Book 2 in the Rogues series (An Unwilling Bride) could have been terrible, as its premise seems weak on first reading: Because the hero (third-born son of a duke) is actually not the duke's biological child, when the older two sons are killed, the duke wants his now-heir (who isn't his son) to marry the duke's recently discovered illegitimate daughter so that their offspring will have the present duke's blood. Hmmm. Can I explain that better? The duke is forcing the hero to marry the heroine because she IS the biological child of the duke, and the hero isn't. Wow, that is as clear as mud. It makes you wonder how Beverley managed to explain it to her publisher. Basically, though, it's the "forced to marry" trope.
Here's what I loved about An Unwilling Bride: she successfully conveyed to me the claustrophobia created by having one's choices reduced to only one, especially when that one's not great. Beth, the instructor at a respectable academy for girls, is coerced into marrying Lucien, the product of an adulterous liaison between the duchess and her former French swain. Beverley does a good job of getting the details of the backstory to a point where they seem plausible enough. The duchess isn't a monster, the duke's actions are monstrous but his motivations are understandable enough, Lucien isn't happy, Beth is horrified and repulsed. All in all, an ill-fated union. But instead of making everyone behave in broad, over-wrought fashion, Beverley shows us what it must have been like to live in a ducal seat with scores of staff. One is rarely alone. There are many privileges to that degree of wealth and influence, but privacy is not among them.
[Beverley's skill in conveying that degree of claustrophobia is so good that now, when I read a historical romance that has a scene set in a comparable estate where the hero and heroine are behaving (often with a great deal of their clothing off) as though they are alone, I mentally fill in the dutiful footman outside the door. Then I ask myself, would these two people being doing that if they knew -- as surely they must -- that Thomas the footman is listening?]
In the end, Beth and Lucien find a way to trust each other and make their unlikely union work; their inauspicious and unequal relationship finally balances out. But the next heroine also had practically no choice but to marry. In Christmas Angel, book 3 of the Rogues, Leander (an earl) wants to marry a woman for reasons of convenience. His choice is Judith Rossiter, a widow so poor she really can't turn him down. Again, an absurd premise; why doesn't he pick a chit off the shelves at the Marriage Mart? But again, Beverley gets the rationale right, or right enough to carry the plot. And again, marriage to a peer isn't always easy. There are times when the "weeping widow" (supposedly still mourning her dead poet husband when in reality she's just too poor to buy new, non-black clothing) misses her life in a tiny cottage. Of course it's easy to see where this plot is going: the couple that agrees to NOT fall in love with each other must, perforce, fall in love. But the details of how these two people get on with their lives is what makes the book sing.
Given that I didn't like Book 1 with its dark & twisty relationships, why am I not bothered by the implications in Books 2 & 3 of heroines so economically trapped that they have to marry men they barely know? Well, apart from the fact that this is a trope more consistent with the social and cultural realities of 1815 than today, the reason has everything to do with Jo Beverley's wonderful plotting. I'm impressed every time she sets up a scene and then doesn't take it where I'm half-expecting, half-dreading it will go. Nothing wildly new & different, but a lot of great scenes that I picture easily and enjoy thoroughly. Needless to say, Books 4 through whatever are in the queue.
Next up, a quick comment about Mary Balogh's A Precious Jewel, which I commented on here. I gather that's actually book 2 of 3; it was preceded by The Ideal Wife, which was reprinted last year, and next year we'll see (I assume) a reprint of A Christmas Bride. Thus, a series. Of sorts. These were all originally Signet Regency Romances, and hard to find in used book stores (or expensive to purchase used through Amazon) but given that they're being reprinted, a newby to the Mary Balogh oeuvre can get caught up . . . eventually.
But here's the comment I wanted to make: I'm actually glad I didn't read Book 1 first. One of the things I loved about A Precious Jewel is that Gerald is such an unexpected hero. Yes, as soon as the Earl of Severn shows up one knows he is the hero-type, but I really didn't mind the occasional mention of his romance in the background because it was refreshing to be reading Gerald & Priscilla's unconventional story instead of the more conventional "earl marries ordinary female, who then is revealed to be not so ordinary and actually quite unique and lovable" set-up. Gerald & Priscilla's romance was like lemon sorbet after too much creme brulee.
Of course I'll read Book 1 next, and when the "must complete the set" gene kicks in, I'll read #3 -- but not until they reprint it. And let's hope my "must complete the set" gene doesn't require me to buy all of Balogh's backlist!
Now, it's a funny thing, but when I walk into a big box bookstore's romance section, I'm overwhelmed by the number of authors I know nothing about. Nothing. Name after name that I neither recognize from my own shelves nor from reviews I've read and discussions on various blogs and comment threads. Who are all these people? One of these days I'll take my laptop with me and type all the names I see and don't recognize. It's one of the few moments when it seems even possible that 400 titles are published every month.
And, as it happens, I'll only buy books based on the author. Cover art doesn't matter; back cover blurb doesn't matter; intriguing title doesn't matter. If I like an author, I'll read another of her books without much further thought. But if I don't know the author, there's little to no chance I'll buy that book. So, when I was in a Border's and they didn't have the book I wanted to buy (Lauren Dane's Laid Bare), I bought Liz Carlyle's Wicked All Day. It was okay. I recall that I enjoyed reading it, even though ten days later I can't tell you a single thing about it. No, wait -- that's not true. It was a week ago, and I now recall the plot. (Illegitimate daughter of marquess, raised as his daughter and denied nothing, is a bit of a scandal in the Marriage Mart. Her father's solution is to marry her off to an okay guy with a harridan mother who would make the heroine's life miserable. She ends up in a compromising position with the hero's brother, so they must marry even though the brother is in love with the shabby genteel widow he's been "seeing" and the hero's this close to figuring out he actually loves the heroine. A fortnight in the country sorts it all out.) Like I say: it was okay.
Wicked All Day is in a series. I don't care. That's it. That's my comment. Don't care about all the characters in all the other books. And just like that, the series is reduced to a single title, which I bought because I had liked a different series by that author half-a-dozen years ago. And the "must complete the set" gene can do its worst; I'm not going to read so-so books simply because they're part of a series.