Elizabeth Hoyt's latest historical romance is reminiscent of the best of her Maiden Lane series, but with a feminist bent. Hoyt's heroines have always been the intellectual equal of her heroes, but in this, the hero takes a backseat as the Freya works to solve a mystery and save women on both an individual basis and on a political basis.
Freya is a member of a secret order called the Wise Women, a group dedicated to helping other women. They've often been called witches. The group is about to go into hiding, because of a law being proposed in parliament that would make witch hunting legal and encouraged. Freya's goal is to discredit the Lord sponsoring the bill. Meanwhile, she's been in hiding as a lady's companion for years, living under an assumed name and pretending not to be the daughter and sister of a Duke.
The book opens with Freya and another Wise Woman running through the streets with a Lady and her baby, trying to get the baby and mother to safety. They come upon a carriage and jump in. Of course it's our hero, the Duke of Harlowe. Freya immediately recognizes him, though it's been years since they've seen each other.
When she was a child, Christopher (Harlowe), her brother, and another man (Julian) were involved in the death of a young woman named Aurelia. Aurelia and Freya's brother were trying to elope, but everyone thinks he murdered her. (This is classic Hoyt. Who killed who and when and how?) So Aurelia's family had the brother beaten badly... then his hand had to be amputated and he's not been seen outside of the ducal estate in years and years. (I sense a future book.)
Hoyt throws everyone together at a house party. Freya is there because the estate borders that of the terrible Lord sponsoring the witchhunting bill. Harlowe is there because he's being blackmailed by a sh*tbag named Plimpton who has letters written by Harlowe's dead wife. And Freya's cousin (Aurelia's sister) is there because of course she is.
This is a high drama story, with a sizeable cast and a mystery that goes right up till the end. But Hoyt pulls it off. The story doesn't sag, doesn't get confusing, and the romance is tender and hot and heartbreaking at once.
One of my favorite lines in the novel is this:
"She'd lived so many years alone and independent, perhaps it was too late to revert to what the rest of the world considered normal."
Beyond all of the bananapants plot going on is Freya's very real struggle to decide how much of herself to give in a romantic relationship. In a time when women have no legal rights once married, is there any benefit to marrying, even for love? As a woman who works to defend women from their terrible (usually man-made) circumstances, how can she reconcile herself to falling in love with a man? It's a story that's both timely and timeless.
Clearly, I enjoyed the book and I'm eager for the series to continue. What comes next is a series of content warnings, because Hoyt's books are usually packed full of stuff that can be uncomfortable for readers.
YOU'VE BEEN WARNED
- Harlowe is exiled to India after the whole thing with Aurelia (The Greycourt Scandal). He's not responsible for her death, of course, but his mere presence that night is enough to have his father force him into an arranged marriage and ship him off to India to work with the East India Company. The references to India are handled sensitively (as far as I could tell), with Harlowe mentioning that the Company is/was horrible and that they were doing things no one in Britain would have stood for. HOWEVER, there was a bad scene in Calcutta, when he and his wife and 70 other people were shoved into one prison cell and his wife was basically smothered to death. We eventually find out that his wife was mentally disabled and that he and she were never physically intimate. THEN we find out that Plimpton, the man who has the letters from Sophie and is blackmailing Harlowe, seduced her so he could get her money and jewelry etc. So Plimpton is a Grade A P.O.S.
- Harlowe has PTSD from the jail cell and it comes up several times over the course of the book.
- Later on, there's a mention of a wife who was murdered by her husband, but we find out that she's actually been imprisoned for a YEAR. Then Freya and Aurelia's cousin are shackled in the cellar alongside her and nearly killed. Harlowe ends up killing the Bad Guy, so CW for imprisonment and murder.
- None of the kissing is expressly nonconsensual, but there is one scene in which Freya kisses Harlowe so that she can bite the shit out of his mouth and steal her brother's ring off his finger.
Suzanne received a copy of this book from the publisher for review.