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In the opening chapter of the book, a group of 5 men are locked in a room with no probable escape route. Guards are at the door, and death is certain in the morning. On this, their last night together, they decide to talk about what they would do differently if they had another chance and another day to live --
Maybe it's Fate or the Divine, or a bit of both, but these men find a way to escape and to live to fight another day. They decide to hold each other to the promises they made the night before -- with an added agreement to update each other through letters left at an agreed-upon location. Thus, the Rogues Redeemed go their separate way, intent on changing their lives -- present and future.
Will Masterson joined the war with a death wish. Feeling responsible for the death of his wife and son, Will feels he is beyond redemption -- and he thought he was finally going to see the end of his journey in that locked room with those men. After this last brush with death, Will finally realizes (and accepts) that death isn't in his cards yet, and starts to make plans to return home to England, his title, and his life, and responsibilities.
But he has one last mission to fulfil for King and Country: accompany the brave soldiers from San Gabriel back to their country, and to do some reconnaissance to ascertain the political stability of this young, war-damaged country. He does not count on meeting Athena Markham, British, who works as companion and friend to Princess Sofia -- and he is instantly attracted.
But Will and Athena aren't young or fanciful or with their heads in the clouds -- they accept the reality of who they are: Athena is the illegitimate daughter of a lord and a courtesan, and Will is a broken, haunted man on his way home to England. While they entertain the idea of an affair, Will and Athena both decide to take the sensible route and "just be friends" while Will is in San Gabriel.
Much of the first half of the book focuses on San Gabriel and descriptions of how war has devastated the small country. Their king and his heir are still missing, the current regent is a very old man who serves as a titular figurehead than an actual leader, and Princess Sofia, on the cusp of her 25th birthday, is next in line for the throne. I kept trying to look for the romance between Will and Athena between the lines -- and I could see two people who have made the decision to sacrifice their own personal interests/desires for the sake of a greater purpose. Athena is devoted to San Gabriel and to Princess Sofia, whom she loves like a younger sister.
Athena has an interesting background -- she is illegitimate, and, while her mother wanted to have a daughter, it was clear that she didn't know how to protect or care for her daughter. Athena's father begrudgingly gave some financial support, but made it clear that she was not welcome or wanted in his household. At school, Athena was known as Lady Whore's Daughter, and that's something that has not and cannot forget. It's ironic that she finally found her place and her home in a foreign country, among foreign people. So I understand her reluctance to give all of that up to be with Will -- Will who will bring her back to England, because his life and responsibilities are there. Will who will indirectly subject her to society's scrutiny and insults again --
Will lost the loves of his life, felt responsible for it, and had sought oblivion during the war. Now he's found a glimmer of light, a reason to live in the form of Athena Markham. But, should he risk his recently-restored, but still-fragile heart on something as momentary as a temporary affair. I have to give credit to Will for proposing marriage several times -- because it shows that he is willing to put himself on the line for Athena.
There's a secondary love story that develops between Justin and Princess Sofia -- and, again, Mary Jo Putney touches on the dualism of duty/desire -- Princess Sofia cannot marry a commoner. Princess Sofia cannot marry a foreign commoner. But she wants Justin, and Justin wants her. What I love about Princess Sofia is that she isn't passive, and she doesn't give up easily -- she arranges for a quick time away from the castle, so that she could enjoy Justin's company (and hopes that Athena and Will can discover each other outside of the castle and their responsibilities).
This is where the story gets interesting -- when they discover that there is a French general who has nefarious designs on Princess Sofia and on the country -- and Will must, once again, become the soldier that he is. I love how Putney framed this into a David and Goliath battle -- pitting the very limited resources of San Gabriel versus the French general's army. Will shows amazing leadership and courage -- and Athena is admirable in how she contributed to the defense of the country.
A slow start leads to a satisfying end, and fans of Putney's Lost Lords will delight at seeing new graduates of Westerfield figure in this new series.
Once a Soldier is the first book in Mary Jo Putney's Rogues Redeemed series, and will be released on June 28. To find out more about Mary Jo Putney and her books, click below:
Disclosure: I requested this ARC through Netgalley. Thank you to Kensington Books and Mary Jo Putney for the opportunity. Yes, this is an honest review.