If you’re looking for a Julia Quinn-esque story that is more interested in the politics of the day, this is the book for you. Pendle is not one for ballroom scenes when she can take you to a workhouse or an impoverished farm.
Plot: After losing a fiance to a tragic hunting accident she was involved in, Emily becomes obsessed with perfection to protect her family from even the possibility of a stain on her, and therefore their, reputation. After wronging a woman in a way only a rich man can and having an epiphany about the infuriatingly unjust way the world is set up to benefit him for no reason other than an accident of birth, Oscar becomes obsessed with dismantling the system from the inside by pretending to be the man he was as a callous youth to sway Tory House of Lords votes in favour of progressive issues or in favour of literally not showing up for a vote. When the two are trapped in an old mine shaft together overnight during a hunt for ferns, Emily’s hard fought reputation and Oscar’s hard earned morals are both at stake. Shenanigans ensue.
Reading this very much reminded me of the first Bridgerton book. There is insta-love, a fake engagement, a lot of angst, Dark Secrets, and lots of boning and boning related shame. The romance is, to be frank, by the numbers. I will note that it is very refreshing to have Dark Secrets for characters that are, in fact, legitimately dark. How those secrets are dealt with is also entirely on point with what I would expect from Pendle’s empathetic but realistic approach to storytelling. Spoiler alert: not everything can or should be forgiven. Sometimes you just have to learn to accept things and do your best to be a better person.
Where it gets interesting for me is in seeing how the political aspect is developed. I love the idea of a rake reforming his own damn self rather than relying on the heroine to come in and fix him the way it typically happens. I especially love the idea of a man using the power he has to undue wrongs without expecting a pat on the back for basic humanity, and trying to practice what he preaches (something, in my experience, still untrue for most men who consider themselves feminists). The main political thread in the book is the fight to repeal the Infectious Diseases Act which allowed for the assault and imprisonment of any unmarried woman found outside at major port towns under the guise of testing her for sexually transmitted diseases. There are discussions in the book about positions taken by Tory Lords which will make your blood boil. The process of trying to get this monstrous bill repealed was painful and Pendle does not try to sidestep the hurdles facing the law’s opponents.
That said, for folks worried that this book might be too political, do not fear. As much as it is the piece that interested me the most, the bulk of the story is focused on the characters, their interactions, and their struggles to come to terms with their pasts.
Content warnings: there is, of course, discussion of the bill above and its impacts on women, but Pendle is quite careful to craft discussions of it without being needlessly graphic. The focus is on the injustice of it and the hypocrisy of men who support it rather than the details of what happens during these stops.