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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!

[CW: threatened sexual assault/kidnapping/dieting/body shaming]

The star of my first #historicalhistorical post comes to me courtesy of my grandmother’s house. She has always lived by the ocean, so her shelves are filled with 40 years of abandoned beach reads. Most of the romances are Westerns from the 80s, but I found this one lone regency, The Rake’s Protégé (1985) by Barbara Hazard, on her shelves last summer.

The thing that really blew me away about this book were the scenes where THE HERO FORCES THE HEROINE TO GO ON A DIET. I don’t know if this was a trope in 70s and 80s historicals (maybe someone who knows the old school historical better than me can answer that question??) but I had never seen it before and it. was. wild. For me personally, there is nothing less appealing than a hero who wants his love interest to slim down...and thinks its NBD for her/him/them to be hungry!!

In The Rake’s Protégé, the context around these dieting scenes only brings up more questions for me than answers. If we take the Regency romance as a tool to expose the injustices of nineteenth-century hierarchies that still undergird society today, then the book has a classic wager set-up that does this work well. Anthony Hawkins, Earl of Bredon, makes a bet with his friends that he can turn a servant girl into a high-society lady. Anthony and his friends choose the eleven-year-old Anne Ainsworth, a random orphan kicking around the Bredon manor, as the candidate for this experiment. She is whisked off to live in the country with a respectable vicar to train for her debut. Of course, when it comes time for the bet to be settled, Anthony sees Anne—now nearly eighteen years old—and instantly becomes smitten, resolving that once the bet is over he will make her his mistress. However, many things conspire to keep this pair apart, including Anne’s understandable resistance to becoming Anthony’s mistress after her adolescence spent in a vicarage. She eventually rebels against Anthony, who she deified as a child for rescuing her from orphanhood, but now comes to despise him when they reunite and she realizes that he is an unrepentant asshole (see aforementioned dieting scenes!!). Once Anne escapes his clutches, Anthony chases after her as she tries to discover the story of her real parentage. In the final climax, Anne is captured by one of Anthony's rivals in the original wager. He wants to get rid of Anne so that she cannot make her debut—the financial consequences of losing the bet will ruin him—and, on top of that, he plans to sexually assault her. Bredon saves her from his rapist ex-friend and they finally have their HEA.

For this reader, however, all of these events—which I found largely well-plotted and engaging—pale in comparison to the truly bonkers dieting scenes!!!! This focus on dieting begins early in their reunion. When Anthony meets Anne again, he finds her extremely beautiful but with one flaw:

“He noted she was shapely, although his connoisseur’s eye deplored her slightly overabundant charms. A sharp reduction in her food intake would take care of that, he told himself, and if that was the only fault she had, he could count himself fortunate indeed” (48).

Once he takes her back to his manor, he introduces the diet, although not before setting her in front of an elaborate dinner with a million different dishes. Like any sensible human, Anne resolves that “she must try a little of everything.” Unfortunately, the Earl chooses this moment to introduce his diet plan, “his cool gray eyes…surveying her plate”:

“I see you have a hearty appetite, Anne,” he remarked.

Anne saw that he had taken only a slice of the salmon and a small spoonful of peas, and that he had ignored the white sauce with dill which she had spooned so generously over her fish. She had also agreed to a slice of oyster pie, some duchesse potatoes, and the carrots glazed with honey.

For a moment she felt embarrassed, but then she smiled. “It all looks so good, m’lord. I wanted to sample everything. It is true I have a good appetite, and I do enjoy my food.” [Editor’s Note: ME TOO GIRL!!!]

The earl’s eyes raked her shoulders and breasts. “Obviously,” he murmured, signaling Midler to refill his wineglass.

Anne felt a flush begin in the pit of her stomach and spread upward, and she put down her fork….

“You must forgive me for pointing it out, Anne, but you are much too heavy. Our society ladies all strive for a willowy look, for that is the vogue now. I do not think in your present state that you could be considered willowy by any stretch of the imagination.

Anne felt her throat grow tight with incipient tears, and she lowered her eyes in confusion.

“Poor poppet,” the earl continued, his deep voice warmer now. “Do not look so distressed! But before we go up to town, you must learn how to curb your appetite. I shall delay sending for the dressmakers until you have lost the weight that is necessary. You see, my dear Anne, I want you at your best when you meet the ton. It will make you look like a princess at the least, to say nothing of being…mm, more appealing, shall we say?”

Poor Anne! I felt so bad for this girl when I read this scene. She just wants to enjoy her dill sauce! Let her have it, you monster! I can forgive a lot in a hero, but shaming a girl for enjoying a sumptuous dinner is definitely NOT one of these things. This behavior is truly unforgivable and not even the best grovel in the world could ever bring it back for me--say what you want about Christian Grey and his controlling nature, but he is always encouraging Ana to eat. Instead, Anthony is the worst incarnation of the Stern Brunch Daddy that I can imagine.

Eventually, after Anne commits to the “reducing diet,” Anthony realizes that she is getting TOO THIN and he demands that she stop and I guess then she does? But it seems like this weight loss is maintained across the story.

Which leaves me wondering about the meaning of this dieting trope. The dieting element is very intentional and even highlighted in the title page summary: “He put her on a near-starvation diet to give her the slenderness that fashion decreed.” And, yet, I’m not sure what the reader is supposed to take away from this part of the text.

Is the diet and subsequent weight loss supposed to be part of the overall aspirational trajectory for Anne as a romance heroine? She not only finds love, but reaches her “ideal” weight? This reading would make the book pro-dieting, which not only would be a real bummer but also doesn’t feel completely authentic to the book itself. Hazard definitely wants us to sympathize with Anne in the above scene, for instance.

Maybe that reading doesn’t acknowledge enough the work that romance novels are often doing to respond to and dismantle misogynistic aspects of culture. By putting this dieting trope in her romance, is Hazard representing yet another aspect of toxic masculinity that Anne triumphs over in taming Anthony?

I’m curious to hear what others think about this trope/if there are any examples of this trope in old school historicals that people know of. Comments welcome below!

Updated: Mar 30, 2022

It is my personal belief that Jane Austen would have LOVED contemporary Regency romance, the steamier the better. If there is an afterlife, Jane Austen is there right now reading Lisa Kleypas and drinking Madeira. No one can tell me different.

I say this because I often encounter statements that work to distance Austen from contemporary Regencies and the modern romance genre in general. A good example is this recent Vox article: The majority of this article agitates for adapting Georgette Heyer for the screen (and I agree with those on social media who have called this idea terrible due to Heyer's bigotry, anti-Semitism, imperialist worldview, etc.), so it is flawed in more ways than one, but it also serves as an example of how writers and critics often separate Austen from the contemporary romance genre and historical romance particularly. In short, the article suggests that Austen’s novels aren’t “romances” in the sense that we understand them now. In this take and those like it, Austen is acknowledged as an influence on contemporary historical romance—only to then be quickly opposed to and excepted from the genre.

This argument drives me BONKERS. For so many reasons. First, I hate when this move is used to imply that Austen’s work is literature and contemporary romance novels aren’t (in my experience, that is the most common purpose of this line of thought). Second, I hate what this argument suggests about Austen and her work. The claim that Austen's novels aren't really romance novels very much corroborates the narrative of her life released by her family in the Victorian period. Years after her death, Austen's nephew put out a biography of his aunt that deliberately depicted her as a respectable, talented spinster who had an unimpeachable reputation. Responding to continued interest in her work, the Austen family wanted to ward off any scandalous intimations that might be attached to a single woman known for writing love stories (and whose work included risqué jokes and characters who have sex outside of marriage). Those who separate Austen from the romance genre reach back to this portrayal and use it to authenticate Austen as a restrained, lofty artist—not a writer of love stories that draw on both mind and body to depict the intense connections experienced by their central characters.

I’m not going to go through every reason here why the suggestion that Austen's novels aren't romances is ridiculous or detail the clear historical reasons why Austen couldn’t have penned novels franker about sexuality. Instead, I wanted to turn to one of my favorite quotes from Pride and Prejudice to show the vibrancy of Austen's interest in sexual fantasy and erotic fulfillment. This quote does not concern Elizabeth or Darcy (!!), but another young lady poised to follow a certain militia to Brighton:

“In Lydia’s imagination, a visit to Brighton comprised every possibility of earthly happiness. She saw, with the creative eye of fancy, the streets of that gay bathing-place covered with officers. She saw herself the object of attention, to tens and to scores of them at present unknown. She saw all the glories of the camp—its tents stretched forth in beauteous uniformity of lines, crowded with the young and the gay, and dazzling with scarlet; and, to complete the view, she saw herself seated beneath a tent, tenderly flirting with at least six officers at once.”

Six officers at once!!! Fantasizing about attentions from "tens and scores" of men "at present unknown"!! How could anyone argue that Austen’s novels are not deeply about passion and sexual desire and rapacious, irrepressible appetites when you read a passage like this one? Sure—you can call this passage satirical free indirect discourse, but, even if Lydia is being mocked, her imagination is real and Austen is giving life to a woman's erotic fantasies on the page. I read this passage as setting the stage for contemporary Regency romance. Lydia's innumerable erotic fantasies turn into the amazing Regency romances written in the 20th and 21st century.

I picked my pen name because of this passage—and because I think the insatiable erotic appetite that Austen gives Lydia is one of her most important contributions to the contemporary romance genre. (Lydia’s untamable desires are also in many ways an expression of the same fascination with female sexual appetite that powered much of Austen’s juvenilia—which, for anyone who hasn’t read it, is much more explicitly scandalous than her six complete published novels).

There has also been some great scholarship on sexuality in Austen’s novels and how her novels abound in dirty jokes and double entendres. I’ve put a list below for anyone interested who hasn't had a chance to read these articles yet!


Alice Chandler’s “‘A Pair of Fine Eyes’: Jane Austen’s Treatment of Sex”

Deidre Shauna Lynch, “Jane Austen and the Sex Positive Novel”

Jillian Heydt-Stevenson, “Pleasure is now, and ought to be, your business’: Stealing Sexuality in Jane Austen’s Juvenilia”

Jillian Heydt-Stevenson, “‘Slipping into the Ha-Ha’: Bawdy Humor and Body Politics in Jane Austen’s Novels”

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