Every month I read as many new historical romances set in the nineteenth-century as I can and I will be reviewing my favorites here. I explain below why I loved my three favorites for this month!
Sophie Jordan’s The Rake Gets Ravished
In the first four chapters of this historical, Sophie Jordan gives a master class in how to open a book that will suck the reader in and not let them go. If you like books that start quickly, then The Rake Gets Ravished is for you. The set-up is legitimate genius and exactly the kind of wild conceit that I read romance to enjoy. The novel opens with Mercy Kittinger showing up at the Rogue’s Den, a gaming hell, determined to steal back her family farm. Her brother lost their estate gambling at the Rogue’s Den days before and Mercy has resolved to take back the voucher validating the transfer of property. She sneaks up to the rooms of Silas Masters, the owner of the Rogue’s Den, but he returns before she can leave with the voucher. Already dressed like a courtesan, she decides to pretend that she is in his rooms to seduce him. Given that she finds him extremely attractive, Mercy essentially sees it as a two-birds-one-stone situation. She gets to lose her virginity to a handsome man and keep her family farm. The two spend the night together and, let me tell you folks, it. is. hot.
This set up is masterfully executed and absolutely delicious. The first four chapters are from Mercy’s perspective, which is a little unconventional—it is rare in a historical to go that long without getting one of the main character’s perspectives, but here it totally works. By the time we get Silas’s POV, the reader is dying for a look into his thoughts. After their night together, Jordan drops us into Silas’s perspective and we watch him quickly realize that Mercy stole from him and that seduction was not her primary aim in his bedroom. Of course, because he is a romance hero, he pursues Mercy back to her farm in Shropshire in order to confront her. When he arrives, he tells Mercy that he is there to make sure that she isn’t with child (!!), because he would never allow his offspring to be uncared for. I really liked that Silas gives this reason as his motivation for following Mercy back to Shropshire. I appreciated that Silas didn’t demand that Mercy return the farm or really give her a hard time for even stealing the voucher in the first place. In making her potential pregnancy his motivation, Jordan struck the perfect balance between alpha and cinnamon role with Silas. He is a pushy alpha…but about wanting to take care of his future child.
Silas’s demeanor worked really well with Mercy and I was quickly sold on their romance once he turns up on the farm. Mercy has so much responsibility heaped on her in having to take care of her sister and the family farm—her parents died years ago and everything has since fallen to her. On top of all of that, her brother, who technically owns the farm and all of the family assets, is selfishness incarnate, as evidenced by his losing of the farm in the first place. It wouldn’t have worked to have Silas treat Mercy with anything but kindness and support and he provides that perfectly. For his part, Silas is clearly looking for a partner who will give his life a purpose outside of making money and you can see how Mercy centers him.
Also, as a side note, I was impressed by the scene where Mercy and her sister, Grace, get into a huge fight. Mercy has essentially raised her sister, but their age difference isn’t that big, so she is stuck between being a parent and a sibling to her. She has the responsibility of a parent but the authority of a sibling, which is a really tough place to be in, and Jordan renders her dilemma beautifully. In their fight, Grace tells Mercy that she hates her and, in this moment, Mercy feels that Grace is unrecognizable to her. This scene was extremely well-done and felt very realistic for this relationship and the difficulties of parenting a teenager.
Lastly, I appreciated that, even though Mercy was a virgin heroine, Jordan made her sexuality a bit more developed than that descriptor may suggest. Mercy has read a lot of erotica (left behind by her brother after he went to Eton) and she has very much explored her sexuality by herself, so it made her seduction of Silas much richer. It was a refreshing twist on the virgin heroine trope.
Overall, The Rake Gets Ravished was a stunning read. I really recommend it to anyone looking to be swept away by a historical.
Scarlett Scott’s Sutton’s Surrender
Scarlett Scott is the reigning queen of the Regency Romance Amazon bestseller list and, when you read her books, it is clear why. I have previously enjoyed books from her Notorious Ladies of London series. I found Lady Ruthless in particular very hot and would recommend that one to anyone who enjoys a super steamy historical read with characters whose sexual chemistry really jumps off the page. I would classify her books as erotic romance and, if you enjoy this subgenre as I do, then I really recommend her work. I hadn’t read any of the Sinful Suttons series, but, when I saw that Sutton’s Surrender had come out recently (I think technically it came out at the end of January, but for the purposes of this list, I am counting it as a February release), I really wanted to try it. I had no issues jumping in at the middle of the series and I will also say that I enjoy how in Scott’s series the timelines of the different books overlap. Instead of having all the plotlines be purely sequential, different hero/heroine connections are often happening concurrently and so the events of the other books are hinted at more thoroughly in any given entry than in your typical series. I am really here for the layered world-building that approach gives to her books.
And I loved Sutton’s Surrender! It has one of my favorite historical romance dynamics: the uptight, “proper” aristocrat who is undone by his love interest. I love a rake, too, but, honestly, I might love the proper aristocrat more. I just love seeing his resolve break as he realizes he can’t stay away from his love interest! It very much harkens back to the OG romance hero, Mr. Darcy, and how he struggles with the clash between his sexuality and his social role. I am trash for it and will read it every time. Garrick Weir, Lord Lindsey, had major Mr. Darcy vibes, particularly since he originally meets Penelope because he is trying to stop her supposed engagement to his brother. It made me think of that line from Pride and Prejudice during Darcy’s first proposal to Elizabeth where he says of Mr. Bingley: “Towards him I have been kinder than towards myself.” Similarly, Garrick is horrified that his brother would marry “a lowly East End girl” like Pen, but he quickly finds himself contemplating the prospect for himself. It is an old trope and I LOVE it.
I really liked the heroine here, too. I thought Penelope Sutton was rendered as a very relatable and complex heroine and that Scott conveyed her class position with nuance. Her class identity really leapt off the page—I enjoyed that she could act the part of the proper lady because she had had an education due to her family’s money but that she also frequently codeswitches back into the speech register of her East End milieu. It was great that Garrick was equal parts horrified and turned on by her knowledge of the other half of London and that really gave them a sexy dynamic. I also really enjoyed that her friendship with Garrick’s brother Aiden (the brother who drives Garrick into Pen’s life to begin with) was genuine. It can still be rare in historical romance—and just media in general—to have a real friendship between a man and a woman that truly isn’t romantic in nature and Scott really landed that here. By the end, despite the fake engagement and a brief fake out where it seemed like Aiden might actually have feelings for Pen, it became clear that these two had only ever been friends—and good ones at that. I really appreciated how their original characterization of their connection as a friendship holds true by the end.
I also give Scott a lot of credit for the nineteenth-century flavor of the language in her work—it always feels like she captures the cadences of the period in the way her characters speak and think. Oh, and, as mentioned above, Scott really knows how to write a sex/kissing scene. I really loved the early interaction between Pen and Garrick when they kiss and he tries to pretend that he didn’t enjoy it. She challenges him by saying, “Then how do you explain your cockstand?” He is so horrified by this comment---“how
incredibly common of her to give voice to the unspeakable"--and it is hilarious and hot all at once.
All in all, Sutton’s Surrender is a super fun and sexy read! And I really recommend this one if you enjoy historical romances that tip towards the more erotic side of the spectrum and have a soft spot for the cross-class trope.
Eva Leigh’s The Good Girl’s Guide to Rakes
I have read A LOT of Avon books, but, somehow, The Good Girl’s Guide to Rakes was my first Eva Leigh. I am glad that I picked this one up because I very much enjoyed Celeste and Kieran’s love story and the fun set up of this series!
The conceit for the series is definitely high concept. The parents of three best friends—two siblings, Kieran and Finn, and Dom—decide that they have finally crossed the line with their rakish ways and issue an ultimatum: all three of them must marry respectable ladies within the year or they will be disinherited. This opener felt very historically accurate to me! As someone who has read a lot of novels actually written by nineteenth-century British people, this decree from these men’s parents felt pitch-perfect for the period. (Although real nineteenth-century aristocratic parents would probably have explicitly stipulated that the ladies need to have dowries of a certain size, because these people were obsessed with money). In order to meet his parents’ demands, Kieran approaches Celeste and asks if she can reintroduce him into respectable society so that he can find a wife. She accepts but on the condition that he show her the disreputable side of London. It is a delectable set up that you know will deliver on its promise.
I really appreciated Kieran as a hero and how he broke the rake mold in certain key ways while still ultimately hewing to the trope. I listened to the Plot Trysts episode in which Laine and Meg reviewed this book and they pointed out that Kieran is a bit unusual in being an artistic-minded, bohemian rake. I too liked that he was a poet and that he had artistic ambitions for himself. Kieran seemed like the victim of a culture and family that did not want him to express his emotions or have feelings at all and that his rakish ways were more of a product of wanting to find an outlet for self-expression and connection rather than the dissolute product of a traumatic backstory. Essentially, Kieran is on the more light-hearted side of the rake scale, which I always find charming. As many reviews have mentioned, he wears eyeliner at one point---and it is not a big deal for him, it is just something that he puts on to give a little bit more flare to his going-out look---and I can see why so many people mention it because that pretty much sums up his vibe.
Celeste was also a really vivid character and I particularly appreciated the early chapters from her perspective. Leigh does such a great job showing how trapped Celeste feels in her respectable genteel life. I also loved the contrast between her origins in the working-class neighborhood of Ratcliff and her current existence. Leigh has a great metaphor for Celeste’s life circumstances in Chapter 3 when she discusses how she has to tamp down her hair with pins: “Her locks always were a little unruly, which was why Dolly had to use fistfuls of pins to keep everything straight and tidy, the hair of a perfectly respectable young lady. On their own, the pins didn’t weigh very much, but when employed en masse, they were impossibly heavy. Her scalp ached every night when Dolly slid them from her hair, and never fully recovered by the morning when it was time to put them back in place.” This description powerfully captures the stultifying and painful effects of her environment on Celeste. These moments convinced me that Celeste really did need to break out of her prescribed role. And it was really fun to watch her get that chance with Kieran.
I also want to highlight the scene where Kieran and Celeste are at a raucous evening soiree and a bunch of guests are reading out loud from an erotic book called The Lady of Dubious Quality. Celeste starts reciting a scene from memory and Kieran is like WHAT. It was a very cool set piece and I have never seen a moment quite like it before in a historical.
I recommend The Good Girl’s Guide to Rakes, particularly if you are in the mood for a light-hearted, low-angst historical. Or if have a weakness for rake/wallflower and crave a fresh twist on this classic trope!