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.
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 woman 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.