Like an overstuffed fruit basket, this first in Bateman’s new series is spilling over with crowd-pleasing tropes. There’s the sensible, independent-minded heiress, Georgiana Caversteed, who, wishing to escape the distasteful courtship of her worthless cousin Josiah, decides to take herself off the market by marrying, in darkest night, a condemned convict from Newgate Prison. Because that is exactly the best strategy for eluding money-grasping kin.
The ruggedly healthy-looking “convict” she marries is Benedict Wylde, war hero, rogue about town, partner in a fashionable new gaming club co-owned by two other handsome war heroes (lending themselves immediately to series potential), and younger brother to the impoverished Earl of Morcott, whose fortunes he is trying to help repair by doing odd jobs for the Bow Street Runners. Thus the reason he is undercover in Newgate, trying to find out about a smuggler he’s been tracking. So, just to recap: nobility AND war hero AND rogue AND spy. But not a convict, as Georgiana will find when she spots him across a crowded ballroom and realizes her husband is not in Australia after all. And they are legally, bindingly married.
The tropes are familiar and just keep coming; it feels like Bateman has rifled all my favorite supporting characters from all my favorite Georgette Heyer novels. There’s the widowed Mama who obsesses about her daughters’ marriages and her nerves. There’s the pin-up younger sister who is also funny and smart. There’s the weedy young man who produces terrible poetry. There are the loyal sidekicks who are brave and handsome, the clever street rat who bites coins he is given in exchange for information. There is the conventional villain, who violates all sense of family loyalty or morality and proves himself capable of kidnap, burglary, attempted murder, and threats of sexual predation. And there are also ballrooms, nighttime hijinks in libraries to steal blueprints, secret assignations at the club, a submarine, and a secret plan to spring Napoleon from exile. There are so many borrowings from all my favorite romance-spy books that one feels, at some points, breathlessly dragged along by it all.
But it’s a fun ride. For all their familiarity, the tropes in Bateman’s book feel fresh and winning in their combination. Georgiana is feisty and intelligent, loving and loyal to her family, and doesn’t mind being the sensible older sister, though she does mind all the fortune hunters. And she loves being a shipping heiress. The antics at the docks, when Georgiana shows Benedict her boats and warehouses, are one place where the historical setting feels real and vibrant; when she dipped her arm into a barrel of tea, I thought, now that’s new.
And Ben, or Wylde, or Benedict, hits all the right notes as the hero; he’s sexy, and he thinks Georgiana’s sexy, but he loves her for her mind and her feistiness, not her money or her body. The sex is sensual, consensual, and–it goes without saying–there are showers of stars. All in all, as is characteristic of historical romance these days–and thank goodness for it–the characters are uninhibited by real Regency attitudes about women and sex and are refreshingly, delightfully modern in their equality, respect, and mutual enjoyment of passion. Bateman’s book is fast, fun, not too dark, and puts its poignant emotional beats in all the right places. As historical romance should, it lets readers act out their fantasies in period dress, but without all the grimy and uncomfortable aspects of 19th century life. It’s delightful fun & I already can’t wait for Book 2.