In a previous Cannonball Read post I referenced not reading romance. I need to amend that post–I used to not read romance; now it is almost all I read. I’ve been puzzling through why, and I’ve settled on the idea that romance is very formulaic. This is usually considered a defect in literature, but I’d argue that formulas exist for a reason (Shakespeare and Austen are formulaic), and at this point in the pandemic, the a work of television, film, or literature that works well within generic formulas is exactly what appeals to me.
On a recommendation from a podcast (shoutout to Pop Culture Happy House over at NPR) I checked out and then promptly flew through the Bareknuckle Bastards series, set in Regency England. The three Bastards met as children, when the malicious Duke of Marwick pitted his three illegitimate children (with different mothers) against each other for his title (his daughter, Grace, is illegitimate due to the Duchess’s infidelity). When one brother wins but threatens the other three, they flee to the shadowy streets of Covent Garden.
The contrast between crime-filled Covent Garden and aristocratic Mayfair frames all three novels. The Bastards–Devil, Beast, and Grace–build an empire in Covent Garden, gaining wealth and power if not respectability. In the first novel, Devil, plans to seduce the “spinster” (she’s 27) Lady Felicity Faircloth, as a means of preventing his brother, Ewan, now the Duke of Marwick, from marrying her and producing an heir. In the second novel, Beast pursues Hattie Sedley (also unmarriageable at 29), who wishes to take over her father’s shipping company. Felicity and Hattie are both pulled away from the artifice of Mayfair and the conventional marriages they might make toward the rowdy, uncouth Covent Garden and a passionate love affair (of course). The final book departs from this pattern, following the Bastard sister, Grace, as she tries to determine what happened to Ewan those many years before, and why he betrayed her.
This is escapism at its best, and MacLean is smart enough to lean into the world of Regency romance completely while also winking at her audience aa bit–Felicity Faircloth remarks, at one point, “That sounds like the plot to a ridiculous novel.” It is, but it is still fun.