This was a Kindle bargain awhile back. It’s a fine Victorian Beauty and the Beast (sort of) story brought down by pedestrian writing.
Morgan (a viscount) was a bit of a rake, certainly a man about town, wealthy, accomplished, handsome, and was about to make a comfortable marriage with a shallow beauty when his life was changed forever by arson. A couple of years later, his body has healed, although with scars from the burns, but he feels tremendous guilt for the lives he could not save, especially the children of his staff. A little PTSD, but more brooding and guilt, and a feeling that he knows something underneath it all that would give him a clue as to the identity of the arsonist, if only he could remember. He is cynical and somewhat reclusive.
Julia, beautiful daughter of a merchant now disgraced and deceased, is being forced into marriage by her “Sir” uncle, and his choices are disgusting: a gambler or a drunk or a pedophile. She sets up an encounter with Morgan to offer him a marriage of convenience. She is rescued from marriage to a toad, he gets a beautiful wife who has a small but decent income of her own. Julia has a little secret: she is the author of a very popular newspaper column that mixes gossip with preaching social reforms.
Meanwhile, the arsonist, who has been quiet these past two years, has started sending letters to Julia at the newspaper, and has started setting fires again. Again people are losing their lives. Between the notes to Julia and scenes from the arsonist’s POV, we see that he’s very mentally ill, had a horrific childhood, and is trying to work out salvation via cleansing by fire.
First, if fire bothers you, don’t read this book. The descriptions of fire, and of death by fire, are fairly detailed and nightmare-inducing. I’d give it a good 5 on the ick scale, and mid-way through the book, some people we care about die, and it is described.
Otherwise, it’s an interesting plot with well-developed characters and an assortment of potential villains. Morgan and Julia are different: she’s not just a bluestocking reformer, and he’s not just a wounded aristo. We get to know them gradually and it’s worth the time to get to know them. I won’t be forgetting them quickly.
But the writing – ach! It’s not horrible. I’ve read a whole lot worse. But there’s endless telling rather than showing, and the author kinda rambles (yeah, I know, I ramble, too, but I don’t put “author” on the occupation line on my tax forms, ya know?). The prose could be tightened a lot. One of the commenters here recently mentioned clichéd phrases, and I didn’t see it in the book she was referencing, but I certainly saw it in this one, and at times it got in my way. But then there would be a line or two that rang completely true and put me right into the setting. The word that keeps coming to mind is merchantable: a product is merchantable if it is of ordinary quality for that type of product.
Kindle formatting was perfect. There were some word choices I’d argue with, and the one that always drives me nuts – enormity – made its appearance. “Can’t help but” was in there, too. Still, subject and verb agreed, and objective case pronouns were correct, so it wasn’t all bad. The sex scenes were fine, fairly explicit but not overdone and not terribly long, nor were there too many of them, two or three maybe. I wish authors would figure out where the hymen is. Another orgasmic virgin. (I tell you, men in those times must have had amazing skills in bed.) The character growth and growth of the relationship were gradual and believable. His calling her “princess” all the time got on my nerves.
Something else that bothered me was the Beast angle. It seems that he has some scarring on his neck and hands, but it doesn’t sound like he’s terribly disfigured. There’s some gossip after the fire that he had too many people packed into the servants quarters – something that is explained, BTW – but people don’t cut him, he’s still received, still has friends. I don’t really see the Beast-y bit.
Also, the way the arsonist was depicted was over the top. He did everything but howl at the moon, and his background was way over the top. I suppose I was intended to feel sorry for him, and to see his behavior as psychotic decompensation, but I kept wishing that the author had talked to a couple of mental health professionals about the psychology of arsonists.
Dang, this could have been an excellent book, and it was, here and there. Taken as a whole, however, it was disappointing, and it’s a D-plus for me. Great plot, iffy writing.
Having written this, I see that the book has an average 4.5 stars at Amazon and a lot of favorable reviews at GoodReads, so here I am alone in my corner again. I think the truly excellent writing I’ve seen from many romance authors has me spoiled, or – well, this is a whole other topic of conversation – I expect from romance authors the same standard of writing that I expect from other fiction writers. I don’t give romance a handicap for scoring.