As the last novel in the Bareknuckle Bastard series, I was looking forward to seeing how Sarah McLean would resolve Grace/Dahlia and Ewan’s story because Grace was definitely a force to be reckoned with in the previous two novels, and I couldn’t wait to see how she would challenge Ewan and keep him on his toes as he attempted to redeem himself.
However, Sarah McLean had two major challenges to overcome with writing this novel, so it was tapered excitement.
- Ewan, the romantic lead of this story, was set up as the villain/nemesis in the previous two novels, and it was going to take quite a lot for him to redeem himself (while I figured the events from their childhood could be explained as a misunderstanding of his motivations, it’s his actions in the last two novels that would make him near impossible to redeem).
- Grace/Dahlia living up to her reputation – Grace is the third of the trio of Bareknuckle Bastards and while Devil and Beast were set up as daunting in their own right, the novels made clear that Grace was the most formidable of them all. Whenever she showed up in the previous novels, it was because her brothers screwed up and she had to come in to fix things. It is always difficult to take a character like this, and then have them remain just as bad ass when they are the main character rather than a side character. McLean already did this once in another series of hers, and I felt like the character lost some of their bite once thrust into the leading role.
Unfortunately, I don’t think this novel quite did either character justice or managed to overcome the challenges. The novel begins right after the ending of the previous novel’s ending, and after years of hiding from Ewan, Grace has him in her custody. He was wounded, and after he has recovered enough, Grace faces him … for a boxing match. I understand McLean was trying to show that Grace is tough, but this incredible business woman that has a ring of spies and a successful bordello catering to women finally gets her arch-nemesis in her grasp, and her master plan is to beat him up? Like what is even going on here? I was expecting something more along the lines of psychological warfare or ruining his estate.
Ewan leaves, ordered never to come back. Fast forward a year, and Ewan is back in London – he has spent the last year trying to make himself a better man, and now he wants to win Grace, his childhood love, back. He deeply regrets the pain he caused and the deaths he is responsible for as result of his search for her. His choice of redemption? Doing physical labor for his brothers to show how sorry he is (and turn Grace on in the process because muscles …).
I think the thing that frustrated me is that there are so many other ways this could have gone and made more sense – as much as Ewan may hate his title and how he got it, he has power to make a real difference; his redemption could have involved him using his title for good, subverting everything his father stood for rather than showing how he is still a man of the people that can throw a punch.
Grace, on the other hand, is supposedly this powerful business woman that runs Covent Garden and all we see is her hosting a major event for her patrons and joking around with some of the inhabitants of the Garden. After all this build up, I wanted to see more of her running things. The novel even lays some potential obstacles out early on when her employees ask her about hiring additional security due to some threats against other businesses catering to women. Grace just shrugs her shoulder and approves. I am not saying it had to take up a major part of the book, but it would have been nice to see her at least being worried about a potential threat, using her spy network to dig into it and otherwise being proactive about this rather than ignoring it only for it to predictably come back in the final 10% of the book.
And that really is where the main issue is. The novel didn’t have enough of a plot or motivations for the characters outside of each other. After setting up Ewan as diabolical nemesis, he is a very generic hero. Grace is drawn to Ewan because of their shared history (from 2o years ago when they were 13; I understand why McLean had them be younger for the earlier novels as a major life shaping event but it hurt the love story because they were too young when it started – this should have been an enemies to lovers story, not a second chance romance). Grace is already a successful business woman (and completely ignoring potential threats) – at least with Ewan having a redemption path, his focus on being a better man for Grace could be enough as his character motivation. But Grace’s only focus being Ewan? It completely waters down the character, and just made for a drawn out middle part of the book where very little of interest happened.
Now, I get this is a romance, and there is wide range in romances as far as heavy or light on plot. The thing is, though, even the ones that could be described as having very low stakes or being more focused on relationship between the characters rather than external plot usually have characters with some type of motivation beyond being with their love interest. Also, the ones that are more character focused tend to have a lot of witty banter between the characters with genuinely funny lines, and great chemistry. Beyond lust and angst, I didn’t get that here. A story needs to have either a decent plot or engaging characters. Unfortunately, this one was a miss on both fronts for me.
So overall, I was disappointed in this one but maybe this will click better for someone else – definitely curious to see everyone else’s thoughts once they read it.