Jericho fucking Barrons, man.
That was literally what popped into my mind within the first few chapters of this book. And thank god for Jericho fucking Barrons, (and this is the most reluctant admittance I will ever make) because thanks to him, I came to appreciate Truman a lot more than I otherwise would have, and I hung onto this book despite my initial reservations as to his character. (And Rachel's character, at that.)
This is Pride & Prejudice meets North & South, thankfully, without the verbosity of the latter, without having to navigate the social landmines (however enjoyable) of the former. It really helps if you picture the delicious Richard Armitage as Truman Stanhope, Earl of Druridge.
My friend's review got me interested in this book. According to her, "Novak managed to avoid every single overused trope and theme that HR fans have ever complained about." Well, this got my eyebrows raised. I am a fan of the Historical Romance genre, it's my comfort read, mainly because the genre is so predictable. You are given a heroine who is more or less likeable, a rake of a love interest who is determined as hell to avoid marriage, or as some would term it, "the noose." You get predictable conflicts. You get a happily ever after. The plot is but an afterthought in between all the sexual tension and fucking. Without a doubt, 99.7% of HR falls into this category.
As it turned out, my friend was right. This book falls into that ever-so-rare 0.3% in its originality, in its complexity of characters, in the relevance of its plot, which never takes a backseat to the romance. Screw your London season, your tea parties, your pretty dresses, your glorious ugly duckling transformations, your conniving and snooty Ladies and Gents, your rakes, your gambling hells. I'll take the mining town of Creswell any day.
You know the thing about first impressions? It turns out, they're not always right. Our first impression of Truman, Earl of Druridge, is not a good one, to put it lightly. We meet him on a dark, stormy night. We know that he is the earl. We know he is furious, livid with rage. At whom? None other than his wife, Katherine. His very, very pregnant wife, Katherine. Whose child is most likely not his. He is simmering with violence, irrational through his threats, barely able to hold onto his sanity. Um, what? It took me until the first chapter to realize that this violent, angry man is one of our main characters, our heroine's love interest. There's a lot of things he wants to do to his wife once he gets home to see her, none of it pleasant.
...maybe once the baby was born, he’d have her committed to Bedlam.
You could hear the gears in my head grind to a halt. BEDLAM? BEDLAM? AN INSANE ASYLUM FOR A WIFE WHO BETRAYED HIM? Are you fucking serious? I'm supposed to like a man who would commit his wife to a hell of an institution for the mentally ill against her will? Llet's face it, 19th century insane asylums are not a pleasant place to be, and any man who would do such a thing becomes instantly reprehensible in my eyes. I'm not going to like this guy.
As it turned out, his love interest and our other main character isn't exactly instantly likeable either. The beginning is highly, highly reminiscent of Pride & Prejudice on steroids, because there is little to no gentility nor civility in the interactions between our main characters. Rachel is actually the personification of pride and prejudice. She is a poor miner's daughter; as educated she is, and genteel as she acts, Rachel is solidly on the bottom ring of society. She is educated, but she is not without her inborn prejudices, her hate of the upper class, particularly against Truman, the man who owns the mine that has been the downfall of so many in her family and her town.
I absolutely loved how well depicted, how complex both Rachel's character and Truman's characters were written. Neither are perfect; they are both far, far removed from perfection. He is not a man at peace, having been accused of murder, and desperate to clear his name and maintain his family's holdings. His desperation leads him to anger many times, but at heart, he is a good man, and I thoroughly felt his character and his complexity throughout the book. This is no Regency fop. This is no rake. This is a real man, trying to do what's right.
Truman and Rachel work so well together, they are such a wonderful pair in that they confront each others' flaws instead of tiptoeing around it. There is plenty of angst and brooding, this book is rife with sexual tension, filled with brooding romance, but Rachel and Truman are more than a couple of horny adults. They grow with each other, they confront each other's weaknesses, they are a truly well-matched pair. There is no politeness, no following of society's conventions. They speak their minds, and I loved them for it. Their initial encounters are tense, rigid with anger simmering beneath the surface, filled with misunderstandings and unspoken distrust.
"Do you think I felt no betrayal when my wife slept with other men? Do you think it wasn’t painful to be taunted by the knowledge of it? To receive the bland smiles of those I considered my friends, who had taken my wife into their beds? That I could not feel—that I still do not feel—the loss of my son, a life I valued more than my own?” His fingers tightened almost painfully on her arm.
“Stop, you’re hurting me,” she said, but he wasn’t hurting her. Not yet. She was just afraid he would. The pressure of his grip eased, but still Rachel could not twist out of his grasp.
“Not until you answer me. Do only the poor feel pain, Miss McTavish, while the rich know nothing but peace and happiness? By your own admission, you are an educated woman. Please, do not try to sell me that bag of rot.”
The dynamics change as they grow to like, then trust, then eventually love each other. But that love does not come cheaply. The danger is still there, the noose still threatens Truman's neck if he does not find the true murderer. The town itself is on edge against the Earl and his ownership of the mines. There is the constant knowledge of the social barrier between their love. There is so much within this book, and I loved almost every word of it.
What prevented this book from a perfect 5 is its plot, and to an extent, the one-dimensionality of its villain. I could guess the "whodunnit" relatively quickly, and I was disappointed throughout the book with how one-dimensional the villain in this book was made to be. It wasn't a huge complaint, but compared to the care given to the other minor characters in the book, it was disappointing to have such a major character be so steoretypically, irredeemably bad.
There were other parts of the plot that never quite made sense to me, like the mystery surrounding the missing paintings. Other parts crucial to the climax seemed rather rushed, and the action scenes were poorly written compared to the rest of the novel. The ending was rushed, and it doesn't feel like it quite fit in the context of the book.
This book was regardless an amazing read, and held my attention from start to finish. Without a doubt, it stands out and holds its own among the many, many absolutely generic historical romance novels out there.