Every time I've decided to sit down and write this review, I became distracted. I'd pull out my copy of The Mésalliance, notes, and highlights, and then a strange thing would happen. I'd begin to read a passage I loved and pretty soon the review, and all else to be honest, was forgotten. Three times now, this has happened. One minute I would have a million thoughts waiting to be translated to somewhat coherent sentences, and then poof! I was lured right into reading the entire book. Again. And again. So perhaps distracted is not exactly correct. Ensorcelled? Fascinated? Mesmerized? Bewitched? All of the above? Now, I have battened down my hatches, girded things that need girding, clicked my ruby red slippers three times, and I'm hoping some sort of review will really happen this time. No guarantees, however.
I love/adore Georgian historical romances. It's an era that's so rich, so flamboyant and lusty and liberated. And, oh, those exquisite fashions for both men and women - hoopskirts and panniers, corsets, petticoats, clocked stockings, snuff/patch boxes, red-heeled shoes with diamond buckles, and, of course, longer hair for men. *sigh* Where's my DeLorean? How could I not enjoy The Mésalliance? And I did. At last count, three times. Oh, yes, indeed. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
Like the first meeting between Tracy Giles Wynstanton, fourth Duke of Rockliffe, and Adeline Mary Kendrick. She's just a sixteen year old wild child, and he's a twenty-eight year old seasoned soldier. Tracy has not yet assumed the ducal title and is visiting his "most distant and least favourite estate" in Northumberland, Redesdale. He escaped the heat of London while on furlough from an injury, avoids his garrulous bailiff, Mr. Forne, as much as possible, and is hopeful of returning to his army regiment soon. He's intrigued by the barefoot Adeline as much as he's dismissive of the "untidy child of incredible simplicity" who's "all eyes and mouth and wildly disordered nut-brown hair." Adeline likewise is fascinated by Tracy. Fascinated by his gentleness and kindness and calm reassurance the few times they accidentally meet. Though not experienced with either "gentlemen" or kindness, Adeline recognizes both qualities in Tracy. It's an unusual meeting without any of the banality.
Eight years pass before Tracy and Adeline meet again at a house party, and their second meeting holds an element of disappointment and shock at the changes in both of them. After her grandfather's death, Adeline is shunted off to live with her aunt, Lady Franklin, and identical twin cousins, Diana and Anthea (or "Dianthea, the stomach disorder"), shades of Cinderella. Adeline is not treated as family but as a servant at the beck and call of her aunt, intimidated by her Uncle Richard, and subjected to Diana's whims and tantrums. Her aunt and her brother, Adeline's Uncle Richard, scolded, locked away, and then beat the wild, gypsy child in Adeline into submission, but though she conformed and shored up her defenses for self protection, she also discovered a more subtle way to rebel: by combining "apparent docility with an under-current of clever, hard to combat acidity." Tracy ("Rock") is disillusioned to see the "unspoilt, sensitive, and fragile" creature from eight years ago has been replaced with a sharp-tongued, bitter woman. But Tracy doesn't know why she's changed; he merely sees the effects of seven years of having to hide her true self.
Meeting long-lashed aquamarine eyes filled with detached irony and set beneath narrow, winged brows, his first thought was that she was changed beyond recognition ... and his second, that he would have known her anywhere. The eyes and the voice were the same; it was only the suggestion of frosted bitterness that was new. (26)
All that remained was a cold-eyed woman with a barbed tongue - a fact that left him feeling faintly cheated until he remembered that painful flush, swiftly followed by flight. (27)
Likewise, Adeline's memory of the kind, young gentleman is replaced by a man who lashes out at Adeline in his anger and disappointment, words which Tracy later regrets and are a source of embarrassment for him.
He smiled at her with what at least two persons present recognized as dangerous benevolence and said gently, 'Perhaps you did indeed have just cause for doubting my ability to place you. After all, I'm compelled to acknowledge that I find you considerably changed.' He paused and conducted a leisurely head to foot appraisal. 'You appear, for example, to have discovered the benefits of wearing shoes - an achievement on which I can only congratulate you.' (27)
Adeline recognizes this man, the Duke of Rockliffe, is not Tracy. He is a man of her aunt's social strata, a stranger to her, remote, untouchable. This man with his practiced manner, courtly bows, elaborate mode of dress, snuff box, powdered hair, and subtle sarcasm was foreign to her. Eight years ago, he had demonstrated no artifice. His dark hair, sometimes so black "it glinted blue in the sun", had been natural, without powder. All of the changes are encapsulated in his powdered hair.
She remembered wanting, more than anything to touch it - but, of course, she never had. And now he chose to wear it powdered ... and stupidly, illogically, she had felt disappointed. (38)
And yet, she knows he was ashamed of the way he humiliated her in front of her aunt and her aunt's guests. And he tries to understand "why" she's different. Through all the conflict in these first meetings, the mutual attraction, whether wanted or not, is never in question. They strike sparks off each other and seem to be perfectly matched, in temperament, in wit, and in intelligence. I didn't even wonder why poor Tracy wasn't sure whether he wanted to kiss Adeline or shake her or why Adeline felt she needed to avoid Tracy.
I loved their separate moments of recognition, two moments at different times but that complement the other, moments in which they each see in the other a flash of their familiar selves from eight years ago. The sense of loss is replaced with an affirmation and confirmation of who they were and are separately and what they may become together. It's a reassurance for both that whatever the obstacles between them, they are simply Tracy and Adeline.
This time it was no fleeting brush of the lips. This time, he took what he had been wanting to take for a week; and Adeline, stunned as much by the suddenness of it as by the feel of his body against hers, found herself powerless to resist.
Slowly releasing her, Rockliffe looked into eyes that were no longer coolly composed but startled, confused and a little shy. Eyes that belonged less to the woman she was now than to the girl she had been eight years ago. ‘Ah,’ he thought. ‘Yes. There you are.’ (87-88)
Rockliffe emerged from the breakfast-room. His coat was of plain black cloth and, beneath it, his shirt was open at the neck and worn without cravat or vest. But it wasn’t his clothes that stopped her mid-step and made her forget to breathe. His hair, apparently freshly washed, was unpowdered … and black as a raven’s wing. The air froze in her lungs, something lurched behind her blue dimity bodice and she thought foolishly, ‘Oh. There you are.’ (116)
The Mésalliance is, to me, more Tracy's book than Adeline's. By that I mean, it is his character who undergoes more of a transformation than Adeline. She has to learn to trust, a hard battle and a difficult journey on its own, and it is her sense of unworthiness and lack of trust that allows a blackmail scheme instigated by her Uncle Richard to become the barrier between her and Tracy. It is also at the center of a series of misunderstandings and the impetus for the "Dark Moment", or the "point of ritual death" (Regis, The Natural History of the Romance Novel) and emotional separation between Tracy and Adeline throughout the second half of The Mésalliance.
Tracy's metamorphosis, however, is so very dramatic. A major part of my enjoyment of The Mésalliance was watching Tracy with his vaunted self-control, self-possession, charm, confidence, elegance (with just a touch of ennui, don't you know), a man who defines the word "languid" in both deed and word, a man whose rapier wit and laconic manner of delivery comes completely undone.
He is a kind man, a patient man, meticulous in his manners, tasteful and a trendsetter in his mode of dress. He is a loyal and supportive friend and brother. He is a man who eschews violence but who can deliver a stinging rebuff in a soft dangerous tone of voice with a modicum of words. For example, Tracy admonishes Adeline to be civil when her aunt and her self-absorbed cousin, Diana, come to London for the season. But, he can't resist one of his double-edged barbs to put Lady Franklin and Diana in their place.
And then, as the girls moved away, "Poor Thea is so timid, I sometimes despair of her. I only wish she could acquire just a fraction of dear Diana's confidence."
'I am sure you must do,' agreed Rockliffe sympathetically. 'And vice versa.'
Lady Franklin continued to gaze up at the Duke with faintly baffled suspicion for a moment and then gave it up. (148)
And then there are his snuff-boxes. Ah, me. These little trinkets are not simply accessories to be coordinated with the proper jacket and waistcoat. Be they Sèvres or "silver gilt decorated in the Florentine style", a Wedgwood beauty, a pretty enameled bauble, or a fine old ivory trifle from Paris, these little boxes are his way of deflecting the too personal question, buying time, a relief from boredom, an object of meditation, the opening gambit in a search for information, and a million other uses. In other words, snuff-boxes are to Tracy what the little blue blanket is to Linus van Pelt in Peanuts.
Over the course of the second half of The Mésalliance, his closest friendships with two men are strained to the breaking point for no greater reason than he is a man at his wits end trying to court his wife, knowing something is wrong and realizing she won't or can't share the problem with him but turns instead to his friends. The man who cooly dismissed a tempestuous mistress without lifting an elegant eyebrow is . . .jealous. Of his friends, Jack and Harry.
'I don’t know what the two of you have quarrelled about and I don’t want to know –but the sooner you make it up, the better for all of us.’ He grinned suddenly. ‘You may not have realised it, but you’re not the only sufferer. It’s making him extremely touchy and putting a nasty edge on his tongue.’
‘Dear me,’ drawled a soft, mocking voice, ‘Who can you mean, I wonder?’
'I find I object...rather strongly...to both curiosity and interference. And - much though I may regret it - I am quite willing to press the point, if necessary.' He paused, meeting Jack's gaze with cold amusement. 'I'm sure you understand me.'
'Oh for God's sake, stop being so damned ridiculous,' came the irritable and largely unexpired retort. 'I've told you before - it'll be a cold day in hell before I let you provoke me into crossing swords with you. And particularly over something like this.'
'Still craven, Jack?'
'No. Still sensible.'
'Ah. And do you consider it sensible to closet yourself away with my wife for a full fifteen minutes?'asked his Grace sweetly. 'For, if so, I believe I must acquaint you with your mistake.' (252-253)
‘Well!’ exclaimed Harry with dry humour. ‘Am I allowed to sit down –or had I best take myself off to the other room?'
‘That,’ replied his Grace, ‘rather depends on what you want to talk about.’
‘Oh –I’ll be dumb, never fear. Though it would be a damned sight easier if I knew exactly what’s eating you.’
‘What is all this?’ asked Lord Amberley, laughing. ‘Do you know, Jack?’
‘It looks,’ observed Mr Ingram, ‘rather like a quarrel.’
‘Lord, no! Nothing of the sort,’ said Harry, seating himself. ‘You have to talk to each other for that.’ (244)
At a saner level beneath his involuntary jealousy, Rockliffe was well aware where Harry’s heart lay and, although this did not help him in his dealings with Adeline, it did make it possible for him to tacitly heal the breach with his lordship.
‘But he made damned sure I wouldn’t dare ask any awkward questions,’ confided Harry later to Nell. ‘Gave me the sort of smile you usually see over a yard of steel and advised me –ever so gently, mind –not to meddle. Then he showed me his newest snuff-box.’ (246)
The climax, so to speak, is at a very public venue - the Queensbury House Ball - among a few hundred of the crème de la crème of London Society. Though Tracy gives the appearance of a man in control at the beginning of the evening, dressed in his finest, he's a man who loses every bit of his control in just a few hours.
". . . elegantly saturnine in silver-laced black with the Order of the Garter displayed upon his chest and diamonds winking on his fingers and in his cravat. As always, his hair was confined at the nape in long sable ribbons - to which, tonight, was added a narrow diamond clasp; and as had been his habit again in recent weeks, it was thickly powdered." (263)
By the end of the evening, he has raised his voice, raised a little hell, lured Diana the viper into revealing her true colors to all and sundry, delivered a look so intimidating to poor Adeline she flees the ballroom, separated the villainous Uncle Richard from a few of his teeth, promised a fate worse than death if Richard Horton and his "hell-born niece" ever come near Adeline ever again, and chased Adeline down to his country estate at Wynstanton Priors.
Remember the silver-laced black brocade coat, diamonds, etc.? When he finds Adeline, he's covered in dust from the road, his right sleeve is "partially adrift", the Garter is missing as well as the lace at his wrists. The diamonds are probably scattered like breadcrumbs from London to the Priors. In place of his elegant buckled shoes, he's now wearing top boots, and his hair, still bearing faint traces of powder, is "hopelessly windswept." Tracy, it is fair to say, isn't a happy camper at the moment. He has unraveled in a most spectacular and very public way.
"So far, I've lost my temper, my finesse and a particularly fine snuff-box. I've bruised my knuckles, winded my favorite mare and missed my breakfast. But what I have not done is ride forty miles in a guise I can only describe as lamentable, merely for the pleasure of your conversation. Let's go." (280)
This is my first book by Stella Riley, and I thoroughly enjoyed every word despite a little disappointment that Adeline was so completely cowed and intimidated by her Uncle Richard and his blackmail scheme in the last half of the book as well as her inability to be honest with Tracy and place her trust in him once and for all. Tracy gave her every reason to believe he would not judge her poorly for the skeletons in her closet, and he generously gave her so many opportunities to enlist his assistance. She justifies her actions as protecting the man she loved, ensuring his name was never tainted with her scandal. I understood that in one respect, and that it led to a more disordered, unraveled, slightly messy Tracy made it a little easier to swallow. I'm ecstatic that there are two more books in this series - The Parfit Knight (Rockliffe #1) and The Player (Rockliffe #3) as well as the possibility of a fourth in the series in the future. Life is very good indeed!
First person POV works for me so rarely that I tend to avoid most books written in that POV, except if it's written by Alexis Hall. Alexis Hall knows his characters (and his readers as I learned in Glitterland and Waiting For The Flood) so I find myself easily pulled in to the stories and characters in such emotional ways. For Real has, in fact, dual 1st person POV, but Toby and Laurie each have such a very different way of speaking and thinking that I never had to backtrack to figure out which one was "speaking." Toby's voice - young, exuberant, cheeky, passionate - was recognizably distinct from Laurie's - quiet, measured, calm - and vice versa, and I love both characters almost equally. I couldn't choose which one I identified with more because, frankly, I saw parts of myself (at one time of my life or another) in Toby's self-doubts and vulnerability and in Laurie's dissatisfaction with the state of his life and his self-preservation instincts. Part of the beauty in Alexis Hall's writing and characterization is that I could hear each character very clearly and their individual voices.
For Real is an erotic romance with kink, a kink that may not be for everybody. I haven't read a ton of BDSM erotic romance, though some have made it to my "In Case of Fire" shelf, but a lot have not. But hey, the kink here worked for me. Go figure. Maybe whether it works or not for me is a little like that exchange between the Pope and Michelangelo in that old Monty Python skit, "The Penultimate Supper." The Pope calls the artist in to berate him for using artistic license in "The Last Supper" because there are 28 disciples, 3 christ figures (one skinny and two fat to balance), a possible kangaroo, and maybe a trampoline act. The Pope yells that he wants a painting that has 12 disciples, one Christ, no kangaroo, no waiters, no friends, no cabaret, yelling "I may not know much about art, but I know what I like." Michelangelo counters all of the Pope's objections simply and enthusiastically selling his vision because "It works, mate!" So that's what I'll say. The kink in For Real just works, mate!
If I have to come up with a more thoughtful reason as to why it works for me, I think it's because the sex was more than just a series of titillating kinky sex scenes. It was merely the way Toby and Laurie give and receive pleasure. It moved their story forward, it was an integral part in how they maneuvered other aspects of their relationship, and was that needed link, a bridge connecting them in an elemental, personal way, one that allowed them to build their relationship emotionally as well as physically. It was never just for titillation, not a prop, and not the star of this show.
My guest, my shame, my fantasy princeling, was tucked at one end of the tub, legs drawn up to his chest, so all I could see were the pale humps of his knees and shoulders rising from the bubbles. He grinned at me. “I wouldn’t really make you read Winnie-the-Pooh.”
I sensed some kind of trap, but I had no idea what form it might take. “I’m glad to hear it.”
There was a brief pause. He trailed a finger idly through the foam, making ribbons. “I’d make you read something else.”
I was determined not to ask him what. That would have been entirely foolish.
“How about . . .” His eyes gleamed at me. “How about . . . ‘Thou shalt bind his bright eyes though he wrestle, Thou shalt chain his light limbs though he strive; In his lips all thy serpents shall nestle, In his hands all thy cruelties thrive.’”
I curled an arm over the edge of the bath and hid my face in the crook of my elbow. I couldn’t bear him to see me right then, stripped tenderly to the bone by the blade of his voice.
“‘In the daytime thy voice shall go through him, In his dreams he shall feel thee and ache; Thou shalt kindle by night and subdue him. Asleep and awake.’”
The sound I made, muffled though it was, echoed off the tiles until it seemed infinitely loud, infinitely helpless. I had no idea what he was reciting, but the words hooked into me like thorns.
And, yes, for his wishing and for his pleasure, I would have recited them. For my merciless, smiling prince” (29-30)
The heart of For Real is the romance: finding love, working through those new relationship conflicts and differences, negotiating the physical and emotional needs of the couple in the relationship so that both become comfortable and at ease with each other, learning to trust each other. Toby and Laurie have lots of issues to work through due to their age differences (Laurie is 37, Toby is 19) as well as disparate social and professional lives (Toby works in a diner as a cook and a university dropout, Laurie is doctor). Their differences are never more apparent than during this conversation about Toby's "five fathers."
“Good God,” Laurie mutters. I’m kind of worried about how he’s taking this, but I’ve started so I have to finish.
“Anyway, a bunch of them came forward afterwards, because it was all scandalous and cool, and about five of them stuck around on a sort of irregular rotation.”
“And you didn’t think to get a DNA test?” I don’t like the careful way Laurie says it.
“Dude, I didn’t care about whose spunk it was, I just wanted someone to stand up and say, ‘Me.’ When I was like nine or something, I was so sick of it I called everyone together, and I was like, ‘No more part-time dads. Choose.’” I need something to do with my hands, so I take a big gulp of wine I don’t want. And then I grin as I deliver the punch line. “So none of them stayed.” (212)
These roadblocks alone would be enough to bring a snap/crackle of tension and heart wrenching emotion into the mix, but they also have to work out a Dom/Sub-relationship-with-a-twist: Toby - much younger, lacking self-confidence, less physically imposing - is the dom, Laurie - older, taller, more experienced - is the sub. Of all these obstacles - the age difference, the social and professional differences, the basic personality differences - things that just about guarantee a very rocky road to get to "happy together", their sexual relationship is the one that fell more easily and quickly into a mutually satisfying place. Honestly, I spent more time being worried about whether Laurie was ever going to allow himself to love Toby and whether Toby would really allow Laurie to truly know him. Toby had a few surprises for Laurie over the course of the book and really catches Laurie off guard during a trip to Oxford.
“Jasper pushes away most of his crumble tart—a serious waste, if you ask me—and pulls his wineglass closer. He rests an elbow on the table, which you’re not supposed to do, and cups his chin in his hand as he looks at me with his pretty eyes and this faint, unreadable smile. “I’ve decided I adore you, Tobermory. Which poets do you favour?”
He makes it easy to forget there’s a whole world beyond him. “All sorts, really.”
“Don’t play hard to get. It doesn’t suit you.”
“Oh, all right. I like . . . the metaphysical poets, especially Donne and Marvell. And the Earl of Rochester. And François Villon. And Byron. And Gerard Manley Hopkins.” (214-215)
Even the secondary characters are so very well drawn. For instance, I adored Toby's grandfather and loved the relationship between these two that was at times funny and poignant but always so very positive and supportive. Toby's relationship with his grandfather is a testament about how someone can change, become a better person. Jasper and Sherry are very intriguing characters whom I hope will be revisited and explored in a future "Spires" book, especially Jasper. And, of course, Sam and Grace, Laurie's friends. Even Robert, Laurie's ex, felt more than merely a placeholder for the ex that broke Laurie's heart.
I lovedlovedloved the part when Laurie begins to admit to himself how important Toby is to his happiness, how essential, how Laurie's focus sharpens from impersonal to very personal materializing in the way he "sees" Toby much more clearly:
“I usually rationed my looking, not wanting to reveal too much of my foolishness, my fondness, but now I indulged. Revelled, even. He looked different in daylight, paler and brighter and sharper all at the same time, as though he was finally fully in focus. I could even see traces of the man he would become in the set of his jaw and the curve of his cheek. But for now, he was just Toby, my Toby—blue-sky eyes and fading acne, his generous smile, his slightly retroussé nose.” (178)
The dynamics between Laurie and Toby - the way they work through their issues - the passion the romance (and the Rochester references and Swinburne's "Dolores" snippets didn't hurt one little bit either), and all the angsty parts just worked together so well and very effectively in showing how these two need each other, complement each other. And it becomes "for real" for Laurie when he and Toby dance on the quad at Oxford.
“I’ve never called myself a gentleman.” He sounds stern, but then he smiles and kisses me lightly. “I like watching you dance.”
“Dance with me. It’s way more fun.” (223-224)
“I talk him through the basic steps and then guide him into them. At first he doesn’t trust me, doesn’t trust himself, won’t relax, or can’t, falls over my feet, his own feet, bits of perfectly flat ground, and he stands on my toes, like, a lot. (224)
I’m just starting to think I’ve made a terrible mistake when he . . .there isn’t another word for it . . . he surrenders, and we’re dancing. Slow, slow-quick-quick-slow, slow-quick-quick-slow, slow-quick-quick-slow. He even lets me throw in a couple of natural turns and a back lock without freezing or stumbling or mushing my feet into the dust.” (225)
“I told you, I can’t dance.”
I pull him back into hold. “Nuh-uh, you don’t dance. There’s a difference.”
“Not to me, there isn’t.”
I try to think of something that would be good for a quickstep and hum the opening of “Walking on Sunshine.”
Laurie turns into marble. “And certainly not to Katrina and the Waves.”
Apparently not. I peer up at him—the man I love and can’t call boyfriend. I think of him on his knees. How he touches me. How he looks at me. The sadness in him and the secret joy he gives only to me. All the ways he makes me powerful.
All the ways he doesn’t really know me.
Now I know what we should dance to. “‘Dear, when you smiled at me, I heard a melody . . .’”
And Laurie smiles, and we dance, and it’s a fucking disaster. Since I kind of have to concentrate a bit on singing, I can’t count at the same time, and so Laurie keeps getting lost, and it’s like our bodies have completely forgotten how to move together.
I’m just about to call the whole thing off, when—
“‘Zing! Went the strings of my heart.’”
Another voice joins mine. A way better voice, an effortless tenor belonging to someone who can actually sing. It’s Jasper, leaning in the archway that leads back to the cloisters, wineglass in one hand, cigarette in the other.
Laurie and I collide. Stare at him. He gives us an airy little carry on gesture, like this is totally normal.
So we put our arms around each other again. I lead and Laurie follows and Jasper sings, and there’s moonlight, and we dance and dance and dance until we fly and my heart is so zing, I can’t even.” (225-226)
*sniffle* I can't even either. Your really need to read For Real, um, for real. Now.
I read Stygian by Santino Hassell a few weeks ago, and immediately read it once more, just to allow the story, the characters, the layers of meaning and superb writing to sink in. Though this is my first book by this writer, it surely will not be the last. Stygian has elements I would normally not be drawn to - it's YA (not that I'm a snob about it, it's just not my fist choice in sub-genres), and the main characters are members of a rock band (again, nothing against it, it's just not my preferred poison. I'm more a historical gal with the pretty frocks and balls and musical evenings and men in cravats and waistcoats. Oh, and kisses stolen in a shadowy garden). Plus, it has paranormal elements, specifically vampires, which, again, is not a thing I actively seek out in books these days. Once upon a time I lived and breathed only for vampire stories, but I may have OD'ed on them back in the day. So how did I end up reading this book and loving every word of it? I read a review of Stygian at Inglorious Bitches (https://ingloriousbitches.wordpress.com/2015/11/11/stygian-by-santino-hassell-a-rocking-gothic-paranormal-romance/) and was curious to read more from a writer who could elicit this very enthusiastic response from one of the reviewers:
"The old man who speaks to Jeremy in the parking lot is described “The man had a Benson & Hedges voice” – I mean that’s seven words and Hassell has created a complete character with them and that, in my book is absolute talent."
My reader's heart went boom boom boom when I read that sentence because I could immediately visualize that old man without ever having read one page of the book itself. It was just that vivid and succinct. The reviewers also spoke glowingly of how the horror element was centered more on the psychological thriller aspects rather than a reinvention, or worse, a repetition of, the vampire mythos. Yet again. Yawn. But the big hook, the ultimate reason I decided to give this writer and this book a try is because the reviewers remarked on its Southern Gothic atmosphere. I was on full alert by this time and cautiously eager to read something from a new-to-me writer.
I dearly love Southern Gothic though it's probably not the most well-known genre. I dare say if you ask 100 people what Southern Gothic is, you would get 100 different answers. However, the funniest and truest definition of Southern Gothic I’ve ever read is embodied in this quote by Pat Conroy:
“My mother, Southern to the bone, once told me, ‘All Southern literature can be summed up in these words: On the night the hogs ate Willie, Mama died when she heard what Daddy did to Sister.”
Yes, indeed. That's it in a nutshell. Carnivorous homicidal swine, a questionable relationship between father and daughter culminating in a tragic death of a mother figure. Perfect. It's dysfunctional family stories on steroids, it's bizarre and weird, it's dramatic in a way uniquely its own, it's tangled up in history and tradition and challenges to tradition. Sometimes it's funny, sometimes heartbreakingly sad, and sometimes it's both at the same time. But always, always entertaining. And so, here I am.
Stygian is a truly wonderful book. Santino Hassell created complex characters in Jeremy, Kennedy, Watts, and Quince. Jeremy is the "outsider" in the group, the new kid trying to fill the shoes of a long-time member who died in a car crash and feeling like a failure most of the time. Plus, he's in love with tough, emotionally closed off Kennedy who appears not to return those tender feelings even a smidge. Jeremy fits the SG hero to a T: the outcast, someone who is outside the norm. Though he was close to his brother, Luke, Jeremy really has no family left after Luke committed suicide. He has had little or no contact with his "mentally unstable" father or that side of the family. His mother shipped him off after Luke's death to a religious fanatic uncle who attempted to exorcise a demon from Jeremy after his emotional meltdown.
Jeremy woodenly raised one shoulder: "My mother's family is full of religious fanatics, and the Black family, my dad's side, is made up of drunken, depressed lunatics who...believe in weird mystical shit." (34)
Religious fanatics and drunken depressed lunatics? Yep. That's Southern Gothic at its finest. If you haven't read Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear It Away, you should. Crazy zealot uncle is present and accounted for in that story too.
However, all of them - Jeremy, Kennedy, Quince, and Watts as well as Laurel and Hunter Caroway - are all outsiders. The members of Stygian are truly people who have no roots to ground them, no family to speak of other than each other, nobody who will miss them if they just...disappear. Like Watts, moody as hell, who appears to be such a jackass with his unending sniping at Jeremy, treating Quince as if he's his personal sex toy, an object to alleviate his boredom or frustration, having conniptions at the drop of a hat, and generally just acting like a prima donna blaming everyone but himself for the mess the band is in and their lack of progress on a sophomore album. A trust fund baby whose "family" cared more for the trappings of wealth and status. But that's not all Watts is.
"Why the hell do you think he holds on so tight to this band and freaks out when he thinks things are going wrong?" The sound of a striking match followed the question, and the smell of sulfur filled the air. "Whether the crash was his fault or not, I do know Watts is barely keeping it together. The music and the band, me and Quince - we're his glue. Even if I'm tired of the responsibility." (37)
Or Quince whose child-like enthusiasm is so engaging and heartbreaking, whose past includes a string of foster homes, a propensity for larceny, and yet so trusting and so very vulnerable to anyone who might value him for the really sweet open person he is.
Quince plopped down on a hard-backed chair, running his hands over the velvety fabric. His face lit up, making his blue eyes and sun-bleached strawberry blond hair the brightest points in the room. (6)
He leaped to his feet and grabbed an object from the dust-coated clutter of pictures and figurines. After brushing it off, he held up a large silver watch. Only a kid who'd done a dozen stints in juvie for larceny would spot something of value amid all the antique junk. (7)
Quince put his arm behind his back. Sometimes he seemed like a sad-eyed little kid, even though he had about four or five years on Jeremy. (10)
"Stygian wasn't just a band. We were like a family, and we need that. All of us." (11)
Kennedy's past, like the hard bodied dude himself, is a more of a mystery. His family is dead, and beyond his devotion to helping at-risk kids at the youth center, it's difficult to know for sure what kind of family life, or lack of it, he experienced. Although I have my suspicions. Kennedy has both feet on the ground, very realistic versus idealistic.
...Kennedy was a complete enigma. He was an untouchable brooding mass of simmering discontent, but strangely accessible when he was trying to be helpful. (20)
Santino Hassell took the time and care to develop such a startling depth to Watts, Jeremy, Quince, and Kennedy, and he did it in the simplest, most effective way of all. Showing, not telling.
Southern Gothic has its roots in Gothic style fiction and the motifs, though very different, serve much the same purpose. An isolated, abandoned, dilapidated plantation house surrounded by trees dripping Spanish moss as opposed to a forbidding castle situated on a craggy mountain top. Swamps, alligators, snakes, oppressive heat instead of a dense forest, wolves, and biting cold. Wealthy plantation owners as a Southern equivalent of aristocracy. Secrets and lies and dirty nasty little things that make the imagination sit up and say "Howdy!" It's mysterious and otherworldly. It's atmosphere. Stygian has atmosphere in spades.
Jeremy's description of the Caroway place at first glance sets up the scene perfectly: "dangling Spanish moss", a crush of trees to obscure and help hide the pale yellow wood of the old house, "grass scraped past Jeremy's ankles", "tall enough to hide yellow-jacket nests and fire ant mounds", surrounded by land "bleeding into the wooded area" which led to the swamps. Shriveled plants resembling tiny brown skeletons. Such a delicious description of the claustrophobic sense of some, as yet, unknown, unseen threat. A musty, cobwebby interior that appears as if time passed it by decades ago, creaking stairs, a weird "hushed silence" leaking from an upper floor, an entire wing sealed off, a draftier than usual hallway leading to the bedrooms, and a "faint creaking from within the bowels of the house."
The devil is in the details as they say, and the details placed with such care and so tantalizingly really add so much to the creeping sense of dread and set up the horror to come perfectly. Plus, the atmosphere, the setting, the tone, the characters all work together to unify Stygian into a taut, spine-tingling story. I admit to a few cold shivers down my spine when Jeremy begins to have strange dreams almost immediately upon moving into the Caroway house.
Somewhere in the depths of his dream, someone was playing the piano. The notes were faint, but with each quiet step down the hallway, Jeremy could hear more. The increasing tempo, the growing intensity, the way something so beautiful could almost sound like a threat - Liszt. The piece about the gondolas. The one Luke always played.
The music washed over him, halting his careful footsteps. It grew louder, more sinister, and his stomach coiled before the piece ended abruptly. The notes faded, and from somewhere close by, someone whispered his name. Jeremy spun around.
The hallway behind him stretched long and empty with only a faintly moving shadow at the far end disrupting the stillness.
He ghosted toward it, but a sinking feeling told him the shadow was not his brother, and there should have been no strangers here.
(...) The shadow started to detach itself from the darkness, but before it escaped it's veil, the whisper returned, and Jeremy opened his eyes. (28-29)
It's not a coincidence that Jeremy's brother, Luke, played piano, and piano music features in his dream. I have two theories about Liszt's La Lugubre Gondola (The Black Gondola) which I could almost hear playing in the background of Jeremy's dream. Jeremy admits to a connection beyond death with Luke in dreams (part of the reason his mother sent him to Weird Religious Zealous Uncle to be exorcised), and this music is very dark, very morbid, very gloomy, very somber. The dark, low notes are slow and haunting, adding even more gothic atmosphere. If it hasn't been part of a soundtrack for a horror movie, it really needs to be. La Lugubre Gondola is, after all, a lament by the composer for his son-in-law Richard Wagner and was written after Liszt had a premonition in a dream of Wagner's death.
So I'm torn between believing Luke was trying to warn Jeremy to be on guard against the Caroways and wondering if it was the first volley in Hunter Caroway's Machiavellian machinations to bend Jeremy to his will, to color his perspective of not only his band mates but the person closest to him, Luke. Because how better to gain a foothold into Jeremy's psyche than by distorting his memories of Luke and tainting that precious connection with his brother, making it all the easier to assume complete control of his thoughts and actions? I want to believe it was Luke, but after a second reading my fear is that it was the beginning of Hunter's influence.
The horror in Stygian is definitely not merely due to the nightmarish images of the bloodsucking duo, Laurel and Hunter Caroway, feasting on the blood of Quince or poor Amy. Rather it's in the way the members of the band, especially Jeremy and Quince, begin to lose control of their thoughts, their will, to the sinister influence of these two predators, the way they are manipulated, the way paranoia was fomented and allowed to run rampant amongst the four.
While reading what happens to Jeremy and to Quince, in particular, I couldn't help but draw comparisons between these characters and two characters from Bram Stoker's Dracula - Mina Harker and Lucy Westenra. Jeremy, like Mina, is more innocent than Quince. He's introverted, reflective, a character that brings all the pieces together, unites these four to defeat the threat. He is a much more complicated character than Hunter as Mina is in comparison to Dracula. Jeremy has a softer, gentler quality, but with a hint of steel hidden beneath the vulnerability.
"I know the deal," Jeremy snapped. "But those people are a bunch of strangers. I guess it's asking too much not to be treated that way by my front man."
Watts rolled his eyes, but instead of shooting back a snide remark, he crossed his arms over his chest. Nobody else spoke.
Having no interest in patting them on the backs and reassuring them that he wasn't so mad after all, Jeremy left the room It was a pitfall he'd fallen into early on - taking crap and then apologizing for being visibly upset. Like he was the one with the problem. Jeremy had gone so far trying to fit in with Stygian that somewhere along the line he'd given them the impression that he was a subservient doormat, and he didn't know how much more he could take. (19-20)
Quince, like Lucy, is more sexual, more extroverted than Jeremy, more child than adult, less reflective. He placates Watts' surliness, he tries to "fuck the aggression out of Watts" to no avail, and he takes his insults and Watts' lack of respect generally without objection. Quince embraces Laurel's seductive influence very much as Lucy embraces Dracula's seduction. Quince's inherent passivity and lack of self-examination leaves him more vulnerable to the threat that Laurel poses much in the same way that Lucy loses herself in Dracula.
What the original members of Stygian were was family in the truest sense of the word, that indefinable "glue" that held them together. That family was fractured after the loss of Caroline, as death and loss often do in all families. But it's also what all of the remaining members want to recreate, to preserve. All of them have dealt with loss in their lives, all of them have experienced disappointment in ones they loved, and all of them have very good reasons for their anger. Ironic then that the thing that brought them together initially - their fractured pasts - is the barrier to getting what they need now. Each man looks through a distorted prism, exacerbated by the sly, cunning manipulations of the Caroways. They cannot see clearly the others for what they are and could be: four of the best friends as well as a pair of lovers.
I do wish Stygian had been a bit longer; it would have allowed more development for the romance between Jeremy and Kennedy. For a time I wondered which man - Kennedy or Hunter - really cared for Jeremy. Honestly, I did feel a little sorry for Hunter (even as I abhorred the way he messed with Jeremy's mind) because I believe Hunter was truly lonely.
My initial disappointment in the cliffhanger ending was somewhat assuaged when I discovered a follow-up providing a few answers. Take You Farther, available in the anthology Lead Me Into Darkness is free at All Romance. Here's the link:
(https://www.allromanceebooks.com/product-leadmeintodarkness-1914049-166.html). I really hope this is not the last I'll read of Jeremy, Kennedy, Watts, and Quince. And yes, I can't help but wonder about Hunter, too.
Stygian, in the same vein of all really good Southern Gothic tales, draws from that very dark pool where houses fall apart, towns fall apart, and people fall apart; where the threat of violence is always lurking like an alligator in the swampy waters of rivers like the Sabine, just waiting to reach up and take a bite out of an unsuspecting victim. Where issues of honor, love, and trust are juxtaposed against mistrust, abandonment, and loss. I am so happy to have read this lovely book and even happier to have discovered a writer of the caliber of Santino Hassell. Bravo, Mr. Hassell!
ETA: Isn't that a wondrously beautiful cover???
How could I not love Slightly Dangerous with its echoes of Pride & Prejudice? I first read this book in 2008 or thereabouts, and as I carefully thumbed through my very well worn copy this week for yet another reread, I saw dialogue I'd underlined and notes in the margin or happy/sad faces nestled close to those places that made me smile or shed a tear or three, maybe an exclamation mark here and there or a heart encircling a page number of a well-loved passage. My copy is so well read, pages are falling from it. I simply love Wulfric Bedwyn and Christine Derrick, and this final book of the "Slightly" series never, ever disappoints me. I believe Slightly Dangerous holds the distinction of a finale book in a series that did not fall to pieces or disappoint in any way or excise all the interesting aspects of that one character you've been glimpsing throughout a series, and each peek just whets your appetite for that book when he/she is the star.
I remember when I read Slightly Tempted, and Alleyne Bedwyn was thought to have died at Waterloo, I was so moved by Wulfric's very private and very heartfelt grief. It was shortly after Morgan returned to England, right after Alleyne's memorial service, and she wanted the comfort of her oldest brother's presence. She finally finds him in his library, his head bent, leaning on the fireplace, weeping. She does not disturb him or let him know she had seen his loss of control. But it is a very important scene in that book and an integral part of his character arc over the series. He has always appeared to be cold, aloof, uncaring, detached from the mortal realm, more concerned with his social consequence than emotions like love or compassion or frivolity. But there's that scene in the library at Bedwyn House and glimpses of other moments in this series that hints at the intriguing idea that there is quite a bit more to the Duke of Bewcastle than what is clearly visible on the surface. Wulfric Bedwyn has layers and facets and complexity. One of the scenes that reveal his depth and vulnerability is when Wulfric refutes Christine's accusation that he wears a mask.
"I chose the duke's role, and have been making similar choices ever since. I will continue to do so until I die, I suppose. I am, after all, that aristocrat, and I have duties and responsibilities to hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of people that I cannot and will not shirk. And therefore, you see, I cannot assure you that I will become a changed man in order to fit your dream. You find me cold, reticent, hard, and I am all those things. But I am not only those things." (328)
"I cannot offer you anything that I am not, you see," he said. "I can only hope you are able to see that any person who has lived for almost thirty-six years is vastly complex. You accused me a few evenings ago of wearing a mask, and you were wrong. I wear the mantle of Duke of Bewcastle over that of Wulfric Bedwyn, but both mantles are mine. I am not less of a man because I choose to put duty first in my life. And then you wondered if I am a cold, unfeeling aristocrat right through to the very core. I am not. If I were, would I ever have been first enchanted by you and then haunted by the memory of you? You are not at all the sort of person Bewcastle would even notice, let alone choose to woo." (329)
Such a great scene, there at the dovecote, that very private sanctuary for him where the Duke of Bewcastle can remember that he is the man, Wulfric Bedwyn, too.
How and why Wulfric ends up at a house party (and he detests house parties) where he is besieged by noise and frolic and nonsense and chits just out of the schoolroom flirting with him also offers hints of vulnerability. How did he get there? Well, because he experienced a touch of self-pity and loneliness associated with empty nest syndrome now that his last sister, Morgan, has married and moved away, and his mistress of ten years had recently passed away. He is not naturally a solitary man even though he has grown accustomed to that state.
He had always been alone in all essential ways - since the age of twelve, anyway, when he had been virtually separated from his brothers and put directly under the care of two tutors and closely supervised by his father, who had known that his death was imminent and who had consequently wanted his eldest son and heir to be properly prepared to succeed him. He had been alone since the age of seventeen, when his father had died and he had become the Duke of Bewcastle. He had been alone since the age of twenty-four when Marianne Bonner had rejected him in a particularly humiliating manner. He had been alone since his brothers and sisters had married, all within a two-year span. He had been alone since Rose's death in February. (86) (my emphasis)
And that's the beauty of this book. He is a very complex, fascinating character as is Christine. Though she appears happy-go-lucky, sparkles from within, the life of any party, there is a darkness in her at times. A darkness that Wulfric recognizes while others do not. May I add perceptive to his many sterling qualities?
At the same time he had learned something interesting about Mrs. Derrick. She was made up of more than just sunshine and laughter. There was a darkness in her too, deeply suppressed, though it had come bubbling to the surface while they had walked together just now. She had tried her best to provoke a quarrel with him. (121)
Wulfric is all those things that people find so off-putting, but he also has a dry, subtle humor, an underlying loneliness, and a surprising vulnerability. Christine is more than just an effervescent, slightly clumsy, always happy lady. She feels the snubs by the ton very deeply, she is wounded by the gossip that ruined her relationship with her brother- and sister-in-law, she still feels the heartache of the problems associated with her marriage to Oscar. There's more to both these characters than meets the eye.
And speaking of eyes, I admit it. I love that whole quizzing glass affectation Wulfric was so fond of. After all, it was Christine's very direct gaze and one of his infamous quizzing glasses that brought these two together in the first place.
And then all Christine's complacency fled as her eyes met the Duke of Bewcastle's across the room and she had instant images of jailers and jails and chains and magistrates flashing through her head.
Her first instinct was to efface herself utterly and lower her eyes in an attempt to fade into the upholstery of the chair on which she sat.
But self-effacement had never been her way of reacting to the world's ways - except perhaps in the last year or two before Oscar died. And why should she seek to disappear? Why should she lower her eyes when he was making no attempt to lower his?
And then he really annoyed her.
Still looking at her, he raised one arrogant eyebrow.
And then he infuriated her.
With his eyes on her and one eyebrow elevated, he grasped the handle of his quizzing glass and raised it halfway to his eye as if utterly incredulous of the fact that she had the effrontery to hold his gaze.
(...) She looked steadily back at him and then compounded her boldness by deliberately laughing at him. Oh, she did not literally laugh. But she showed him with her eyes that she was not to be cowed by a single eyebrow and a half-raised quizzing glass. (38)
One of the scenes I love to bits in Slightly Dangerous is the quarrel Christine and Wulfric have after she inadvertently rolls down a hill. Yes, I said "rolls down a hill" and yes, it was inadvertent, though entirely predictable. Don't ask. Just read the book. All will be clear.
"And you, Mrs. Derrick," he said, taking a few steps away from her and then turning to look back at her, "know no other way of fighting your attraction to me than to convince yourself that you know me through and through. Have you decided, then, that I wear no mask after all? Or that you were right last evening when you said that perhaps I was simply the Duke of Bewcastle to the core?"
"I am not attracted to you!" she cried.
"Are you not?" He raised one supercilious eyebrow and then his quizzing glass. "You have sexual relations, then, with every dancing partner who invites you to accompany him to a secluded spot?"
Fury blossomed in her. And it focused upon one object.
"That," she said, striding toward him, "is the outside of enough!"
She snatched the quizzing glass out of his nerveless hand, yanked the black ribbon off over his head, and sent the glass flying with one furious flick of her wrist.
They both watched it twirl upward in an impressively high arc, reach its zenith between two trees, and then begin its downward arc - which was never completed. The ribbon caught on a high twig and held there. The glass swung back and forth like a pendulum a mile off the ground - or so it seemed to Christine. (279)
I'm not sure when I've laughed so hard and so long just from a few paragraphs in a book. Each and every time. Though it wasn't the first time Christine had fantasized about ridding Wulfric of his quizzing glass, it was the first time she actually followed through on her fantasy. (She imagines earlier that she is stuffing the quizzing glass down Wulfric's throat and watching with glee as it made its way down sideways, bulging out the sides of his neck.) The glass is retrieved from the tree, but this particular one becomes Christine's property. Not to worry, Wulfric has a stash of seven, (yes, seven!) more and all equally offensive quizzing glasses.
That same quizzing glass shows up again at the Easter Holiday ball at Lindsey Hall. Wulfric invited Christine and her in-laws to Lindsey Hall as his "secret" guest of honor. It was an opportunity for her to get to know him better after his first disastrous marriage proposal (one that both recreates the tone and tenor of Mr. Darcy's to Elizabeth but is totally unique to Wulfric and Christine). This was his opportunity to demonstrate to her that he was someone who possessed at least some of the attributes of the man she might consider marrying - a list he had committed to memory - "a warm personality, human kindness, and a sense of humor. He must love people, particularly children, and frolicking and absurdity. He must be a man who is not obsessed with himself and his own consequence. He must be someone who is not ice to the core. He must be someone who has a heart. He must be capable of being [her] companion and friend and lover." And his plan is to culminate with the ball and a particular question that he will ask her again afterward.
Wulfric has fussed and planned and agonized over this visit and this ball as if he were a young miss at a debut ball which is delightful to witness from one who is always cool, calm, and collected. Finally, the evening of the ball arrives, and the ballroom is lovely. He is anxiously awaiting the first waltz with Christine but he feels "absurdly shy." Christine looks lovely in a white gown "embroidered with buttercups and daisies and greenery" as she dances with several gentlemen. And then just before the orchestra strikes up the opening notes of a walz:
Her eyes met his across the empty floor.
He could not resist. His fingers grasped the jeweled handle of his quizzing glass and raised it all the way to his eye before lowering it slightly. Even across the distance he could the laughter well up in her eyes.
And then she reached down into the little cloth reticule that hung from her wrist and brought something out of it. For a moment all he could see was black ribbon. She brought the object slowly up to her eye and regarded him - through the lens of his own quizzing glass.
Wulfric Bedwyn, the oh-so-toplofty, oh-so-frosty Duke of Bewcastle, was shocked into uttering a short bark of laughter. Then he smiled at her slowly until his whole face beamed his amusement and affection.
She was no longer smiling, he saw as he set off across the empty floor toward her - it did not occur to him that it would have far more correct to walk unobtrusively about the perimeter of the room. But her eyes were huge and translucent, and her teeth were biting into her lip.
"I believe, Mrs. Derrick," he said, making her a bow when he came up to her, "this is my dance?"
"Yes, your grace," she said. "Thank you."
It was only then, when he extended a hand toward her, that he became aware of the near-hush that had descending on the ballroom. He turned his head and looked about in some surprise, his eyebrows raised, to see what had happened. But as he did so, everyone rushed back into conversation.
"Did I miss something?" he asked.
Christine Derrick set her hand in his - the quizzing glass had disappeared inside her little reticule again.
"Yes," she said. "A looking glass. You missed seeing yourself smile."
What the devil? He frowned at her.
"I understand," she said, and she was laughing at him again, the minx, "that it is as rare as a rose in winter." (347-348)
Reading Slightly Dangerous has become almost an annual reread for me over the years. As I was reading it again this week, I thought I really should at least try to write some sort of review for this wonderful book. If you haven't read Slightly Dangerous, I really hope you do. It's Mary Balogh doing what Mary Balogh does best.