After the travesty of To Distraction, this was a breath of fresh air though that's not a super hard threshold to conquer, is it? God, I still get annoyed by that book.
This entry in the series brings back both Malcolm Sinclair and the recurring "last traitor" plot. I don't really know what Malcolm is doing here -- he seems to have a sort of slightly nefarious plot brewing to get some tinning leases but it fizzles out pretty quick. I know he's in more of Laurens' books -- and he gets his own redemption book but it's hard to see what he adds here.
The plot itself centers around the last traitor though it takes some time for that plot get going. Like To Distraction and A Fine Passion, the romance takes center stage for the first half of the book. Thankfully, this book follows in the footsteps of A Fine Passion because the romance isn't so bad. It's not nearly as good as either Tristan and Leonora and Jack and Clarice, but it's a comfortable in third finish.
The characters are in the mold of the usual Laurens leads and there isn't much to differentiate them from, say, Jack and Clarice. They're all strong-minded people who love their land and their family. The leads and their supporting cast are serviceable but nothing special.
The romance, however, is a bit unique in that Gervase has known Madeline for many years but he's always seen her as an equal, not necessarily as someone who he might be interested in. She's always been in that other box. Once he comes home, he promises his sisters he'll marry the next eligible woman he comes across -- and that turns out to be Madeline. He sets out to see if they're compatible, and once he's decided she is, sets out to convince her.
There are aspects to the romance that I find less than convincing, but they work within the particular world that Stephanie Laurens has constructed for her society. I'll get into them in the weeds.
I think is is an okay entry in the series. It reminds me of A Lady of His Own in that everything does what it's there to do, but nothing really stands out.
So I feel like this book easily could have been four stars, maybe even five if Stephanie Laurens had just pushed the romance a different way. Unlike any of the other couples thus far, Penny and Charles have a history that layers over their present, and I found it more interesting than the typical strangers falling in love. That being said, their past was ambiguous and I don't think it was as strong as it could have been. I'll get into specifics in the spoilers, but it was just a bit disappointing.
Character wise, this is probably the weakest of the three books thus far (we're not speaking of Captain Jack) because Penny and Charles feel like the thinnest of the characters. I don't feel like anything really sets them apart, and the supporting cast doesn't really come up to snuff. Dalziel shows up, and he's fine. He doesn't do anything to annoy me which just as important. But Nicholas and his father aren't really that interesting either. Everyone is just very one dimensional. I know I said I wouldn't hold the fact that Laurens uses the same archetypes for all her character, but so far I've been able to pull out nuances that give the characters some depth. It doesn't feel that way for Penny and Charles.
The plot is, as always, the strongest element of the novel, though even this one is a bit weaker than the last two. Just a little bit. We're searching out for traitors (ultimately hunting Dalziel's final traitor) and the action has moved to Cornwall and to smuggling. Penny is concerned that her brother and father were secretly French spies, so she's sufficiently motivated to find the foes, and Charles has been asked by Dalziel to investigate rumors in the area. Their paths cross, and they work together to find the truth. I think the plot dragged ever so slightly, and Nicholas doesn't do enough to hold it together. The ultimate villain is interesting but he's not around long enough to make an impression.
Overall, this book is just fine. It's an enjoyable read.
So part of me really hesitated to put the Bastion Club on my list of series for my rereading project because I knew Captain Jack's Woman was technically the prequel to the series and therefore, under my own rules, I'd have to read it.
I have read this book exactly once. I had just discovered Stephanie Laurens' Cynster novels and liked them enough to start seeking out her backlist. I ordered this book, I read it, and then put it on my shelf. For an idea of what kind of book this is, I show you the cover on my physical copy: I don't think that's Fabio, but that's definitely who they were trying to mimic.
The cover I'm using for this review comes from a rebranding of the entire series -- all the Bastion Club novels have this style. Goodreads tells me it's from a reissue by Avon in 2014, so I guess I'll take their word for it.
But that original cover and its follow up tells you everything you need to know about why this is one of my least favorite books of all time.
But since I plan to spend most of this review ranting, I want to start with what I liked, because I did give it 2 stars and not 1.
George Smeaton is a supporting character and I want to cuddle him. His relationship with Amy, Kit's best friend, has very little time on the page, and may seem old-fashioned, restrictive, and less wild, but it's very clear they respect and love one another, and that their relationship works for them. He is the only male in this entire book I don't want to set on fire. I want to read a book just about George Smeaton. He is the highlight of any scene and when he has a conversation with the hero late in the book, you are active cheering for him because he is the only man with any sense in the whole damn thing.
I also like that Kit never, ever, hides that she is completely insane and impulsive. She is a woman who makes no sense and never attempts to. She's a wild hoyden who is also completely accepted by local society. There's a weird subplot in which she's been lied to and manipulated away by aunts and uncles wanting to use her for their own ends, but it's just to explain why she hasn't been in Norfolk for the last six years. None of it ever remotely relevant or interesting, and is actually...mostly stupid. She falls in with smugglers her first week back and is apparently so good that Jack wants her help in uniting his gang with hers. (We'll...get to that.)
My point is that Kit never hid that she is completely insane and impulsive, and literally, there's nothing about her that Jack actually seems to like. Except her looks. He's a fan of the bosom and the hair. And the eyes. (Kit's got violet eyes, y'all).
So, I like that Kit is crazy AF and that George is a great guy.
Um...that's actually it. That's really all that I like.
There are couple of tropes and issues that I'm not going to criticize. This is a book published in 1997, and without much exception, most of my favorite historical novels from this period and earlier have the same issues. I'm not also not going to judge the strength of the characters. When I do the whole Bastion Club review, I'll remark on it, but it's not something I hold against the books. When you pick up a Stephanie Laurens book, you know exactly what you're getting and shame on you if you keep reading her, expecting something different.
What I am going to criticize is the way this book doesn't hang together. I like smuggling as a trope because it gives you ready-made conflict and possibilities for danger. This plot doesn't make a lot of sense, and by the time I did understand what was happening, I didn't care anymore. Also, even then -- it doesn't make sense. I don't believe Kit would be adopted by a small smuggling ring this way, I don't understand the Captain Jack reference as a backstory and the way it's tossed around like I'm supposed to think it's impressive.
There is no romance in this book worth paying attention to. Jack has the makings of a typical Laurens hero, but he's worse. He's actively a misogynist in a way that Cynsters and later male leads just aren't. He constantly berates Kit and underestimates her because she's a woman. There are more specifics here, but basically Jack knows EXACTLY who Kit is (INSANE AF) and then criticizes her for all those reasons. We'll get into the details in the spoiler section.
So, yeah, Kit is insane and kind of entertaining in her complete lack of maturity and DGAF attitude towards everything, including her own life. She gets neutered by the end, but there's that. And George is lovely. I don't want him for Kit, I wanted a better characterization of Amy. But George loves her, so yay, for George and Amy!