A rogue by any other name / Sarah Maclean
And now for something completely different: a historical romance review.
A rogue by any other name is the first book in Sarah Maclean’s Rules of scoundrels quartet, each featuring one of the owners of the most notorious gaming hell of 1830s London, the Fallen angel. It’s an interesting series for multiple reasons but it finishes better than it starts.
After losing his ancestral lands on an ill-conceive wager, the Marquess of Bourne is willing to do anything to get them back.
Lady Penelope Marbury has wealth and connection to spare, but the stigma of a broken engagement has caused her father to go to desperate lengths to enhance her dowry and find a husband for her and her sisters.
So how is it?
It gets better as it goes along, but is hampered somewhat by some of the particulars of the plot. Overall it’s pretty good and worth the read.
The biggest failing of A rogue by any other name is that it follow the somewhat tired “kidnapped bride” plot structure. The writing is there, and Maclean’s dialogue is some of the best I’ve ever read in any genre. Still, if you’ve read very many historical romance novels you’ve seen this plot before, and the rhythm cleaves closely to the formula.
The actual premise of the series is interesting, and there’s some trenchant social criticism to be found. Each of the Angel’s four owners has found themselves exiled from polite society because of some past mistake or scandal. Unable to compete on society’s terms, they’ve decided to change the game. Of the four principals, Bourne is the least interesting and Chase, the hell’s enigmatic founder, is by far the most.
It’s an interesting story of a group of people “disinvited” from polite society who, after building power and success outside of traditional avenues for such, decide that they are ready to return. There are visible inspirations from other sources, but unlike many genre fiction series it’s not a genre remake. A rogue by any other name has done definite Count of Monte Cristo influence, complete with discussion of whether or not it’s appropriate to go through with revenge even if it means innocent people will suffer the same way the revenge-seeker did.
As I’ve mentioned, the serie sets progressively better after this one, but there is a thematic progression as each installment colors further outside the traditional lines of the genre (and the society it depicts) so it’s still worth reading them in order.
The series is a little bit like Empire records or [insert title of rebellious teen angst film] in a Regency setting. It’s got that feel of a group of outcasts deciding to “stick it to the man” that I find overwhelmingly appealing.
This is a must read for fans of historical romance. For others the recommendation depends on an open mind. This series is not Stephanie Laurens, equally comfortable sitting alongside the “regular” fiction as it is historical romance. MacLean sits comfortably deep in the genre, and the fact that there’s more going on here than popular conceptions of the genre would suggest* won’t sway those who find the genre itself a turn-off.
For those willing to explore a new genre, those who don’t enjoy sentimental happy endings should probably look elsewhere as well. Those who don’t like being able to predict which characters will end up married after the first chapter could skip this too.
One thing that’s worth mentioning about the series as a whole is that there’s a wider diversity of character types than is usually expected of a regency romance. Not everyone is a member of the titles nobility, and some people end up married outside the aristocracy. For a genre that’s largely about wish fulfillment** that’s kind of a big deal.
Additionally, there are characters who are gay (although this is not mentioned explicitly it’s implied so heavily there’s not really room for doubt), a protagonist who is a single mother, and even nonwhite characters whose skin color isn’t fetishized.
It’s a great series for genre fans, and it seems to be tailor-written for fans of the genre who recognize its frequent blind spots. Still, this is very much a historical romance series. It’s not going to be a heart-wrenching examination of 19th century English social problems. That’s a strength for those of us who deal with some of those issues firsthand on a day to day basis and so don’t feel the need to be beaten down by the same issues in their leisure reading, but that also means despite the definite social conscience of the series it’s not going to have a lot of appeal outside of the genre.
*my supervisor derisively refers to historical romance as “smut books”. As a result, there’s no way I’m recommending this series to them.
**I don’t mean that as a pejorative.