The review copy I received stated that it was an uncorrected proof and that there might be changes to it when it is finally published. I'm very curious about those changes, because, as I read my copy, I could see the "rough draft-ness" to it, but I could also tell that this book has a lot of potential.
Malcolm has a very dark backstory: he was sent away by his father to a monastery to cleanse him of his degenerate tendencies. Except that it isn't Malcolm who needed such help: it was his twin brother, James. Delilah Marvelle delves into Malcolm's very complicated family history: of his hyper-religious father, of his dangerously-abusive/sexually-deviant twin brother, and of his own sexual issues. I had the impression that Malcolm was at odds with his family and had expected this book to be about how our hero would confront his brother and his past, which made me wonder how/where Marvelle would introduce the romantic element to this story.
"... We Thayers are crazy like that. Once we get attached to a person, it takes a knife." Malcolm let out an exasperated breath. "You have no idea what it's like having a twin. My brother touched a finger to my heart long before I even had one. Despite hating this monastery, it's been a blessing. It's allowed me to become my own person. Life away from my brother is certainly quieter. And tame. Very, very tame."
- loc 234
When Nasser arrives at the monastery, there was a part of me that thought he might be a female pretending to be male, but I was mistaken. Nasser and Malcolm end up lifelong friends and it is Nasser who will introduce our hero to the School of Gallantry.
Malcolm's heroine is Miss Leona Olivia Webster, an unmarried mother to a six-year-old boy, Jacob, who happens to be very interested in Christianity at the moment. Leona's situation is complicated: Jacob's father is trying to gain guardianship over their son and is using Leona's poverty as the reason. There's a class difference between Leona and Malcolm, he's titled and she's working class, and it's one of the reasons why Leona is a bit wary of Malcolm.
"You and I both know your level of standing would never find its way down to mine. You're an earl and I'm nothing more than the daughter of a deceased plantation owner whose finances went bankrupt. I also have a six-year-old. I'm not exactly a good investment for a man like you."
- loc 842
I had a problem with time in this story and the quickness in which the conflict is presented and then resolved. A huge chunk of the first part of the book focuses on Malcolm, which left Malcolm and Leona very little time and space to develop their own love story. The remaining chunk of the book actually happens during one instance: during the first two hours of Leona's first day at work. During that time:
1. Malcolm's friend, Andrew (Holborn) and Leona's son (Jacob) are sent to the water pump to get fresh water.
2. Leona initiates a kiss and Malcolm bites her tongue hard, intentionally. It starts a conversation where:
- They talk about Malcolm's unusual sexual preference
- Malcolm announces that they must marry and return to Persia
- Leona informs Malcolm that she doesn't want to travel by sea and won't go with him to Persia
3. Madame de Maitenon arrives and talks with Malcolm about his concerns
Then, after two hours:
1. Jacob and Andrew return with water and Jacob proceeds to play pirate with a real dagger. Jacob stumbles and embeds the dagger into Malcolm's thigh.
2. Andrew and Jacob leave to find a doctor, leaving Malcolm and Leona to further discuss and explore Malcolm's dark needs.
It's a lot of information to sift through and I didn't think there was enough time to develop a meaningful relationship between our hero and heroine. From what I could see, the central conflict is Malcolm's dark/morbid sexual tastes and how he could introduce Leona to this. There is a reflection about normal/abnormal and this is something that Malcolm really struggles with. It's part of his tragedy -- he is at odds with himself and with the world. He sees Leona as the bridge between himself and everyone else, but he doesn't know how she fits into his life or how he would fit into his. Madame de Maitenon and the School of Gallantry act as guide, helping them navigate through the waters of their unusual courtship.
Delilah Marvelle is known for her frank and direct approach to sex in historical romance and I have to admire her for her boldness in telling Malcolm's story. Master of Pleasure has a very different tone from the other books in the series, but, this is about the School of Gallantry and this new angle is a good addition.
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