Saturday, December 19, 2015

Review: Sweetest Scoundrel by Elizabeth Hoyt


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I was saving to read this book for the holiday break, but an online conversation with one of my book buddies made me curious about this book, so I decided to start reading it. What was most intriguing for me was the idea of the anti-hero -- Hoyt's Maiden Lane series has featured a group of very unique male protagonists. None of them fit the "hero" mold -- some are titled, some aren't. Some are inherently good, and one was engaged in very illegal doings. One actually escaped from prison. And all of them have a dark side.

Asa Makepeace is the latest anti-hero in a long (and distinguished) line of Hoyt's anti-heroes. Unlike his brothers, Winter and Concord, Asa knew there was more to his life than his father's piety or their beer business. Sir Stanley Gilpin took him under his wing, and Asa has lived and breathed theater since he was 15 years old. His father disowned him for pursuing something so worldly, and he has been estranged from his siblings ever since.

The story in Sweetest Scoundrel actually began several novels back, when Harte's Folly burned down, and Asa Makepeace has been trying to rebuild it ever since. Harte's Folly is a testament of Asa's tenacity and resilience -- many would have looked at the ashes of Harte's Folly, proclaim it too expensive and nearly impossible to rebuild, and give up. Harte's Folly was once Sir Stanley's dream, and is now Asa's, so it's not surprising that he is determined to build it up again.

Whether it is fortunate or unfortunate that Asa has received the patronage and support of the Duke of Montgomery remains to be seen, but the Duke has actually given control of his finances to his half-sister, Eve Dinwoody. And Eve is not happy with the money pit that is Harte's Folly.

The mystery that is Eve began when she was 15 years old, when an incident happened that prompted her immediate removal from the former Duke of Montgomery's household. She has had Jean-Marie as her companion ever since, and she has an aversion to dogs, and to men. Eve is content to live the reclusive life she has lived for so long now, but she could not, in good conscience, allow Mr. Harte to continue spending her brother's money in such a cavalier manner, so, despite her better judgment, she decides to pay him a visit.

It isn't the best first meeting -- with Asa assessing Eve to be too plain, and Eve thinking Asa to be too crude. It is a curious pairing: Eve is very self-contained, and very cold. Asa is very passionate and expressive. I kept seeing him push at Eve's boundaries, and kept wondering how far back she would bend before breaking.

He glared at Miss Dinwoody through his throbbing eyes. She was tall for a woman, thin with a mannish chest, and had a face dominated by a large, long nose. She was as plain as a shovel -- and he was glad of it, because the witch was trying to steal away his sweat, his dreams, and his blood. Long nights lying awake, making bargains with the Devil and devising desperate plans. Hope and glory and everything that he breathed for, God blast his miserable soul. All he'd lusted for, all he'd despaired over, all he'd lost and then fought with bloodied fists to regain.

She was trying to steal his goddamned garden.
- Chapter 1

Eve's trauma is at the heart of her story. In a sense, Eve is frozen in time, still her 15-year-old self, afraid of the same shadows and sounds. She's alive, but not living -- content in her miniatures, and her small circle of trusted servants, and her brother, Valentine -- and it takes Asa's outrageous character to chip away at the icy wall that Eve has built up around herself. She's a bit like the princess in the ivory tower, except that she willingly hides in her tower when it is convenient for her -- but there's also a part of Eve that has always been curious --

Perhaps, in a sense, it isn't that odd a pairing, because Asa is more than ready (and willing) to satisfy Eve's curiosities. Elizabeth Hoyt is best known for the fairy-tale element in her stories -- but I think readers very rarely recognize that Hoyt has an amazing talent for writing a steamy sex scene. The encounters between Asa and Eve are very intimate, and there's a voyeuristic feeling to reading about their *cough* sexual explorations. (Read Chapter 10. I dare you not to blush. =^_^=)

It isn't a secret that Harte's Folly represents Asa Makepeace. It is his life, his dreams, his past, his present, and his future -- and he is determined to build it up again. He refused to be crushed by his father, and he refuses to be defeated by the forces around him. But it has been an uphill struggle for Asa whose reconstruction has been plagued with setbacks. What is surprising is how Harte's Folly comes to represent Eve's hope -- as Harte's Folly is slowly rebuilding, Eve slowly grows into herself as well. Her personal space grows to include Asa's office, and her circle grows to include the actors, singers, and dancers in Asa's employ. Harte's Folly becomes less a business transaction for Eve, and more a passion project.

Eve hummed as Asa escorted her back to the office, her senses still alight from Le Veneziana's magnificent performance. If they could rebuild the stage in time, finish the theater roof, complete the garden plantings -- oh, and all the other myriad things that needed to be done before they opened ... if they could do all that, then Harte's Folly would be a guaranteed success, she knew it, for she'd never heard such wonderful music, such sublime singing, in all her life.
- Chapter 12

The enigmatic Valentine Napier, the Duke of Montgomery, is absent in this novel, but his presence is strongly felt -- and I love how Hoyt was able to develop his character through his sister's eyes -- this is the person who is closest to him, and we see a very different side to Valentine. He is humanized, yes, but I appreciate that his nefarious actions aren't easily justified or explained. He is still amoral, manipulative, and Machiavellian. (I am so, so excited to read his story next.)

With each Maiden Lane instalment, we go further and further away from The Ghost, and I have to say that I miss his presence. I miss the darkness and the grit and St. Giles. With Asa's close connection to Sir Stanley Gilpin, I had wondered if there would be a return to The Ghost arc, but, apparently, Asa was privy to a very different side of Sir Stanley. (I wonder if there will ever be a prequel regarding Sir Stanley.) However, I also like how the author has expanded on the stories and the characters she has introduced.

Sweetest Scoundrel is Book 9 in Elizabeth Hoyt's Maiden Lane series. To find out more about Elizabeth Hoyt and her books, click below:
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