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After my post on Lisa Kleypas’s Dreaming of You, I became aware of an on-going debate between historical romance readers over the following question: who is the better hero, Derek Craven or St. Vincent from Devil in Winter? I had read Devil in Winter a long time ago and I decided to reread it so that I could truly weigh in on this question—this is exactly the kind of literary debate I adore and so I was eager to form an opinion!!

And, so, I’ll just say up front that, in the end, it wasn’t even close for me. Any day of the week, for me, Derek Craven is a better hero than St. Vincent.

That said, I fully acknowledge that the reasons for this preference are almost completely personal/subjective. And I will add that, ultimately, I think that St. Vincent is probably a more influential/iconic hero in the genre—he felt more recognizable to me as a hero prototype than Derek Craven, who feels like more of an outlier or, perhaps more accurately, a hero that has sparked a more minor vein of imitation in the genre. Furthermore, I think it is worth noting that the two heroes share many core similarities (as does another favorite Kleypas hero of mine—Jack Delvin). These heroes are almost instantly besotted with their heroines and never really deviate from that devoted state throughout the novel—and Kleypas does really great work dramatizing their devotion from the jump.

So, then, why Derek Craven for me? I think, ultimately, while I very much enjoyed St. Vincent as a hero, I found Derek Craven’s rags-to-riches trajectory and genuinely traumatic backstory more compelling. St. Vincent has your typical rake backstory and, while his relationship with Evie is super sweet and hot, it is hard to beat how deeply Derek Craven needs Sara Fielding. The stakes feel so high for Derek Craven; I felt like, if he couldn’t find a way to let himself be with Sara, that he would never find peace. I also think the fact that Derek and Sara come from such different worlds makes it feel very believable that he would meet her and feel like she isn’t like anyone he has ever met before. Whereas with St. Vincent and Evie, they have met before and he overlooked her…later, of course, he decides that she is unlike anyone else, etc., but it does give their love story a bit more of a pedestrian touch in my opinion because they are already known quantities to each other, not just personally but in terms of their social types (rake/wallflower). Now, I love rake/wallflower, and you could categorize Sara and Derek along similar lines, but I felt like they really transcended that trope, whereas St. Vincent and Evie were nestled firmly within it.

Along the same lines, St. Vincent and Evie have a very compelling partnership and love story, but it felt more conventional to me, which made it a bit less thrilling. St. Vincent was the villain in the previous book of this series; coming into his own book, he desperately needs funds and a purpose in life. Evie brings him not only money, but an occupation as a gaming hell owner. Because he was so aimless previously, St. Vincent did feel a bit more blank to me as a hero, even though he is very charming and has amazing chemistry with Evie. It is very interesting to me that St. Vincent doesn’t really quite have a solid identity at the beginning of his book and then gains it through the gaming hell by the end—whereas Derek Craven has a very solid identity as a gaming hell owner at the beginning of Dreaming of You which he then loses by the end of that book. When Derek Craven loses that identity, he really seems to shed the pain and trauma of his past and he can start a new life. I don’t have a problem with St. Vincent running the gaming hell as his newfound identity, but, again, it just felt more run-of-the-mill to me.

I do think that the plotting in Devil in Winter is more controlled and shows Kleypas’s maturation as a writer—you can tell that she has been writing for ten more years in Devil in Winter. While I really liked the wild plot of Dreaming of You, it is definitely much more bonkers and half-baked than Devil in Winter. Furthermore, as someone who loves heat/steam/spice, Devil in Winter has sex between the hero and heroine much earlier than Dreaming of You, which is a serious point in favor of the former. Derek Craven and Sara take longer to get off the ground in that way and I don’t think they actually have sex until 70% of the way through—I wouldn’t classify it as a slow burn because they have at least one very steamy encounter before that, but, nevertheless, it is not as sex-forward as Devil in Winter. And that extra heat is all to the credit of Devil in Winter.

That said, I did have one major issue with Devil in Winter that does not have to do directly with St. Vincent. I was uncomfortable with Kleypas’s depiction of Cam Rohan, who is a half-Romani, half-Irish character, and who I know later gets his own book (which I haven’t read) at the beginning of the Hathaways series. I love the idea of Romani representation in a Victorian historical because of the strong Romani presence in England during this period, but at times the description of Cam felt, uh, a bit too authentically nineteenth century. In many instances, Cam seemed to be very exoticized/Orientalized in a way that felt outdated and took me out of the story (for instance, the narration repeatedly referred to him as “the Rom,” which just felt obviously otherizing and unnecessary and hence quite a strange choice). Obviously, any Romani character written by a non-Romani author runs the risk of being inauthentic/inaccurate, but there were aspects of Cam’s characterization that felt clearly insensitive and easily avoidable, so I was confused as to why they were there. In the end, this depiction of Cam ended up functioning as I thought the Joyce character in Dreaming of You would for me. I had heard that the depiction of Joyce was misogynistic, but her character didn’t really end up bothering me very much—I ended up being way more uncomfortable with this depiction of Cam. Now, of course, this depiction of Cam does not directly affect my perception of St. Vincent, but this issue obviously informed my general experience of this book, so I thought that it was worth mentioning.

Overall, both of these Kleypas heroes are amazing. I really enjoyed reading both Dreaming of You and Devil in Winter—I just love Derek Craven more! I can't help it.

Which hero do you prefer?

Okay, so, of course, I loved this one. I ADORE a wounded hero—physically or emotionally, either way, I’m sorry, I’m sick!!—and I love a hero who is straight up obsessed with his love interest, so Derek Craven (unsurprisingly) really worked for me. I love when she ~heals~ him and, boy, this book is PEAK she heals him. Before I get into all of that, though, I feel that it needs to be highlighted just how good Lisa Kleypas’s writing is in this book. In the broader literary community, historical romance doesn’t tend to get a lot of love for the quality of its writing (to understate the case LOL), but I would challenge anyone not to admire the writing in this book. The prose never calls attention to itself or takes up too much space but nevertheless I found myself stopping occasionally to admire a particularly deft turn of phrase or a little detail that hints at but does not outright explain deeper dynamics—Kleypas can do so much work with just a few words and that, to me, is the mark of great writing.

There are a few other aspects of Dreaming of You which I see as Lisa Kleypas hallmarks. First, I love the complexity of her characters—in all the Lisa Kleypas books that I have read, she always creates characters who feel real and behave in ways that feel deeply human. While her heroines—like Sara Fielding—are often sweet, smart, and have strong moral compasses, they always avoid the Perfect Angel syndrome that can be hard to shake in historical romances. So often in historicals, the heroine might feel like she is a bad person or flawed, etc., but she comes off to the reader as almost too perfect—it is a particularly pernicious problem in historicals became often the time period constraints on women inhibit their experiences and stigmatize transgressions that, to us, are no longer taboo. Lisa Kleypas avoids this issue with the most grace I have ever seen from a historical author—and without changing the essential nature of her heroines. For instance, in this book, Sara Fielding is this virginal, innocent heroine, but she is also a person with tangible, palpable flaws. For instance, she gets engaged to her milquetoast suitor from back home after meeting Derek---or, alternatively, when she feels rejected by Derek, she decides to alight into the night with his gaming hell rival, Ivo Jenner.

I also love how Kleypas’s books tend not to end with the marriage of the main couple but show their early married life and the conflicts therein. I always love it so much and think it does great things for the book. I wish more authors made this move outside of marriage of convenience narratives.

Anyway, Dreaming of You is really phenomenal for a variety of reasons, but chief among them, I think, is how, in this book, Kleypas has the ratio of conflict and harmony between her main characters down to a science. Very seldom did I feel annoyed with what the characters were doing and I almost never felt like they were being separated unnecessarily. I also thought that neither Sara nor Derek had annoying emotional hang ups—like even though their marriage was sort of brought about by circumstances, Sara doesn’t doubt Derek’s love for her. She knows that he is obsessed with her and she isn’t constantly doubting that fact, which made his attachment to her feel all the more real.

Is Derek Craven my favorite romance hero of all time? While I am not quite ready to bestow this laurel upon him, I am struggling to think of a hero I like MORE. Derek Craven is great because he melds alpha traits and softer characteristics in a pretty appealing medley—also, his reasons for having emotional issues are much more sympathetic than your typical alpha aristocrat with daddy issues. Furthermore, I was impressed by how Kleypas makes his experience and her innocence feel fresh—because he has been forced to be sexually experienced by circumstance (and much of that experience was complicated or even traumatic) his scruples about sullying Sara by association felt much more understandable. Their dynamic felt much more authentic than when the hero has been engaging in a bacchanalia of sensual delights for the past decade and then falls in love with a virginal girl ashamed of her own desires. Because of the lack of affection in Derek's life experiences, they felt on equal footing---it felt like Derek had sexual experience but little love in his life, whereas Sara had a loving family but little sexual experience.

When I listened to the Fated Mates episode about Dreaming of You, they noted that the depiction of Derek’s former mistress, Joyce, engages in the evil-other-woman trope and felt problematic because she is so demonized. I usually hate this trope, too, so I had girded myself for a characterization that I would find irritating. However, I have to say that I didn’t really mind! I think a big reason why I felt this way was because Joyce being evil was a main part of the plot from the beginning. I really don’t like it when the former mistress or lover is evil and it is revealed that she is evil/she becomes a problem in the third act—not only is it predictable in this capacity, but it is often used as a way to highlight the heroine’s goodness and make clear why the hero chooses her, etc. I didn’t mind this depiction of Joyce as much, though, because she is a problem from the beginning of the book; she is literally the reason Sara and Derek meet. Sara saves him from the men that Joyce sent to attack him. Therefore, it felt easier to categorize her as a particular woman and not a type of woman. Also, the fact that she was an aristocratic woman and an in-group member of the ton—a group that has both excluded Derek and given rise to his success—meant she embodied his love/hate relationship with the aristocracy. While I don’t generally love an evil ex-mistress, I don’t think it would have been as satisfying if Derek was being stalked by Ivo Jenner instead. You perhaps could take out the antagonist all together, but the book wouldn’t be as dramatic or angsty, I don’t think. Overall, in this one instance at least, the evil ex-mistress didn't really bother me.

Overall, I LOVED Dreaming of You. It is an amazing gaming hell book and a stellar historical romance. One of my new all-time favorites, for sure!

To conclude my baron-themed week, I am reviewing two books for my Recent Indie & Small Press Favorites feature that include baron characters. Karla Kratovil’s A Perfect Engagement and Sophie Barnes’s The Roguish Baron were both released in May and I really enjoyed them both!

Karla Kratovil’s A Perfect Engagement

The heroine of this book, Charlotte Grisham, is the daughter of a baron, and her father (and her mother) fit into the evil baron/baroness trope pretty perfectly. As becomes quickly evident, both parents mistreat their daughter and participate in the scheming social climbing often attributed to the baron rank in historical romances. When Charlotte becomes engaged to Miles Weston, a marquess, they are delighted—they didn’t believe Charlotte capable of making such a good match, so they are over the moon when she secures such a high-ranking fiancé. The baron and baroness quickly plan an elaborate weeklong engagement party for the couple at their country estate—except that Miles, burdened with work, cannot make it to the party and sends his identical twin brother, Daniel, to stand in as himself.

This setup is so fun! Miles and Charlotte became engaged after he pushed her out of the way of a speeding carriage and it happened quickly, so they don’t know each other very well. Nevertheless, Charlotte realizes right away that Daniel is not Miles—and quickly finds herself connecting in deeper ways with Daniel than she ever has with Miles. Daniel and Charlotte keep up the ruse to spare her the embarrassment of not having her fiancé attend their engagement party and, by the time Miles shows up, the two are essentially in love. After that, it takes quite a bit of drama and personal bravery for this pair to find their HEA.

There was one other thing that I really appreciated about this book. Daniel is still close with a former lover of his because they share a child together and this relationship is handled beautifully. It was nice to see a hero have an ex who is depicted in such a positive light—I really don’t care for the evil ex-mistress trope in historical romance and the depiction of Phoebe, Daniel’s ex, was a lovely departure from those types of characters.

Overall, I recommend A Perfect Engagement if you love identical twin heroes, mistaken identities, and historicals that are on the lower end of the spice scale (but that still have some spice!).

Sophie Barnes’s The Roguish Baron

Here we have the rare baron hero! Sophie Barnes’s The Roguish Baron was a sweet, short read, and I adored the childhood-friends-to-lovers set-up. Sophia and Jack always had a close connection as children, but, four years before the start of the novel, he left their country village and went to London to put space between the two of them. His father—an Earl—had told him that he could never marry Sophia and, if he did, he would forfeit his inheritance. He didn't feel that he was in love with Sophia at this point, but he was offended by his father's attempt to intervene and threaten him. He tells Sophia that he isn't interested in her and that she should forget him before his departure for the city. (And she is heartbroken because she has fallen in love with him). Once he is in London, he becomes--of course!--a rogue and acquires quite the reputation for his liaisons with married and unmarried women.

Now, Jack has returned to their country village for the first time since this rupture with both his father and Sophia. Upon arrival, he discovers that Sophia has recently become engaged to her foster brother, Edward. Jack immediately takes a dislike to this turn of events and it causes him to realize that he has long been in love with Sophia. They find their way together (including getting caught in a storm and having to take shelter in an empty shepherd’s cottage—love this trope!) and secure their HEA against the odds (which include a surprise inheritance for Sophia).

The Roguish Baron was truly tropetastic and had a lot of elements that I love in historicals. I definitely recommend it, especially if you like baron heroes, childhood-friends-to-lovers, and the best friends’ older brother trope. I also recommend it if you enjoy a shorter read--at 138 Kindle pages, this book was refreshing and light while still having great world building and characters.

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