My first review for Elizabeth Hoyt’s Maiden Lane series was not particularly effusive but as I have continued on in the series I have come to appreciate it more. Hoyt tells stories that interweave with various threads being teased in every book. There is a large cast of main characters who generally connect in some way. And while these are romances, with the requisite strapping heroes and irresistable heroines, there is also the Ladies’ Syndicate for the Benefit of the Home for Unfortunate Infants and Foundling Children. These ladies are the heroines of the stories but more than that they are friends and family. They support one another – quietly or bravely – and a woman in need will often find there is another woman who understands and encourages her. These events aren’t major plot points in the books but they run through them like golden threads and they’re nice to see. Many romances will have a heroine surrounded by awful women who exist to make the heroine look even better by comparison but here even the female characters who are flawed are generally given some level of sympathy – if not at first, then in a later book when we perhaps see them a bit more clearly.
These are historical romances and so men hold the power in this world, and women have few options. Despite that, the women of these books are steadfast and loyal. An unmarried woman breaks into tears and confesses that she is pregnant to an acquaintance and rather than censure she is given comfort, discretion and aid. When a powerful duke dismisses an impoverished gentlewoman working as a lady’s companion as “an invisible little woman,” his young sister retorts that “Artemis is my friend.” When that woman’s liaison is made public and she must flee polite society, with no idea where she will go, it is an elderly spinster who waits for her outside the door of the home she must vacate and offers help. These women are allies to one another and that is what has elevated the books for me, even when the romances were uninspired.
(A note – the stories in these books happen sequentially and the plots of later books are often spoilers for earlier books. I don’t say much here that isn’t covered in the book blurbs themselves but since I tried to keep myself in the dark while proceeding through the series I figured it was only fair to warn other readers.)
Scandalous Desires revisits Silence Hollingbrook, who was disgraced in Wicked Intentions when she saved her husband from being imprisoned or hanged as a thief after the cargo of the ship he captained was stolen and he was held responsible. Silence went to the actual thief, a pirate king named Charming Mickey O’Connor, and begged for him to return the cargo. He agreed, but only if Silence was willing to spend the night in his bed and walk home with her hair down and her bodice undone. She did so, but neither her husband nor her family believed her protests that she had been unmolested. In Notorious Pleasures, Silence learned that her husband had been lost at sea. She developed a special fondness for a child named Mary Darling at the Home for Unfortunate Infants and Foundling Children and eventually realized that Mary Darling was the daughter of Charming Mickey. In Scandalous Desires, Mickey O’Rourke reclaims Mary Darling from the Home to keep her safe from his enemies, and Silence goes to stay with him to care for Mary Darling. Mickey has been smitten with Silence ever since she met his challenge with courage and dignity, and as she spends time in his “palace” Silence begins to fall for him as well. I didn’t like this book much and if it weren’t for my curiosity about the Ghost of St. Giles, I might have stopped the series here. Even Silence looks like she’s trying to figure out how to get out of the story in this cover art.
One of the problems I have with romance novels is that sometimes they aren’t as well edited as I might hope and things get a little sloppy. I had a concern about the actions of the Ghost of St. Giles in Wicked Intentions that happily was resolved to my satisfaction in Thief of Shadows without violating the laws of time and space. In this story, Baroness Isabel Beckinhall is a wealthy widow who is a member of the Ladies’ Syndicate for the Benefit of the Home for Unfortunate Infants and Foundling Children, a society started to help provide funding for the Home. Winter Makepeace, a stern and aloof fellow whose father founded the Home, is now the Home’s manager. Lady Penelope Chadwick has gotten it into her head to replace Winter while the Society’s founding members are all out of London, arguing that a fellow aristocrat would be more useful at securing patrons. Isabel is tasked by the other members with teaching Winter how better to navigate Society to ensure that he is able to keep his position. This book is a nice change of pace in that Isabel is the one who worries about being unable to become involved with someone below her rank. She is also the one who rescues the hero at the beginning of the book when he is about to be torn apart by an angry mob. I enjoyed this one very much.
Lord of Darkness starts with Lady Margaret Reading hunting the Ghost of St. Giles to avenge the murder of her lover. Roger Fraser-Burnsby was killed just before they hoped to announce their engagement, and left her in quite a predicament as she was pregnant with his child. Her brother blackmailed Godric St. James into marrying her and after a rushed wedding she went off to his country estate where she miscarried. Two years later she has decided she is desperate for a child to love and appears on his doorstep to seduce him and get her baby fix. She will also use the time in London to hunt the Ghost to avenge her lover. She is furious, fierce and determined. For his part, Godric is deeply in mourning for his deceased wife, Clara. She had a slow, lingering death from an illness that left her bedridden for years. Godric was utterly devoted to her and has been a ghost of a man since her passing. This was another book I liked quite a lot once I got past the very awkward beginning with Megs trying to maneuver a virtual stranger into impregnating her. Sometimes Hoyt’s romances seem forced but I readily bought into Megs’ vivaciousness breaking through Godric’s sorrow.
Duke of Midnight gives us the supremely arrogant Duke of Wakefield falling for a woman far below his station. Artemis Greaves is the daughter of a man cursed with madness and the twin of a sane man languishing in Bedlam. When her parents died she had very little in the way of options and was grateful to be offered work as a lady’s companion to her distant cousin. That position keeps her off the streets but it is a life with very narrow confines. She is plain and poor and has no hope of marriage or children. She has 2 drab day dresses and a single brown evening dress that she wears to all the social events she attends with her extravagantly wealthy and flamboyant cousin. All her extra money goes to bribing the sadistic guards at Bedlam to try to keep her brother from being mistreated. Regardless, she has a strong sense of self and has no qualms informing the duke that she is his equal, on a personal level if not a societal one. Artemis figures out a big secret about the Duke and tries to blackmail him into getting her brother free. He definitely doesn’t like being blackmailed but he finds Artemis hard to resist. The Duke’s tragic backstory somehow makes him certain that he is required to wed someone from the creme de la creme of society to make his dead father proud despite everyone who cares for him telling him he is being a ninny (in so many words because he is a fearsome Duke, after all). I liked the romance in this one and Artemis is just a wonderful character.
Darling Beast tells the story of Apollo Greaves, Artemis’ brother. He is escaped from Bedlam but on the run and hiding out as a gardener restoring the grounds of Harte’s Folly although he doesn’t have the use of his voice following a vicious attack by the guards at the institution. Lily Stump is living on the garden grounds because she was an actress at the theater at Harte’s Folly and the plot requires that she be unable to find work at anywhere else in London, so she is writing plays and awaiting the restoration of the theater there. He is mute and hulking, she is spritely and kindhearted, they’re hot for one another. There’s a mystery or two and a cute kid and a really stupid dog. Meh. One thing that bothered me about this storyline is that it is insinuated that Apollo lost his voice following a rape at Bedlam. It was unnecessary for the plot – his beating could have been traumatic enough without it – and then never addressed directly or resolved beyond the vague suggestion that the power of love healed him. Also, this cover is objectively rather pretty but Apollo is consistently described as being an enormous man – well over 6 feet tall, broad and thickly muscled – and the fellow here looks like he’s a high school kid. Apollo should be straining at his collar, not getting swallowed up by it.
Overall, the Maiden Lane books are hit or miss for me but I do like the hits so I am going to continue on with the series and see where things end up.