Dunmore has established herself as an immensely capable writer who is able to weave reality badly needed in the historical romance genre. Her previous books followed suffragettes who were varying degrees of worldly pushing back against powerful men and accept from them only what they want. Even marriage is something that is negotiated with extreme care, because Dunmore goes to great lengths to impress upon the reader the enormous gamble a woman took in marrying a man, who would own her as property. That care is thrown to the wind in this book to give us another generic Alpha-hole With Sob Story Emotionally Abuses Naive Young Woman Into Thinking She Loves Him story.
Plot: Lucien grew up dirt poor, but he was clever, so he resolved to become overwhelmingly rich and use his power both to punish Bad Rich Men and use his power to effect systemic change in how workers and the poor are treated. However, to gain that level of success, he must let go of ideas of ethics, because a commoner can’t really gain power by honest means. So he does a bunch of bad things, but it’s to bad people, so it’s a wash. Then he realizes that money only goes so far in a world still obsessed with the colour of one’s blood, so he decided to become acceptable to the ton, and what better way to do that than to marry into one. Enter Hatty, the most innocent and flighty of our suffragists, more there for the cake and friends than for the cause itself. Hatty has mostly had the generic upbringing of a wealthy, upper class woman, which is to say none at all. Though 20, she knows just about nothing about anything. She understands the plight of Other Women, but does not see herself in them. Until Lucien decides she’s going to be the girl he tricks into marriage by just showing up places she’s at and causing enough whispers that she basically has to. Being little more than a child, she does not understand her physical reaction to him (this is staggering to me), and allows him a kiss in a house full of people. They’re caught, he offers for her, and boom, she’s his property. And then, from this manipulative start, he continues to manipulate her, in the same way her parents do, by forcibly isolating her from her friends, her art, and the world she knows, until she sleeps with him so that an annulment is off the table. I don’t know. Are these shenanigans? I’m too mad to tell.
The thing is that if this book was written by Jude Deveroux or Julia Quinn or whoever, this would be par for the course. They write Alphahole heroes. These are heroes that resonate for a lot of readers, and I’d have blamed myself for picking up a book by an author whose style consistently doesn’t work for me and getting mad at them doing their thing. But Dunmore’s previous heroes walked the line of Alphahole without falling over. Like Loretta Chase, in her previous books, Dunmore balanced the forceful worldliness of the heroes with the forceful worldliness of the heroines. Their expertise may vary, but these people were on sufficiently equal footing, and sufficiently honest about their intentions, that it never dipped into problematic territory. In this book, by the time our heroes are physically intimate, Lucien has stolen her freedom from her, a woman he realizes is intensely sheltered and knows nothing of the world, three times over. This is straight forward sexual coercion. Even Beast didn’t get physical with Belle until after they’d sorted out their issues and she was there by choice. Her consent was obtained through lies and manipulation, and for people who don’t see it, I strongly, strongly recommend you read this story by Katie Way. Abuse can look like a million different things and requires absolutely no physical violence to be violent.
In a series and in a book the focus of which is the necessary systemic changes to how women are treated to allow for equality in a relationship, the fact that we are supposed to accept that while he has robbed her of her choices over and over again, he didn’t violently rape her, so he’s basically a good guy, is beyond jarring. Way to clear the lowest possible standard, Lucien! We literally sit through a lecture of how stories like Beauty and the Beast are meant to reassure frightened and ignorant girls that the power of love can make a monster into a loving husband as a means of control, and then we watch it play out and told it’s supposed to be romantic. It’s inconceivable. People on goodreads complain that Hatty is a spoiled brat, so much so that she almost (or did) ruined the book for them. But her attitude is defined by her ignorance, forced on her by circumstances. Is her ignorance annoying? Well yes, but a gently bred lady is, by definition, a woman who knows literally nothing except pretty doilies and basic household management. She is entering the world for the first time, and it is not succumbing to white feminism or classism to give her some space to learn what she has been prohibited from even knowing exists on pain of ruination and possible permanent hospitalization in an asylum for hysteria. Meanwhile, Lucien, who has seen the cruelty of the world, and who himself was likely the by-product of rape (or who knows, maybe the same type of coercion he used on Hatty), is given a free pass for robbing a woman of her choices and manipulating her into bed because he’s ostensibly doing it to improve worker conditions and because his childhood was sad? Loads of people have tough childhoods and don’t ruin people’s lives for fun. This is some intensely internalized misogyny, people.
I also have a broader issue with the way the plot progresses. Hatty is ignorant and sheltered and spoiled, but she is by no means stupid. Or at least she wasn’t in the previous books. She is driven by freedom, that’s what brought her to suffragist meetings to meet friends, not sewing circles. She wanted meaning in her life, but she explicitly chose a cause that advanced radical change rather than visiting orphanages with handmade doilies. And though she enjoyed the friends and the cake, she watched two of her friends negotiate love matches and read every letter by every abused wife and every radical pamphlet published. So to make her series of idiotic decisions make sense, Dunmore simply isolated her and pretended none of her exposure to her friends and the cause had made any difference. As if Lucie and Anabelle would not have broken into the goddamn house to get Hatty out – prior to her being forced into marriage with a known brute. This is the hand of the author pushing things in the direction she wants them to go and it’s sloppy. It is inconsistent characterization, and given how loving and loyal and brash Lucie and Anabelle are, it does a huge disservice to the characters Dunmore created. Then there’s Ballentine, who appears just long enough to bang Lucie over a desk (despite the urgency with which they returned from their trip to help Hatty), and then ruin Lucie’s plan to help her. Lucie would have stabbed him in the fucking eye if she knew. Again, this is the hand of the author trying to force complications into a story by throwing well established characters under the bus. Things pivot really hard, really fast, in the last couple of chapters, but it was way too late for me and the resolution felt meaningless given the build up.
So if you like the domineering, manipulative Alphahole heroes (no shade, I swear, they’re just not for me) AND Dunmore’s dedication to accuracy in depicting the hardships of the Victoria era, especially for marginalized people, AND don’t mind the major changes made to established characters to make the plot move the way Dunmore wants it to, this book is for you.
If Alphaholes are not your thing, you are no longer safe in Dunmore’s hands. I will still be picking up her next book because I loved the first two so much, but likely only reading a few reviews from trusted sources to vet it first.