The Virtuoso by Grace Burrowes

Note: All of my GB reviews not only talk about the book but the way the book fits into the universe Burrowes built because so many of her characters flit back and forth. So I will be talking a lot about other books and the universe as a whole.

Overall

You know you’ve got an intricately connected universe when even the author doesn’t really know which order things happen in. The Virtuoso takes place before Jack in the universe, but it also takes place during Darius and after Nicholas. I knew that second part, but I had forgotten just how close to the end of Darius this particular book is set. So I reshuffled the list to be a bit more accurate, and will be going back to read Darius & Nicholas next. I’m not mad about this — it’s actually kind of fun to read this universe like it’s a puzzle. When I was reading Jack, a Lady Val showed up at the wedding and I remember thinking — wait, did Val and Ellen already get married?

I read The Virtuoso when it was released, but I wasn’t quite a Grace Burrowes fan yet. I didn’t reread either The Heir or The Soldier and none of the Lonely Lords series that feature Valentine had been released yet so I remember sympathizing with Valentine in this book, but honestly, you really need to be steeped in this character and have read all the previous times he’s shown up because when I finally got to Valentine in this book, I was so much more invested in him. Ellen also makes a brief cameo in an earlier book, David, in which she is close friends with Letty’s vicar brother, Daniel. He is not mentioned in this book, but has obviously quit the area.

Valentine Windham is introduced briefly to us in Douglas with the rest of the Windhams, but we get to know him in David when he becomes a confidante to both David and Letty. He shows up in a few other books, but it’s in David, The Heir, and The Soldier that we get our best look at him prior to this book. He’s a musical genius who depends on his extraordinary ability to play the piano to communicate. At the opening of this book, he is told by David that he might not be able to play the piano anymore due to an injury to his hand.

The opening line is David’s declaration, but it really doesn’t pack the same punch if you haven’t read the earlier books in the Windham series when it’s clear that playing the piano is how Valentine has managed to function given the devastating loss of two of his brothers, one right after another. Feeling trapped in town by this idea he can’t play piano, he decamps to Oxfordshire and an estate he’s won from the Baron of Roxbury, Freddie Markham. He takes with him Darius Lindsey, a hero of a later book and connected to several other characters we’ll read about at some point.

On the estate he finds Ellen FitzEngle, a widow with whom he shared an encounter with when he was doing David a favor. She’s briefly mentioned a few times in subsequent books, but this is the first time we get her name from Valentine. Ellen is the widow of the late Baron Roxbury, and Valentine finds her situation to be strange — why did her husband not provide better for her? Why is she tucked away in a tiny cottage?

Ellen offers some guidance and company while Valentine works to restore the estate, and they fall in love but she’s got secrets that might explain why someone is trying to destroy the house he’s rebuilding.

I adore this book. It really shows off the complicated and intricate universe Grace Burrowes has built, and you can always tell the books she’s already written from the deeply rich characters that return. Darius shows up just enough here to make one interested in his story (which I’m not looking forward to because it’s my least favorite trope in the history of romance), but Devlin also drops in as does Westhaven, Nick Haddonfield, and the Belmonts. Ironically, we see and hear more from Axel Belmont’s son, Dayton and Philip, than we did in either of the Belmont brothers’ books. Jack shows up as the magistrate, so we get to see him rebounding after the events in Axel. It’s got a great supporting cast.

The mystery is really fun too — the who is never in doubt, but the why remains a mystery throughout and it’s quite tragic. You might feel like Ellen is a martyr at points, but she’s a women who is entirely alone in a world that does not treat women well. Her fear is palpable and completely understandable. I really love both of these leads and am completely invested in their own personal journeys as well their romance.

Read more

The Soldier by Grace Burrowes

Overall

There’s something about this book that has never worked for me. This is the third time I’ve read it from beginning to finish since it came out, and I’ve never been able to put my finger on why I don’t like it as much as I like her other books.

Devlin St. Just has just been created the first Earl of Rosecroft, taking over the estate of the villain from the The Heir, Anna’s brother whom Devlin killed in order to save her. He travels to the estate in Yorkshire where it has been neglected where he finds that the brother, once the earl of Helmsley, left behind an illegitimate daughter who is nominally in the care of a cousin, Emmaline Farnum. Emmie grew up as an illegitimate child left in the care of her aunt who was Helmsley’s mistress and Bronwyn’s mother. Devlin takes Bronwyn (Winnie) under his care and brings Emmie to stay at the estate to serve as her governess.

I think honestly the book collapses under its own weight. Devlin is suffering from what we would call PTSD today, but obviously not as well understood in Regency Britain. This is probably the best part of the book and one of my favorite things about Grace Burrowes’ writing is that she lets her heroes be emotional and vulnerable with each other. Toxic masculinity doesn’t play a role in her books.

But the problem is probably Emmaline. There’s a lot to like about Emmie. She’s incredibly generous and empathetic. She’s known real tragedy and pain in her life which allows her to be the person that Devlin desperately needs at this point in his life. She’s unselfish almost to her own destruction.

But there’s a piece of her story that simply fails for me and I’ll have to get it into specifically in the spoiler section. Suffice to say, she keeps a secret from Devlin that the author also keeps from the reader and I hate it. Because it requires Emmie to lie to Devlin, but in a few spots, Burrowes even lies to me as a reader. I mean, the secret is almost obvious which is why it’s ridiculous that the reader isn’t brought in earlier.

The supporting cast is pretty good—Douglas and Valentine play large roles here in Devlin’s recovery. I don’t entirely buy the depth and strength of Douglas and Devlin’s friendship but I enjoy it so much that it doesn’t bother me. Winnie is also very sweet, and thus far, Burrowes has avoided a lot of tropes of cute children in romance novels. The Windhams show up briefly, but not for long. The local vicar, Hadrian, will return in a later Lonely Lords book and shows up well.

Ultimately, this book fails for me because I can’t ever quite sympathize fully with Emmie. While the romance is well-developed, I am increasingly frustrated by Emmie and her ridiculous secret. The book is well-written and others will probably like it fine.

Read more

The Heir by Grace Burrowes

Overall

The Heir was my first Grace Burrowes book and it remains one of my favorites, I think, because I’ve always been able to closely identify with the hero, Gayle Windham, better known as Westhaven. He carries the weight of his entire family on his shoulders and feels the obligations and duty of being the eldest child, the one that has to deal with eccentricities of his parents and play mediator in his family. It’s literally my life.

Reading it its proper place in the universe deepens my appreciation for the supporting cast, as I hoped it would, and now reading over a set of scenes in the middle of the book when Westhaven recuperates from an illness at the estate of Douglas and Gwen Allen (Douglas), I can remember being kind of bored and a little frustrated. Those scenes are filled with backstory and callbacks. I wondered why these people I hadn’t met before would care so much about Westhaven but after having read Douglas, it’s easier to understand that they’re showing up more for Gwen because of how the duke treated her then.

The Heir tells the story of Westhaven maybe a year or so after the events of Douglas. In that book, Westhaven agreed to propose to Gwen in order to wrest control of the ducal finances from his father. Here, we see him bearing up under that pressure and doing what he can to protect himself and his last living legitimate brother from the machinations of their father, Percy Windham, Duke of Moreland, who appears to stop at nothing in his quest to marry off Westhaven and secure the next generation. Westhaven has a new housekeeper who is not only taking care of his house but making it a home. Anna Seaton is a housekeeper with secrets and a soft heart, as well as generous well of empathy and clearly a deep desire to find a home where she can finally be safe.

The housekeeper and her employer is a familiar and well-worn romantic trope that I like less and less every time I read it. Maybe because I’m more well-versed on the power dynamics that makes that kind of relationship not great in real life. But I can make it work in my head as long as there’s a sense of equality between the two leads as people. Anna might work for Westhaven, but she’s not particularly cowed by his title or his family’s place in society.

This is my favorite of the Windham novels, and my favorite Burrowes book overall. There are a few minor issues that bug me more every time I read it, but nothing that really stops me from enjoying the book. I like the comfort and security that Westhaven and Anna share when they’re at his townhouse or anywhere else alone together.

I think this book benefits a great deal from following those that set up this story. Having met Victor in Douglas and understood a measure of the grief that befell the Windhams with his death and the death of Bart, the original heir, it does become easier to empathize with them, even the duke to a certain extent. Valentine played a large supporting role in David, and it was nice to see him back here again, still struggling with the loss of his brothers and the expectations of his family.

Without the benefit of books like David and Douglas, and even Andrew (to set up his appearance here), this book’s supporting cast suffers because that depth and nuance are missing for me. I felt that when I read the book the first time in 2010. If you read this book on its own, it’s still fine. The romance and plot are interesting and the cast are fine.

But so much is opened up when reading it in order that I can’t recommend reading it without the bare minimum of reading Douglas first. That wasn’t an option when The Heir was originally published, but it is now.

Read more