Monday, September 2, 2013

Review: Never Kiss a Rake by Anne Stuart


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Bryony, Maddy and Sophie Russell are the daughters of the disgraced shipping magnate, Eustace Russell, who died under mysterious circumstances after he was found guilty of embezzlement and caused a nationwide panic, which almost toppled the banking industry.

Now orphaned, penniless and with nowhere else to go, the sisters are plotting how they can clear their father's name and restore their own reputations. Their only clue is a hastily scribbled note by their father:

Don't trust any of them. Someone's stealing money, and it looks like Kilmartyn's in league with them, no matter what excuses he makes. Don't trust Morgan either. Never trust a pirate. Something's going on, and I'll get to the bottom of it, or --
- loc 151

Bryony targets Lord Kilmartyn first, thinking that, as her father's partner, he had the most to gain from their father's ruin -- and, despite the financial crisis, it seems Lord Kilmartyn's fortunes remain intact. She decides to infiltrate Kilmartyn's household as a housekeeper, hoping to find clues to his involvement.

Getting into the Kilmartyn household was relatively easy -- what Bryony didn't expect was Lady Kilmartyn's hostility and most certainly not Lord Kilmartyn's marked preference for her.

Adrian Brutton knew Mrs. Bryony Greaves wasn't who she claimed she was, but then, who was he to judge? An Irish peer, with a damning secret that only his devilish wife knew about and held above his head like the sword of Damocles, so he allows the beautiful, albeit deceitful, "Mrs. Greaves" into his household, eager to discover her secrets.

Stuart has been exploring the hedonistic-reprobate-reluctantly-turned-hero character type in most of her novels and Adrian Brutton stands, perhaps, in the top 5. (I don't think he can beat the Rohans, though.) Immediately after hiring Bryony, his first thought is how best to seduce her:

He'd always liked a challenge, and she was so tightly buttoned up she might as well be wearing armor. How hard would it be to strip off that armor?

...

Yes, he did like a challenge. He wasn't sure whether he was going to seduce Mrs. Greaves, or simply see if he could make her smile, but he was always interested in a challenge.
- loc 448

What is the appeal of such a hero, who is on the verge of villainy? I think part of this kind of hero's appeal is that he is not bound by the same rules that govern gentlemen. He moves and speaks without care for society and convention -- and will almost always scandalize and shock the other characters (and readers) out of their comfort zone. Because of his atypical nature, we come to expect the unexpected from him -- and it makes for a very compelling, very interesting story. Anne Stuart writes this kind of "hero" so convincingly and so well.

Bryony isn't your typical heroine: one side of her face is pockmarked after a childhood bout with smallpox. Her own mother thought she was hideous and had hidden Bryony from the world. Bryony grew up believing and continues to believe that she could never be presentable in society's eyes.

"...You know that I'm much better suited to being a housekeeper. Maids are supposed to be pleasant to look upon. Have you ever seen a maid who looks like me?" Bryony said evenly.
- loc 201 to 214

It is, perhaps, Bryony's lack of self-esteem that makes her susceptible to Adrian's charms and attentions. It surprised me when she started to succumb to it after three days. This is the one aspect of the novel that I was not convinced of: how quickly Bryony falls in love with him. He flirts with her and embarrasses her with conversations filled with sexual innuendo -- and she falls for him? Adrian's one saving grace is that he is handsome and the most beautiful man Bryony has ever seen. I think Bryony is secretly flattered with his attempts at seducing her -- but that is lust, not love. Plus, it seems Bryony has forgotten that Adrian is married.

In the darkness her scars were invisible, in the darkness this beautiful man wanted her, and she would endure anything for the bizarre glory of this deep, draining kiss.
- loc 1983

On the other hand, I understand why Adrian could love Bryony -- she is unlike the ladies of society and, more importantly, she is unlike his wife -- who is concerned with artifice and have no sense of morality or kindness.

Stuart portrays the Kilmartyn townhouse as a house of secrets -- a place of mostly shadows and very little light. Bryony enters this house of stairs, so many stairs without rails -- where one false move could mean a broken arm or leg or neck -- of rooms, so many rooms with only two known inhabitants who hate each other openly, and are living in separate rooms on separate floors of the house --

Stuart conveys very vividly the mysteriousness of the house and of the people who live there -- is Adrian guilty of ruining Bryony's father? Is he guilty of more? What other secrets are kept within this very expensive townhouse on Mayfair, which looks quite stately and beautiful on the outside but is dusty, ill-kept and rat-infested inside?

A game of cat and mouse: Adrian knows Bryony is spying -- but for what, and for whom? Bryony knows Adrian is hiding something -- would she find the answers in the mysterious leather-bound journal in his room?

This is Anne Stuart doing what she does best: developing a complicated relationship between two broken souls: one an unrepentant sinner and the other, a woman with no sense of self worth. She throws her characters into a tailspin of mystery, murder, of questions with a million possible answers. All in all, making this a truly engrossing read.

Never Kiss a Rake is the first book in Anne Stuart's Scandal at the House of Russell series. Book 2: Never Trust a Pirate (Maddy's story) will be released in December 2013.

To find out more about Anne Stuart and her books, click below:
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Disclosure: I received this review copy through Netgalley. Thank you to Anne Stuart and to Montlake Romance for the opportunity. Yes, this is an honest review.

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