Book Review: Goddess of the Hunt by Tessa Dare

Goddess of the Hunt

Ever the bold adventuress, Lucy Waltham has decided to go hunting for a husband. But first she needs some target practice. So she turns to her brother’s best friend, Jeremy Trescott, the Earl of Kendall, to hone her seductive wiles on him before setting her sights on another man. But her practice kisses spark a smoldering passion–one that could send all her plans up in smoke.

Jeremy has an influential title, a vast fortune, and a painful past full of long-buried secrets. He keeps a safe distance from his own emotions, but to distract Lucy from her reckless scheming, he must give his passions free rein. Their sensual battle of wills is as maddening as it is delicious, but the longer he succeeds in managing the headstrong temptress, the closer Jeremy comes to losing control. When scandal breaks, can he bring himself to abandon Lucy to her ruin? Or will he risk his heart and claim her for his own?

NOTE: This review contains spoilers.

This January seems to be my month for trying new-to-me authors. Books by Tessa Dare keep popping up my my “Recommended For You” list at Amazon, and I’ve read a few reviews of her last few releases. At least, I think they’re her last few releases. The titles escape me, but her name stuck in my head as someone I should read. So when I was at the library today, I looked her up. And lo, my library has The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy. Plus some more, but I zeroed in on the “exciting new author” comment on the back of Goddess of the Hunt since I like starting at the beginning of an author’s backlist when I have the opportunity.

I was in the middle of another book, but since library books have pesky due dates, I dove into Goddess of the Hunt this afternoon while I was in the waiting room at the eye doctor. The office staff probably think I’m terribly rude since I kept cracking open the book every time they had to answer the phone, photocopy my driver’s license, process my payment…I think the only time I didn’t sneak a paragraph or two was after they (temporarily) blinded me with some flashy eye focusing test.

(Here is where I insert my PSA for the day, though I’m not certain if I’m recommending something or telling you not to try this at home. But. Should you find yourself with dilated eyes after an eye exam and can’t see things up close, and your uncorrected vision is, let’s not mince words here, shit, taking off your glasses and holding the book you really, really, really want to read an inch away from your face does indeed allow you to read it. I’m just saying it’s an alternative should you discover you have T-rex arms, so holding a book at arm’s length doesn’t quite offer up enough distance for your dilated eyes to force the words into focus.

Also, if your eye doctor tells you your dilated eyes should return to normal fairly quickly, he’s lying. At the very least, he has an unacceptable definition of “quickly” when you have a book begging to read.)

I mention my post-exam fun because I’m no stranger to having my eyes dilated, and I usually just kick back at home with a movie and wait for the drops to wear off before I try anything that requires up-close focus, but Goddess of the Hunt had me hooked within two and a half chapters, and I wasn’t going to wait a couple hours to keep reading. Jeremy is one of my favorite type of heroes (romantic or otherwise): cool and composed and in command at all times, at least by all outward appearances, but it’s a carefully maintained composure. Like Lucy, I want to crack it.

Similarly, Lucy is one of my favorite types of heroines (romantic or otherwise): headstrong and daring with the confidence to go after what she wants without shame. It’s a tough heroine to nail because all that headstrong daring can veer into foolish stupidity, and there are plenty of times when Lucy does some foolish, stupid things, but this is where Dare shines for me: she allows Lucy the room to be a teenager who believes she’s in love without making her a fool. Yes, some of her early antics are cringe-worthy, but they fit her character.

And I’m a sucker for the “falling in love with his best friend’s younger sister” trope. I’m not sure why I find it so compelling. All I know is the hero’s slowly dawning realization that the knobby-kneed colt of a girl always trailing behind her brother and basically being a pain in the ass is…not so coltish and knobby-kneed anymore. But she is most definitely off limits, because she’s his best friend’s little sister, so his lust can sit down and shut up, thank you.

Naturally, Jeremy’s lust doesn’t listen to him, and naturally Lucy spends the first half of the book ignoring what her lust is trying to tell her: she doesn’t love the man she’s trying to seduce by indulging in a “fake” flirtation with Jeremy. Lucy believes she’s in love with another friend of her brother, Toby, and now that she’s learned he’s on the cusp of proposing to Sophia, a young lady who’s richer than her, prettier than her, and much more ladylike than her, Lucy’s desperate to make him love her. After trying, and failing, to be as ladylike as Sophia, she decides (thanks to Jeremy) the best way to snare Toby is to seem as if she is unavailable. And the best way to seem unavailable is to act as if she’s smitten with someone else. Like Jeremy. Her brother’s handsome best friend.

Jeremy, for his part, wants nothing to do with this mess, but Toby and Lucy’s brother and the rest of their friends encourage him to devote just enough attention to Lucy to take her mind of Toby. The way he sees it, someone needs to protect Lucy from herself, and if her brother won’t do it (because when has he ever done it?), he will. It’s harmless flirting, after all. Soon enough, Toby will propose to Sophia, Lucy will finally have her season, and that will be that.

But of course it’s not. I was a little surprised when they were married just over halfway through the book. I set the book down to prepare dinner wondering what conflict would carry the last 140 pages. There had to be something, and it turned out to be the logical conflict of their personalities. Years ago, Toby crowned Lucy his Diana, goddess of the hunt, and she is indeed cut in Diana’s mold while Jeremy is an earl used to being in control and having people obey his commands. Of course they’d clash, and of course they’d work through it and end up bringing out the best in each other.

Overall, this hit all of my best buttons. Jeremy is overbearing and protective, but subconsciously, he loves Lucy because she doesn’t need his protection. Lucy is young and vulnerable, and watching her come to the realization that she loves Jeremy because he wants her and wants to keep her safe because he wants to protect everyone (and everything) he loves but doesn’t know how is immensely satisfying. But the most satisfying part of the book for me was the evolution of Lucy’s relationship with Sophia. As Lucy grew, Sophia became a true friend, and as big as a sucker as I am for the “falling in love with the best friend’s little sister” trope, I am a bigger sucker for the power of friendship between women. When that friendship blossoms between rivals, I’m even happier.

The next book in this series focuses on Sophia. I’ll be checking it out on my next trip to the library. Just like Lucy, Sophia deserves happiness and a hero who will bring out the best in her.

(Crossposted to Booklikes)

Book Review: Only Enchanting by Mary Balogh

Cover for Only Enchanting

The Survivors’ Club: Six men and one woman, all wounded in the Napoleonic Wars, their friendship forged during their recovery at Penderris Hall in Cornwall. Now Flavian, Viscount Ponsonby, has left this refuge to find his own salvation—in the love of a most unsuspecting woman…

Flavian, Viscount Ponsonby, was devastated by his fiancée’s desertion after his return home. Now the woman who broke his heart is back—and everyone is eager to revive their engagement. Except Flavian, who, in a panic, runs straight into the arms of a most sensible yet enchanting young woman.

Agnes Keeping has never been in love—and never wishes to be. But then she meets the charismatic Flavian, and suddenly Agnes falls so foolishly and so deeply that she agrees to his impetuous proposal of marriage.

When Agnes discovers that the proposal is only to avenge his former love, she’s determined to flee. But Flavian has no intention of letting his new bride go, especially now that he too has fallen so passionately and so unexpectedly in love.

NOTE: This review contains spoilers.

This is the first Balogh I’ve read, and the first historical romance I’ve read in years (*cough* decades), so take my rating in the context of a newbie to both Mary Balogh and historical romance. I was intrigued by the idea of an injured hero and a heroine who has no desire to fall in love, but does despite herself.

I was sold on Agnes on the first paragraph:

At the age of twenty-six, Agnes had never been in love or ever expected to be—or even wished to be. She rather chose to be in control of her own emotions and her own life, such as it was.

Yes, it echoes the information given on the back of the book, but I enjoyed the voice. Agnes is sensible and relatable, and also a woman who has her own life, and she’s quite content with it and her choices, thank you. But it’s quite clear that for Agnes, contentment isn’t the same as happiness, and even before we get to the ball where she (and we) first meet Flavian, the handsome Viscount Ponsonby with the mocking left eyebrow, I wanted to see her choose happiness over contentment.

Flavian’s voice took longer to grow on me. For the first third of the book, he was more interesting though Agnes’s eyes than in his own head, but his relationship with the other members of the Survivors’ Club kept me reading. Only Enchanting is as much about his relationship with the Survivors’ Club as it is about his relationship with Agnes, and it’s a wonderful relationship. The individuals in the Survivors’ Club were all horribly wounded, and while Balogh doesn’t linger on all the details, she handles the nature of their injuries, and the mental toll of both war and recovery, with care. Even the miraculous recoveries, like Flavian’s, aren’t complete. The Survivors’ Club still meets once a year for three weeks in part to enjoy each others’ company, and in part to continue their healing. Physically, they’re all about as healed as they’re going to get, but mentally, they still need these gatherings.

I was happy to see so much space devoted to these non-romantic relationships. Flavian is shaped by his love for his fellow Survivors’ Club members just as Agnes is shaped by her love for her sister and by her mother abandoning her when she was five. It would have been a disservice to both characters if there hadn’t been so much time devoted to establishing what made them the people they are, and what makes each of them so appealing to the other.

The only thing that kept this from being a perfect read for me was Favian’s former fiancée. I hate vindictive ex storylines, especially when it’s the hero’s ex, and while it served a purpose beyond creating conflict for the hero and heroine to overcome, it still soured my opinion of the book. I was glad to see Favian come to understand why he acted the way he did about his brother’s death, but I wish it wasn’t to escape the manipulations of a scorned woman.

At the same time, I wish Balogh would have committed a bit more to conflict created by Favian’s former fiancée. The conflict her manipulations created between Agnes and Flavian was handled well enough. Agnes is much too sensible to give in to lasting anger, so I could believe Flavian having an easy time of convincing her to stay for at least another week so they could work on their marriage together. Agnes does, after all, want to convinced when he says he married her because he genuinely wanted and still wants her, not because he wanted to punish his former fiancée and everyone scheming to arrange The Marriage Meant to Be.

But Favian’s former fiancée also discovered that Agnes’s father had divorced her mother after she ran off with another man. That should have created a wider scandal than it did. Oh, Agnes stands up to someone who questions her on the whole affair in public at a party thrown by one of Flavian’s relatives, but then it fizzles out when Flavian and Agnes leave London to let the gossip run its course. It seemed a waste of a storyline.

End result: Only Enchanting works well as a stand-alone novel. I’m sure I would have enjoyed it more if I had read the first three novels in the Survivors’ Club series, but it’s accessible as a stand-alone novel. And it did its job as a part of a series, because now I want to read those first three books and check out more of Balogh’s backlist. It’s a nice long one, so I’ll have no shortage of books for a long time.

(Crossposted to BookLikes)