November 2005, European Historical Romance (1860s Venice)
Signet Eclipse, $6.99, 297 pages, Amazon ASIN 0451217063
For those of us bemoaning the many juvenile and distressingly formulaic historical romances littering bookstores these days, Lydia Joyce gives us reason to celebrate. The Music of the Night, the author’s second novel, is an intelligent and refreshingly different romance between two intelligent and refreshingly different people. It is – these days, at any rate - a book both far outside and far better than the norm.
I have to admit that generally the revenge plot isn’t one of my favorites since it often centers around the silliest of “betrayals” and/or inevitably results in an all too frustrating Big Misunderstanding. With that said, though, I can’t quibble with the reason Sebastian Grimsthorpe, Earl of Wortham is obsessed with gaining the revenge he desires from Bertrand de Lint – the unpunished rape of his twelve-year old illegitimate daughter.
After a public scene in the London club to which both gentlemen belong, Sebastian faces social ostracism for his unwillingness to let the matter go. When he is injured in a gig accident shortly thereafter, the Earl decides to pretend to the world that he has died, leaving him free to pursue his plans for revenge while his target believes he is no longer a threat.
Sebastian follows de Lint to Venice, where the man is staying with his flighty, young half-niece; his mother; and her seemingly meek and self-effacing companion, one Sarah Connolly. The young woman has good reason to seek a quiet life in the shadows since her face carries the scars of the smallpox she suffered as a child. Since vaccination was widely available in England and treatments existed to minimize the scarring left by the disease, Sarah’s scars mark her as one of the underclass and tell, as the author puts it, “her life story on her face”.
When Sebastian spies Sarah in de Lint’s company, he jumps to an inevitable conclusion: Since the whore who assisted in the attack on his daughter was pox-marked, surely Sarah must be both the mistress of the despicable de Lint and a cruel tart who also bears responsibility for his daughter’s rape. Not surprisingly, the revenge-obsessed Sebastian vows to include the punishment of Sarah in his schemes.
Sebastian’s exact plans are revealed methodically to the reader throughout the book and I don’t want to give away too many details for fear of spoilers. But suffice it to say that in pursuit of retribution, Sebastian lures Sarah to a masquerade where he turns the full measure of his seductive powers on a woman understandably desperate to believe she is attractive and desirable.
Quite honestly, I have very few quibbles with this book. Both Sebastian and Sarah are multi-dimensional characters fully explored by Ms. Joyce. In her deft hands, the reader understands that Sebastian’s desire for revenge is motivated as much by his own disreputable past and the guilt he feels regarding his casual largesse to the daughter he largely ignored as it is anger towards de Lint. Sarah is a woman who has suffered the slings and arrows of cruel fate and survived as best she could (and readers who can’t get past a woman without resources doing what she must in order to survive had best skip this book) who bears both the physical and emotional scars of a hardscrabble life. When she meets Sebastian and – it’s fair to say – is changed forever by the experience, her evolution is an empowering one.
Ms. Joyce’s voice is a surprisingly assured and confident one for an author with only two published books under her belt that at times reminded me of both the emotional complexities and sexual exuberance found in books by Judith Ivory and Susan Johnson (back in the good old days, anyway). To be truthful, I think some readers accustomed to the lighter and far less complex general run of historical romances today may find the book a tad overwritten. But, this, fellow readers, is how it’s supposed to be – complicated, challenging, sexy, and altogether adult.
I did, however, have one problem. Ms. Joyce does such a good job of creating fully three-dimensional characters – warts and all – that their HEA seems both rushed and a shade artificial. Yes, I believe that Sarah and Sebastian would eventually find their HEA, but as it is, it’s all...well, a bit pat, especially considering the obligatory and, yes, regrettably sappy, epilogue. The book and these characters deserved better.
But if I was less than satisfied with the ending, I was more than satisfied with everything else. Ultimately, in this less than inspiring era for those who write and read historical romance, Ms. Joyce's ambitious novel definitely raises the bar. I can only hope that other authors and publishers will follow.
-- Sandy Coleman
Order this book from Amazon Books
To comment about any of these reviews on our reviews forum