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Here are my favorite new releases for the month of March! This month I have three romances to recommend that are truly perfect. Each one displays such artistry in its execution and was just an all-around privilege to read. I also think that all three of these books display a trend in historical romances that has been happening for a while now: a shift towards emotionally intelligent heroes. All of the heroes in these books are handsome, commanding men who know who they are…and yet they also have the ability to understand their own emotions and translate them into action/behavior. I love this evolution and so I loved each of these books. I can’t imagine three better reads for historical romance fans to pick up in April.

Eloisa James’s How To Be a Wallflower

First of all, I am so excited to review an Eloisa James, because she is a bit of a personal hero of mine. She writes historical romance novels and she is an English professor, which is the same trajectory I am going for, so I think she is just amazing. I also really appreciate how I can see the Renaissance scholar in each of her books and How to Be a Wallflower was no exception. The emphasis on the theatre, the references to early modern plays, and the critique of Shakespeare’s language in Romeo and Juliet—I loved it all.

And, like all of James’s work, this book was just SO fun. She has a singular talent for creating buoyant, charming heroines and Cleo is this type exactly. She is unflappable and successful (she runs a commode empire) and yet is still vulnerable and a little otherworldly. I particularly enjoyed the dynamic that Cleo has with her late mother—she still hears her mother talking to her in her head and the rendering of their relationship felt so real. James really shows how Cleo loved her mother tremendously but also was hurt by her tempestuous behavior. Over the course of the novel, Cleo sifts through the parts of her relationship with her mother that she wants to remember and treasure and the parts that were damaging or left her feeling alone. This process felt so relatable and seeing this back-and-forth unfold gave Cleo a lot of depth. Similarly, Jake was a great hero. I really appreciated how he recognized early on that he loved Cleo and wanted to pursue her and that he didn’t care about what had originally driven him to England anymore. It is great to see such emotional intelligence in a hero and Cleo even recognizes this trait in Jake, telling him at one point that he understands his emotions more quickly than she does her own. I loved this role reversal and I think it marks a trend in historical romances. Jake is an alpha hero in many ways; he is domineering when it comes to business and even in his interpersonal relationships. That said, his comfort being vulnerable reflects, I think, the growing popularity of emotionally intelligent heroes and the fact that, in 2022, many readers find nothing sexier than a man with some soft skills. I definitely feel this way myself and so I was delighted to read Jake.

How to Be a Wallflower is a delectable historical written by a master of the genre. Jake and Cleo have a totally magical connection and, overall, this book is not-to-be-missed.

Diana Quincy’s The Marquess Makes His Move

When I was reading this book and reached the twist in the middle, I gasped aloud in such a way that my husband thought that something terrible had happened. To avoid any spoilers, I won’t reveal what exactly got that reaction from me—however, I will say that, up until that point, I thought I had foreseen where the plot was going, but Quincy got me!!!

I really enjoyed the opening premise of this book: Alex, a Marquess, disguises himself as a footman in order to find evidence that a mapmaker has cheated him out of his land. He begins to fall in love, however, with the mapmaker’s wife—who we know all along is actually the mapmaker in question, because she does the work for the business while her loathsome husband merely profits from it—and Alex and Rose quickly find themselves drawn closer and closer together. This premise did really interesting things in regard to class. At first, Rose thinks that Alex is below her on the socioeconomic scale and then it is revealed that, in fact, he is far above her in the social hierarchy. This allowed the book to elegantly cover a wide span of the Regency social spectrum in a way that was really refreshing to read, not to mention true to the period. This wide social scope recalled actual nineteenth-century novels in the best way.

This book also does such a good job of modulating plot and emotion. All of the characters’ reactions to what unfolds felt totally natural—I tend to get easily frustrated with main characters’ emotional reactions to plot events, especially when there are dramatic events and revelations, but I felt thoroughly satisfied here with how Quincy renders Rose and Alex’s emotional responses. I also loved the details of this book: Rose’s mapmaking, Alex’s realizations about what life is like for servants, and the way that Rose and Alex share the overlapping aspects of their heritage—all were beautifully done. I particularly enjoyed how their relationship allowed both of them, by the end, to balance the different aspects of their identities in true harmony: their pasts, their families, their work—it all came together for a super convincing and satisfying HEA. Alex and Rose have a real love story and, in particular, you really feel how much he gives to her, but not in a way that felt like it detracted from the strength of her character. Rather, I felt like Alex allows Rose to fully enjoy life and achieve what she wants not just logistically but emotionally…and that was gorgeous to see unfold on the page.

Emily Rath’s Beautiful Things

Okay everyone, this book was a revelation for yours truly. Beautiful Things is a reverse-harem Regency romance, which means that the heroine has not one but—in this case—three heroes with whom she will have an HEA. I had never read a reverse harem romance before, but when I saw Beautiful Things on Instagram, I knew I had to try it. And let me tell you—if you love Regency romance, you have to read this one. Do you ever find yourself getting impatient with the aspects of a historical that are tangential to the central relationship? The genius of a reverse harem romance is that, due to the plethora of main characters, almost all of the book is taken up with the central relationship. Additionally, in Regencies where the tropes feel so well-established and the different types of heroes are familiar, the reverse harem structure really worked because you get to enjoy multiple hero types/plotline types at once. Let me map the different heroes in this book onto Jane Austen protagonists to explain the brilliance of this structure: James is the Mr. Darcy; Renley is the Captain Wentworth; and Burke is the Edward Ferrars—and you, the reader, get to have all of them in one book. And the reverse harem also ratchets up the stakes because Rath has to plot HEAs for four characters and not just two, so the entire time I was like, how is this going to work?!? In typical Regencies, the obstacles seem much more manageable and I loved the extra conflict here. Overall, this book is absolutely delicious and really, really fun. It’s everything to love about a Regency x 3.

And, not only is the concept for this book wonderful, it is extremely well-executed. Rath’s writing is beautiful and the pacing is top-notch. Seriously. Even though this book begins as a bit of a slow burn, it is not at all frustrating—it is super steamy and the character dynamics really work. All of the heroes are friends with one another and I personally really enjoyed reading the passages where they all talk about the heroine together and discuss the intricate emotional and erotic dynamics at play between all four of them. Also, the passages between James and his brother, the Duke (not one of the heroes), were hilarious??? I was very amused by the relationships between the various male characters in this book and seeing the heroine, Rosalie, attempting to navigate these waters was very entertaining.

The heroine herself is also a very well-rendered character. She really doesn’t want to get married and have a conventional love story. I found it moving how her love interests respect her desire to be independent and see her wish to remain unmarried as core to her identity as opposed to an emotional obstacle to be overcome by love. And, when the steamy scenes arrive, they REALLY deliver. Put it in my veins!!

If you enjoy high-steam Regency romances, Emily Rath’s Beautiful Things is a must-read. This is one of those books where, after I finished it, I actually missed the characters. It’s so good that I almost wish that I wrote it…except then I wouldn’t have gotten to enjoy it as a reader and I wouldn’t want to give that up. In short, you really should go buy and enjoy now.

This week I posed a question in my Instagram Stories: have other romance readers/readers of The Viscount Who Loved Me noticed that non-readers of the series/the genre seemed to enjoy Season 2 more than they did? In short, does reading the Bridgerton books ahead of time actually diminish your enjoyment of Bridgerton, the show? I received a range of fascinating responses to my question—and they really helped me think through the issues of adaptation and genre that I have been dwelling on after completing my own viewing of Season 2. In these responses, a lot of people noticed what I had initially observed: that friends/family who hadn’t read The Viscount Who Loved Me and aren’t historical romance readers seemed to enjoy the show more. However, the more I talked to people, the more complicated the picture became: some fans of The Viscount Who Loved Me adored Season 2 and some non-readers had real complaints about the plotlines and arc of the season.

My question was initially prompted by a conversation that I had with my brother. At first (over text), he told me that he loved Season 2, saying it left “a Bridgerton-shaped hole in his life” when he was done. Then, however, when we talked later, he had a lot of complaints about the love triangle and the lack of steam! He said—and I quote—“we are here for the smut!”, which was hilarious to me because my brother is very much not a romance reader and yet he was mirroring a lot of the concerns of those very familiar with the original content of The Viscount Who Loved Me. I also discussed Season 2 with a close friend of mine. While she gave the caveat that she watched “uncritically” and had the show on in the background, she nevertheless felt this season wasn’t as good as the first.

I have been trying to gauge the reactions of other Bridgerton viewers not because I am really questioning the objective quality of Season 2. While it has flaws as an adaptation and as a freestanding story, ultimately I enjoyed the eight episodes and that is a feat in and of itself. In general, I am hesitant to call entertainment I enjoy “bad”—for myself, I don’t think it is fair to call a show “bad” if I happily watch it in its entirety!! A DNF is my reaction to an aesthetic failure, not giving up eight hours of my life—at least in my opinion. (Which isn’t to say that content that I watch the entirety of can’t be many other things besides bad, such as problematic, disappointing, saccharine, cringe-worthy, etc., or that it is immune from criticism.) I think that Season 2 was a very high-quality production and that the acting by Simone Ashley and Jonathan Bailey was truly superb. And, as with last season, the racial diversity of the casting and the newly envisioned world of the show was gratifying to see and a wonderful change to the source material. For me personally, there is no doubt that I will watch Season 3.

I am so interested in hearing the reactions from my friends and family and the histrom community at large, however, because I am ultimately fascinated by what the reception of Bridgerton says about its status as an adaptation of a historical romance novel. What really keeps me thinking and talking about Bridgerton Season 2 isn’t whether I found it successful or unsuccessful as a show, but a different question altogether. Specifically, I keep asking myself: what genre does Bridgerton Season 2 belong within? Because we saw so little of Kate and Anthony together, this season seemed to me much more like a conventional romantic drama than a romance.

And this issue is really my big concern/disappointment--but also point of fascination--with Bridgerton Season 2. Julia Quinn’s original series is squarely in the historical romance genre—published by Avon, the house I always see as the high canon of historical romances modern and old school, the Bridgerton books are completely of the genre and for its readers. The show is pitched as an adaptation of these books and, last season, it seemed committed to bringing the genre to life on screen: we watched Simon and Daphne’s relationship develop with the fine-grained detail we expect from a historical romance. Bridgerton Season 2, however, felt not only more like a conventional soap opera or dramedy (how many times have we seen an engagement break down at the altar??), but also more like an actual nineteenth-century novel. For instance, there is a late nineteenth-century novel, The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells, which has a plot with striking similarities to Season 2 of Bridgerton. In this book, a wealthy man from a prominent, aristocratic family begins to visit and socialize with a nouveau riche family in which there are two daughters. The younger daughter is the acknowledged beauty of the family and everyone assumes that the young man is there to court her. The younger daughter falls in love with him. Both families expect an engagement. Then the young man confesses his love to the bookish, acerbic older sister. The entire time he was visiting for her and not the younger sister; the older sister suspected his feelings and returned them, but had no evidence to support her intuition, especially when everyone seemed so certain he was interested in her sister. Eventually, the older sister and the young man marry, but not before the angst ratchets up to 1000 and everyone involved has endured emotional torture.

To me, on some fundamental level, Bridgerton Season 2 felt more similar to The Rise of Silas Lapham than The Viscount Who Loved Me. And I felt this way not because of any particular scene being left out or any one change, but because of the tone of the whole. The level of angst, the deep emotional inhibition of Kate and Anthony, and most of all the scanty development of their relationship echoed actual nineteenth-century novels more than contemporary historical romances. I love The Rise of Silas Lapham! But it is not a historical romance. And I think this conflict crystallizes my central gripe with Season 2: I want to see historical romances adapted for the screen and Season 2 just did not feel enough like one to me. Bridgerton fans who liked Season 2 say that you have to separate the book and the show and see them as different in order to enjoy both—and I think this perspective is very smart, sound advice. I can totally see the show as a very enjoyable separate entity with characters who are similar to but not the same as those in The Viscount Who Loved Me.

However, that said, I think the reason that many Bridgerton fans and historical romance readers have been so dissatisfied with Season 2 is not because the show changed aspects of the original plot and characters to translate its arc onto the screen—but because the show runners kind of ended up adapting The Viscount Who Loved Me out of the historical romance genre altogether. To me, Season 2 felt disturbingly close to a steamier version of a Jane Austen adaptation (I mean, Jane Austen would never tolerate sister v. sister for her central protagonists, but I digress). Really, it was a Jane Austen-esque conflict with heightened dramatic stakes and a bonus sex scene. And I love Jane Austen and would actually love to see one of her books adapted with a really erotic bent (like the most recent adaptation of Emma x 10), but such a production would still be fundamentally different from a historical romance. Historical romance is a genre that consciously presents its chosen time period to mirror the concerns of contemporary readers, especially its sexual and gender politics. Novels by Austen and other nineteenth-century realist writers aim to depict and comment on their society and its central concerns as they actually existed, at least in the mind of their creators. In the end, I think Season 1 of Bridgerton delivered as an adaptation of a historical romance novel, but I’m not sure that Season 2 did. That doesn’t mean that Season 2 wasn’t enjoyable or valuable, but, as someone who loves the genre and is eager to see it adapted for the screen, I was disappointed.

As always, I am very curious to hear the thoughts of others!

Welcome to my new monthly feature! Here, I will profile recent releases or upcoming historical romances published independently by authors or through small presses. I think that some of the most exciting work in historical romance today is being done by writers publishing independently or through small presses and I wanted to create a space to explicitly focus on these works, which don’t always get their due in traditional review spaces.

Many of the writers that will be included in this feature will have also published traditionally, and many will have not, but, regardless, the focus will be on books not put out by Big Four publishers.

Keep reading for reviews of my four recent indie/small pub favorites! And prepare for more to come next month.

Erica Ridley, Love Letters by the Sea

Love Letters by the Sea is the fourth and last entry in the Siren’s Retreat series, a collaboration between Grace Burrowes and Erica Ridley. I hadn’t read the earlier three in the series, but I had no difficulty at all in enjoying this one.

This novel is a finely-wrought historical romance that does admirable work blending the internal and external obstacles to the central couple, Mrs. Deborah Cartwright and Mr. Patrick Gretham, finding their HEA. I found so much about this novel refreshing. I haven’t read that many historical romances that feature older characters and this novel reminded me that characters who aren’t in the first blush of youth actually have way more potential for high-quality conflict. When two characters are young, hot, rich, and relatively unattached, the barriers keeping them apart can be difficult to sell; Love Letters by the Sea shows how, for a couple who has lived more of life, the emotional and logistical impediments to a relationship are often inherently more believable. (And I fully acknowledge here that I am calling these characters “older” when Deborah is only thirty-five—but that is still older for most historical heroines. Also, Deborah feels she has lived a whole life already herself, having been happily married and then widowed before meeting Patrick). For instance, the first conflict we see to their relationship is a deep-seated emotional one: Deborah does not want to fall in love again because she feels that it would be disloyal to her late husband. I appreciated this conflict for the actual stumbling block that it is; it is not something easily solved and I loved seeing such a real emotional dilemma put at the center of a historical romance.

I also adored that Patrick is man of business for an earl rather than a duke or nobleman himself. He has to deal with the fact that his love for Deborah conflicts with the role he must play for his employer. Often in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century historical romances, male main characters are kings of their domain with complete self-determination—the fantasy of that is really powerful (and I definitely enjoy delighting in it!!!), but I really saw the value here in a male main character who—like many men and women then and now—has an employer and the constraints of his job to answer to. Ridley puts exquisite care into showing how Patrick feels caught between his livelihood (and his means of offering Deborah a comfortable life) and his love for her; it is really admirably done and I wish we saw more heroes in historicals struggling with this very realistic problem.

I would definitely recommend this book to readers who enjoy historical romances that skew towards realism (both emotionally and in terms of historical accuracy), but also sweetness. Additionally, this book is technically a Regency (it takes places in 1818), but it had a distinctly Victorian flavor to me, so if that is your jam, I definitely think you will enjoy. Also, I will note that it is not very high on the spice scale at all (only kissing is shown on page), so if you enjoy low-steam, then you’ll definitely like this story—and I will add that, traditionally, I tend to prefer high-steam books, but I really didn’t mind the absence of sex scenes here, because I found the plot so well-managed and the emotional connection between the two characters so rich. Overall, the relationship between Patrick and Deborah is very sweet and so I would advise reading it if you are looking for a tender romance between two good people who always treat each other with respect—and/or you enjoy a hero with emotional maturity who really cares about connecting and building a life with his love interest. It felt like a very healing and romantic read to me and so, in particular, I recommend Love Letters by the Sea to those seeking that reading experience.

Thank you to Author Collective 20 for providing me with an ARC of this book!

Nadine Millard, A Springtime Scandal

I was utterly charmed by this novel! I love a high-concept historical romance, but I also equally adore a classic entry in the genre done right and A Springtime Scandal is definitely the latter. If Bridgerton Season 2 left you wanting for a historical regency that hits all the tropes and keeps its focus tightly focused on its main characters, let me recommend A Springtime Scandal. It is a delightful, no-frills regency, with everything you need from the genre. There is no distraction from the main romance here nor is Millard asking you to care about a complex set of extenuating circumstances or a large cast of characters—she gives you just enough of the world to set up the other books in the series, but in an efficient way that doesn’t detract from the central romance. Christian and Eloide have a (largely) low-angst, steamy connection, and this book hits the marks you want and expect. We get a scandal in the gardens, carriage travel, just one bed, and balls in the country and in London—so this book really runs the gamut of traditional Regency locations and scenarios beloved to readers of the genre.

Christian is a hero that I have a particular weakness for: the unattached, untraumatized aristocrat rake-lite who suffers from a bit of rootlessness and ennui but no soul-rending trauma. I can really appreciate a hero with demons—I have read every Sarah MacLean book, after all—but I also love heroes like Christian who are just going about their lives pleasantly enough until the other main character draws them into the deep end of the pool emotions-wise. Essentially, Christian felt to me like your classic popular boy/high school quarterback/leading man, but the Regency version, so (of course) he is a viscount.

I also enjoyed Elodie’s dynamic with her sisters—it was a nice departure from the norm. Elodie is the responsible older sister and her three younger sisters are rebellious and often at risk of ruining the reputation of their family. Usually, a novel with this set-up demonizes the wayward younger sisters or makes clear from the outset that the sisters are already perfectly bonded and essentially similar; I really appreciated that Elodie and her sisters actually have their own arc over the course of the novel. Elodie goes from feeling like she must rein her sisters in and resenting them to seeing that they are the ones who are there for her when she needs them most; they push her not to accept less for herself and she comes to absorb some of their rebellious nature. This dynamic changed up the canonical Jane and Elizabeth Bennett vs. Kitty and Lydia Bennett dichotomy—because of Pride and Prejudice, Regency romance abounds with responsible, long-suffering older sisters who finally get their due. As an older sister I’ve never hated it (!!!!), but it can get old even for me. I really enjoyed how, in this romance, the older, responsible sister is guided by the younger, wilder sisters, and I found this departure really refreshing. Similar to above, if Bridgerton Season 2 left you frustrated with their casting of Edwina and Kate’s relationship, A Springtime Scandal has a fresh take on this classic Regency dynamic that very much respects these sister relationships. The other bright spot here is that the younger sisters are very daring and compelling, so I was excited to read their books, which I presume are next in the series.

Overall, I really recommend A Springtime Scandal if you like a classic, no-nonsense Regency with moderate steam and, in particular, if you enjoy rich sister relationships and aristocratic yet untortured heroes.

Thank you to Dragonblade Publishing for providing me with an ARC of this book!

Darcy Burke, The Rigid Duke

This book was my first Darcy Burke and, yes, I bought it because of the title! I love a starchy nobleman who hates mess and yet is drawn to it, so I knew I would like this one from the jump. Also, yes, I did appreciate the double entendre. I will say that it is testament to the quality of Darcy Burke’s writing that, at first, I thought that the heroine of this book was Marina, the charge of the real female main character, Juno, for the first two chapters. This misunderstanding was 100% my own fault, because a) I did not read the description, b) the opening chapter was clearly in Juno’s perspective, so I don’t know what I was thinking. I was just so swept away, though, in the opening set-up and Juno’s role in trying to help Marina that I wasn’t thinking straight. It wasn’t until I had Juno’s perspective for the second time that I was like oh, wait, the companion is the heroine. As this experience may suggest, I really enjoyed The Rigid Duke and, again, I do suggest it to those who were disappointed with the handling of the love triangle in Bridgerton Season 2. If you want a potential love triangle that falls apart at the right moment so that the narrative can focus on the hero and heroine, then let me recommend The Rigid Duke.

I will also mention that Juno is a widow and, thus, a non-virgin heroine—her widowhood is a bit interesting, too, because she feels that she shared romantic and erotic passion with her husband (who died not long after their marriage), but not a deeper emotional connection. Like Deborah in Love Letters by the Sea, Juno has a different widow experience than the norm; instead of hating her late husband or being indifferent to him, Juno feels that she didn’t get what she needed in her marriage emotionally, even though they had a passionate connection. With Dare, she finds both, and I felt like that arc was really nice to see. For his part, with Juno, Dare discovers a partner who can help him enjoy life and who isn’t going to be cowed by his rigidity because she has made her own way in the world and had some of her own experiences.

This romance also has a lot of tropes done well that I recommend for readers who know that they like these moments in a Regency. Juno and Dare are definitely a grumpy/sunshine connection—at first, Dare finds Juno almost unbearably cheerful, but then comes, of course, to love her brightness. The whole romance also unfolds over the span of a single country house party, so if you like that setting, you’ll find that in spades here. They also make out in a closet and, yes, there is carriage sex. If you love any of these tropes (I know I do!!), I advise checking out The Rigid Duke.

Sofie Darling, One Night His Lady

One Night His Lady was a super enjoyable read that unfolds across England, Scotland, and France. The diversity of geographic location and national origin was a really striking and enjoyable part of this novel for me—the first I had read by Sofie Darling. The heroine, Eva, is of Spanish and Jewish ancestry, and the hero, Lucian, is a French marquis who runs a vineyard on his post-Revolution estate. I really appreciated the influx of politics and national issues from a variety of European countries; it made the world of this series feel very rich and real.

And the connection between Lucian and Eva was scorching! It had a lot of yearning, which I love, and the story is also told in time slip, so the story of their past is interspersed throughout their present-day interactions. Their story is definitely very complex (and includes the secret baby trope, which I enjoyed!) and I am definitely a sucker for an intense, irresistible attraction in the midst of a very complicated situation, so I was sold from the beginning. I will be honest that, jumping in later in the series, I was at times confused about aspects of Eva's backstory, but not to the point where it was really an issue. I was convinced of the intensity of their attraction for one another and I LOVED how Lucian was a virgin hero (at least when he and Eva first meet, before they have sex, pre-time slip—but I’m counting it). He might actually (shockingly) be the first virgin hero I have ever read. I always knew I would be trash for a virgin hero and this book confirmed my suspicion. Lucian was delectable and I really liked that he had only been with her—it drove home how much he felt their connection was special and it made their eventual sexual reconnection that much hotter.

I also commend Darling for giving us a full sex scene at 37% and another at 52%—and using the “only one bed” trope twice. Amazing. Additionally, I really liked the queer secondary romance where the characters got their own HEA—that was very satisfying.

If you enjoy steamy Regency-era romance and want to try one that goes outside the typical London/England environment, and has a delicious hero and a strong, independent, dress-making heroine, then I recommend One Night His Lady.

Thank you to Oliver-Heber Books for providing me with an ARC!

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