ms. Renwick can clearly create likeable characters and craft an intriguing plot, but my disappointment in the romance means I can only award the novel a qualified recommendation.  That said, I liked enough about it to be interested in reading more of the author’s work, so I may go back and pick up some of the earlier books in the series at some point.

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

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

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 Scoundrel in Her Bed (Sins for All Seasons #3) by Lorraine Heath (audiobook) – Narrated by Kate Reading

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

The bastard son of a nobleman, Finn Trewlove was a shameful secret raised by a stranger. As Finn came of age, he had secrets, too – the clandestine nights spent with an earl’s daughter. But her promise of forever ended in betrayal.

Driven by a past that haunts her, Lady Lavinia Kent seeks redemption in London’s underworld, engaged in a daring cause inspired by the young man to whom she gave her innocence and who then proved himself a scoundrel by abandoning her.

When their paths cross again, they can’t deny the yearning and desire that still burns. As they discover the truth behind the deceptions that tore them apart, Finn and Lavinia must fight to reclaim what they’ve lost, no matter how dangerous – because love is worth the risk…

Rating: Narration – A : Content – B-

Boy meets girl. Boy gets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy meets girl for the first time in eight years and she knees him in the nads after he defends her from some unsavoury characters. Okay, so that last bit might be a bit of a deviation from the tried-and-tested trope, but the rest is a fairly accurate description of the first part of the plot in Lorraine Heath’s The Scoundrel in Her Bed, book three in the Sins for All Seasons series.

If you’ve read or listened to the previous book (When a Duke Loves a Woman), you may recall that its hero, the Duke of Thornley, was jilted at the altar by his intended, Lady Lavinia Kent. Thornley’s search for Lavinia – because he wanted to make sure she was alright, not because he wanted to force her to marry him – was the starting point for his romance with Gilly Trewlove, owner of the Mermaid and Unicorn Tavern in Whitechapel. In that novel, we learned that Finn, one of Gilly’s four brothers, had a history with Lavinia – and in this one, we learn more about that history and follow them on a difficult and sometimes painful journey as they discover the truth of what happened to separate them, come to know who they are now, and rekindle their romance.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Salt Magic, Skin Magic by Lee Welch (audiobook) – Narrated by Joel Leslie

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

Lord Thornby has been trapped on his father’s isolated Yorkshire estate for a year. There are no bars or chains; he simply can’t leave. His sanity is starting to fray.

When industrial magician John Blake arrives to investigate a case of witchcraft, he finds the peculiar, arrogant Thornby as alarming as he is attractive. John soon finds himself caught up in a dark fairy tale, where all the rules of magic – and love – are changed.

To set Thornby free, both men must face life – changing truths – and John must accept that the brave, witty man who’s winning his heart may also be about to break it. Can they escape a web of magic that’s as perilous as love?

Rating: Narration – A- : Content – A-

This original and entertaining fantasy romance was one of my favourite books of 2018, so I was delighted when I learned I’d be able to experience it again in audio format performed by a narrator I’ve enjoyed listening to on several occasions; it’s always nice to know something you’re looking forward to is unlikely to be a huge disappointment! Salt Magic, Skin Magic is set in a Victorian era in which magic is known about and practiced, and author Lee Welch does a terrific job, right from the opening lines, of pulling the listener into the tale, creating an atmosphere of menace and uncertainty that immediately grabs the attention.

Soren Dezombrey, Viscount Thornby, was happily kicking up his heels living a life of luxury and dissolution in London until his father, the Marquess of Dalton, burst into his home one morning and forced him to return to Raskelf Hall, the family seat in Yorkshire. That happened eighteen months earlier, and Thornby has been unable to leave ever since. He’s not physically restrained in any way, but something stops him each time he gets near the estate boundary; he feels panicky, he’s assailed by all sorts of doubts and fears, his mind keeps telling him there’s something else he should be doing (like the Victorian equivalent of “have I left the iron on?”) – he literally CAN’T leave.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

 

TBR Challenge: Lady of Mallow by Dorothy Eden

This title may be purchased from Amazon

It’s a precarious charade with the highest stakes imaginable. Sarah Mildmay’s entire future rests on exposing the current lord of Mallow as the great pretender he is. Blane Mallow, presumed dead after years at sea, has suddenly returned to claim his title—and the magnificent English estate that rightfully belongs to Sarah’s fiancé, Blane’s cousin Ambrose.

Determined to unmask the imposter, Sarah talks her way into a position as governess to Blane’s son, Titus. At Mallow Hall, she meets Blane’s suspicious wife, Amalie, and the formidable Lady Malvina. But the deception Sarah suspects reveals itself to be far more malevolent and far-reaching than she imagined. As she fights her growing attraction to Blane, the arrival of a stranger sets in motion a series of events that will have deadly consequences. Desperate to protect Titus, Sarah moves closer to a shattering truth: The man she loves may be a cold-blooded murderer . . .

Rating: C+

That synopsis is really misleading, IMO.

The theme for this month’s TBR Challenge is “favourite trope”, and I fancied a good, old-fashioned gothic with bit of a master/governess romance thrown in.  I chose one I bought a while back by an author I haven’t read before, Lady of Mallow by Dorothy Eden;  originally published in 1960, it’s recently been digitally reissued, as have several of the author’s other books.

London is abuzz with gossip about Lord Blane Mallow, who ran away from his Kentish home aged sixteen and hasn’t been seen or heard of in the twenty years since.  Following the death of his father, newspaper articles and pamphlets have been circulated requesting information about the missing heir – and when none was forthcoming, steps were taken to start the process by which he could be declared legally dead and the inheritance – including Mallow Hall – pass to the next heir.  But just when all hope of Blane being found had been given up, he arrived in England, accompanied by his wife and five-year-old son, Titus, and his court case to prove his identity has become something of a cause célèbre.

Among those closely following the court’s progress is Sarah Mildmay, a gently-born but impoverished young lady who has lived with her aunt since the death of her father, an inveterate gambler.  She is secretly engaged to Ambrose, Blane’s cousin, who stands to inherit should the man be declared an imposter.

When the legalities are complete and the court is satisfied that Blane is who he says he is, it’s a huge blow to Sarah and Ambrose’s hopes, as without the Mallow inheritance, they cannot afford to marry.  Sarah is furious but Ambrose refuses to give up, suggesting an audacious plan.  The most recent newspaper article suggests that Blane’s son will need of a governess now the family is going to settle at Mallow Hall – and Ambrose suggests that Sarah should present herself as a potential candidate.  That way, she will be able to snoop about and find the proof of the impostor’s guilt in order to overturn the court’s verdict.

Adventurous of spirit and all too aware of possessing the same liking for taking risks as her late father, Sarah agrees with alacrity and duly presents herself at the Mallows’ London residence.  But she almost falls at the first hurdle when the sallow-faced, overdressed Lady Mallow, displeased with Sarah’s effrontery in just presenting herself without introduction, tells her to leave.  Sarah is on her way out, when a distressed little boy – obviously Titus – literally throws himself at her, clings to her skirts and refuses to let got.  She’s able to soothe the boy and calm him down – at which point the master of the house makes his appearance, and seeing Sarah’s effect on the boy, reverses his wife’s decision and offers her employment.

Blane is brooding, darkly handsome and enigmatic (of course!), his pronouncements are frequently dry and sarcastic, and it quickly becomes clear to Sarah that the Mallow’s marriage is not as it should be. She discovers that the connecting door between the master’s and mistress’ rooms is locked – from his side – and not only that, Lady Mallow’s desperation to gain her husband’s attention (and her temper when she doesn’t get it) are painfully obvious.  Titus is a nervous little boy who is the apple of his grandmother’s eye – and the spitting image of his father at the same age, as proven by one of the family portraits – Lady Malvina (Blane’s mother) is well-meaning, but indiscreet and appears to care more about the fact that having her son home means she is able to get back some of the jewellery that had to be sold and is able to accumulate more; as the story progresses, we begin to see that she has her doubts as to the truth of Blane’s identity, but that her focus was on securing her own position and in gaining access to her grandson.

The story follows a fairly predictable pattern.  There’s an unstable, jealous wife, a mysterious arrival who isn’t what they seem, a dead body in the lake, blackmail, kidnapping – and through it all a heroine whose adventurous spirit, sharp mind and wit is reluctantly drawn to similar qualities in the darkly sardonic hero. Like most of these older gothic romances, he’s pretty much a secondary figure in the story, and he doesn’t share all that many scenes with Sarah until near the end, so readers are given very little to go on as regards the evolution of his feelings for Sarah.  The signs are there, but they’re few and far between, so the end-of-book declaration comes very much out of the blue.  It’s true that he does have to be somewhat removed to keep Sarah – and the reader – guessing as to whether he really is or isn’t Blane Mallow, but still, it makes for an unsatisfying romance.  As we’re in Sarah’s head for most of the book, her feelings are easier to read, although most of the time, she appears to be angry at Blane’s blatant imposition and lies rather than attracted to him. There are hints of her discomfort around him, but otherwise there’s little to go on.

Lady of Mallow held my attention for the time it took me to read it, mostly because I wanted to find out the truth about Blane and I did enjoy the cat-and-mouse game he and Sarah were engaged in; it was obvious he was on to her from the beginning and she knew he was trying to trip her up.  The reveal was rather anticlimactic though, involving one character reciting the events to another and being overheard by Blane and Sarah, and the ending is really abrupt.

The blurb describes Lady of Mallow as a “classic of the genre”, but I’m inclined to disagree.  For a real classic gothic, you can’t beat Daphne du Maurier or Victoria Holt.

 

A Dangerous Collaboration (Veronica Speedwell #4) by Deanna Raybourn

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Lured by the promise of a rare and elusive butterfly, the intrepid Veronica Speedwell is persuaded by Lord Templeton-Vane, the brother of her colleague Stoker, to pose as his fiancée at a house party on a Cornish isle owned by his oldest friend, Malcolm Romilly.

But Veronica soon learns that one question hangs over the party: What happened to Rosamund? Three years ago, Malcolm Romilly’s bride vanished on their wedding day, and no trace of her has ever been found. Now those who were closest to her have gathered, each a possible suspect in her disappearance.

From the poison garden kept by Malcolm’s sister to the high towers of the family castle, the island’s atmosphere is full of shadows, and danger lurks around every corner.

Determined to discover Rosamund’s fate, Veronica and Stoker match wits with a murderer who has already struck once and will not hesitate to kill again…

Rating: B+

Like many a fan of Deanna Raybourn’s series of Victorian-set historical mysteries starring the intrepid lady lepidopterist, Veronica Speedwell, I’m as much drawn to the complicated relationship established between Veronica and her delicious partner-in-crime, Revelstoke Templeton-Vane (Stoker), as I am to the mysteries the pair is called upon to solve in each book.  We’ve watched the couple circle around each other in what has sometimes been a most frustrating push-forward-pull-back dance; the sexual tension between them is incendiary, even though they’ve shared little more than one drug-induced kiss throughout three books, and the author has done a terrific job of developing a relationship between them that is based on far more than their obvious mutual lust.  But there comes a time when even a relationship built on incredibly strong foundations of admiration, respect and trust is no longer enough, not between two people who are so very clearly soul-mates in every sense of the term.  And Veronica and Stoker appear to have reached that point, their good-natured, teasing banter and ease in one another’s company having largely disappeared in this book and been replaced by awkwardness and – sometimes – verbal sparring that has crossed the line from affectionate to keenly barbed.

A Dangerous Collaboration, book four in the series, opens just hours after the previous book concluded.  Right at the end of A Treacherous Curse, it seemed that Veronica and Stoker were on the verge of declarations, but they were interrupted – and within hours, Veronica is packing for an expedition to Madeira. Stoker is – not surprisingly – angry and hurt at Veronica’s sudden decision, but after making an offhand suggestion he shouldn’t bother writing if it’s too much of a bore, and Stoker’s impassive response that he’s quite used to managing alone – she leaves.

Veronica is away for six months, during which time she hears nothing from Stoker – for which she knows she has only herself to blame – but instead of being energised by her expedition, she’s listless and unable to concentrate on her specimen hunting and the articles she’s supposed to be writing.  She wanted time apart from Stoker to try to sort out her tangled feelings and emotions;  she’s always taken pride in not needing anyone, on being her own woman and on not wanting to conform to the ideal of Victorian womanhood and get married and have children.  So she’s struggling to come to terms with the fact that she has, finally, come face to face with the prospect of commitment to one man – and it scares her.

Men were a joy to sample, but a mate would be a complication I could not abide.  At least, this is what I told myself…

Only two days after her return to England, Stoker’s eldest brother, Tiberius, Viscount Templeton-Vane, pays them an unexpected visit.  There’s no love lost between the brothers and Tiberius certainly knows exactly how to push all Stoker’s buttons; yet for all Veronica recognises him for exactly what he is – clever, devious and manipulative – she likes him. Tiberius invites her to accompany him on a journey to a small island off the Cornish coast where she will be able to collect the larvae of an all-but extinct butterfly for her vivarium, which provides the perfect antidote to her former lethargy . She accepts with alacrity, knowing also that the trip will enable her to once again put off facing up to the truth of her feelings for Stoker.

Of course, Tiberius has an ulterior motive in inviting Veronica to St. Madden’s Isle, and knew without a doubt that telling Stoker he wasn’t invited was a sure-fire way to get him there as well.  What transpires is something of an homage to those classic country house mysteries of the 1930s and 40s; a family tragedy and unsolved mystery haunt the Romilly family, the owners of the island and inhabitants of the castle atop it; and amid an unsettling and unsettled family gathering, Veronica and Stoker find themselves once again embroiled in a mystery that poses significant danger for them and those around them.

The mystery is as gripping as ever, the island setting is vividly described and atmospheric, and the supporting characters and their relationships are all extremely well-drawn.  Tiberius is a terrific addition to the cast; a compelling, complex character whose motivations are deeply hidden and whose relationship with Stoker is severely fractured yet somehow strong at the same time.  They don’t like each other very much and their history is complicated, yet they’re so similar in many ways – ways that Veronica can see but which escape both of them:

Stoker and Tiberius were wounded things, both of them still carrying the barbs and venom of the attacks they had suffered at the hands of others.  Stoker was marked in ways he could never escape, both physically and mentally. But for all his wealth and polish, Tiberius was just as damaged.

A Dangerous Collaboration brings the romantic relationship between Veronica and Stoker to the foreground of the story and it’s about time, because I don’t think my nerves could have taken much more of their continual advance-and-retreat!  Ms. Raybourn has done a terrific job in all the books of showing that Stoker is well-and-truly smitten with Veronica, and that she’s strongly physically attracted to him, but of also showing the depth and strength of their friendship, a “mutual understanding beyond anything we had shared with others.”  I must confess, however, that I do sometimes find Veronica a difficult heroine to like.  I admire her – her quick mind, her independent spirit, her life choices and her determination –  all are admirable traits, but sometimes she’s a little too uncompromising to be truly likeable.  And that’s fine – if every character in a book was likeable, chances are it would make for a pretty dull read!  But I didn’t much care for the way Veronica treats Stoker for quite a bit of the book – even though her motivations are very clear and she’s obviously terribly conflicted – and I can’t deny that I was more than a little bit pleased when Stoker started to get some of his own back, because of course, he knows exactly what Veronica is doing and isn’t above playing the game.

A Dangerous Collaboration is certain to entertain and, if you’ve been following the series since the beginning, cause a widespread sigh of relief at certain developments 😉 I hope Stoker gets to bring his “plans” for Veronica once they return to London to fruition before they get drawn into another mystery – which, given the hints dropped, may well be their most challenging one yet!