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!