The Duke (Victorian Rebels #4) by Kerrigan Byrne

Kerrigan Byrne’s fourth Victorian romance is my favorite so far (yes, even more so than The Highwayman, reviewed here).

The Duke front cover (St. Martin's Paperbacks)

The Duke front cover (St. Martin’s Paperbacks)

THE PLOT: By day, Imogen Pritchard is a nurse struggling to support her mother and younger sister. By night, she becomes Ginny, a barmaid working to pay off her dead father’s gambling debts. Imogen refuses to prostitute herself like the other barmaids until the night a young duke stops in the tavern on the way to his family’s estate. Cole Talmage, a younger son, never wanted to be the duke, but now he’s all that’s left of his family. When the duke shows interest in Ginny, her boss insists she spend the night with him (convincing her by threatening her young sister). Their subsequent encounter leaves a lasting effect on both of them.

Fast forward to three years later. Cole and Imogen have had one additional encounter when Cole, a spy, was brought home from enemy territory with one hand cut off. Imogen was his nurse at the hospital, but between “Ginny’s” wig and makeup and his own fevered delirium, he didn’t recognize her. Now, though, Cole is obsessed with finding Ginny while crossing verbal swords with his neighbor, a widowed countess. The countess (also Imogen) is running a social rehabilitation program out of her mansion that sets Cole’s teeth on edge. He can’t convince the exasperatingly independent woman how dangerous her plans are…until it becomes apparent that a serial killer’s attacks have all revolved around her.

MY TWO CENTS: My summary may sound pretty convoluted, but the twists and turns are what made this book so very enjoyable to me. Plus I love that dramatic irony…the reader knows the whole time exactly where “Ginny” is, and Cole turns himself inside out trying to find her, all the while falling in love with her alter ego.  Whom he dislikes intensely. But doesn’t really.

I really rooted for Imogen. You’ve got to hand it to her; she gets out of one scrape after another. Sometimes it’s through her own intelligence and willpower, and sometimes it’s because she’s shown kindness to people who then help her when she needs it.

My only real disappointment with this book is that I figured out almost immediately who the killer was. I would have rather have been shocked at the end, but then, there are some characters who I think deserve their own books and therefore couldn’t serve as the killer. (That’s all I’m going to say to avoid spoilers.)

All of the couples from the previous three books play strong supporting roles. We also get a bit more on Morely, whose book is coming next (see below).

COVER NOTES: Very nice color scheme, otherwise matching up fairly well with the other books in this series. I like how the pose completely hides his left hand, making sure there’s no inconsistency with the story.

BOTTOM LINE: I really enjoyed this story-driven romance. It was my favorite of all the “Victorian Rebels” so far. (But I have high hopes for Morely!)

TEACUP RATING: Four-and-a-half out of five teacups.

ON SALE DATE: Available now in paperback and eformats.

NEXT UP IN SERIES (UPDATE/CORRECTION):  The next book, releasing in October, will be The Scot Beds His Wife, about Gavin St. James from The Highlander. Hopefully we will see Inspector Morley’s book, The Rogue Takes a Wife, after that.

Note: Review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

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The Highlander (Victorian Rebels #3) by Kerrigan Byrne

The Highlander is the third book in the “Victorian Rebels” series, following The Highwayman (reviewed here) and The Hunter (reviewed here). I found The Hunter a little too dark for my taste; how did The Highlander stack up?

The Highlander Front Cover ()

The Highlander Front Cover (St. Martin’s Paperbacks)

SPOILER WARNING: There will be some spoilers for the first two books in the series.

THE PLOT: The last time we saw Lady Philomena St. Vincent, she was helping Christopher Argent save Millie LeCour from her husband’s family. Unfortunately, Millie is paying a high price for her kindness. She was already a battered wife; now she’s been dumped in an insane asylum and tortured. She’s rescued at almost the last moment by the people who owe her one. Millie and Farah Blackwell conspire to send Mena away to Scotland in disguise, to become the governess for Farah’s brother-in-law’s two children.

Liam Mackenzie, Marquess Ravencroft, is better known as the Demon Highlander. The same man who fathered Dorian Blackwell warped his own legitimate heir as well, forcing him to whip women for fun. To his credit, Liam did NOT find it fun and did his best to save the women from his father. But he’s convinced that everyone who comes into contact with him is doomed. He’s immediately smitten with his children’s new governess, but he knows she’s hiding a big secret. Despite showing clear signs of abuse, Mena still manages to stand up to him. He doesn’t know it, but he’s captivated by all the things Mena’s husband hates about her.

Even as the attraction flares between them, both know it could never work…Liam because he’s cursed and someone is trying to kill him, and Mena because she’s hiding from her husband, who’s trying to kill her. Will they find out who’s trying to kill Liam? Will Mena’s husband get what he deserves? Will Christopher Argent ever stop killing people? (Easy answer there…no.)

MY TWO CENTS: I’m aware that I’m, like, the ONE person on earth who didn’t love The Hunter. I’m sorry, but I hold to that…especially when the first time we see Argent in this book, he’s snapping someone’s neck. Okay, the person had it coming big time, but Dorian and Inspector Morely both kind of give off this exasperated “Not AGAIN…I totally didn’t see that happen, not listening, la la la…” vibe. (Am I the only one who hopes Morely gets his own book someday?)

Anyway, despite the beginning (which features the whipping and then the asylum scene), this book is a lot lighter in tone than The Hunter. Liam may believe he’s beyond redemption, but he’s actually a good man. He’s got a bit of a rocky relationship with his teenage children, which is pretty normal. He has a very earthy lust for Mena, yet never hurts her.

Mena’s character is a fine line between battered yet spunky. She’s emotionally frail, but still hasn’t given up on herself. And despite everything she’s been through, she can’t quite give up on love, either.

I love the description of the Samhain festival. If you’re not familiar, Samhain is pronounced “SAH-win,” so don’t internally read it as “sam-HANE.” The celebration really makes Liam’s culture come to life and provides some neat details about pagan rituals. Also, it gives people the opportunity to behave badly.

COVER NOTES: The previous two covers have been fairly monochromatic, so this one is a slight break in style, I’m assuming to play off the plaid. Mena is wearing the dress she wears to the Samhain celebration. I love when the cover actually reflects elements of the book. The author posted a photo of the Mackenzie plaid on her facebook page; what do you think, fairly good representation on the cover?

mackenzie tartan

Mackenzie plaid, posted by Kerrigan Byrne

BOTTOM LINE: This is one of those romances where you KNOW the couple will end up together, you just can’t imagine HOW. The majority of this book is lighter in tone than the previous book, but the opening scenes are still very dark like the rest of the series.

WARNING: Like Elizabeth Hoyt, Kerrigan Byrne uses strong language and very graphic sensuality in her love scenes.

TEACUP RATING: Four out of five teacups.

ON SALE DATE: Available August 2, 2016, in paperback and eformats.

NEXT UP IN THE SERIES: Book 4, The Duke, will be published February 7, 2017. I think the Duke of Trenwyth was just introduced in The Highlander; I don’t think we’d heard of him before…but I could be wrong. He’s lost a hand, so you know he comes with tons of juicy baggage.

Note: Review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Hunter (Victorian Rebels #2) By Kerrigan Byrne

The Hunter is the second in Kerrigan Byrne’s “Victorian Rebels” series (I really enjoyed Book 1, The Highwayman, which was previously reviewed here.) This book is emotionally complicated, so my review is long. But fair warning: this book will definitely not be to everyone’s taste. The violence in the prologue alone will turn off anyone who is looking for a light, fluffy romantic story.

The Hunter Front Cover (XX)

The Hunter Front Cover (St. Martin’s Paperback)

THE PLOT: Christopher Argent was born in his mother’s jail cell. As a child, he watches his mother trade sexual favors to the prison guards in exchange for better food. After he witnesses her gang-rape and murder, Christopher turns to a life of violence. Fast-forward to years later, where he is a cold, ruthless assassin in the criminal underworld run by Dorian Blackwell. He’s hired to kill actress Millie LeCour, but something about her prevents him from finishing the job. After two failed attempts, he instead promises to protect Millie and her young son from whoever is after them if Millie will spend one night with him.

Millie first spots Christopher in the audience of the play in which she’s performing. When she dances with him at the after-party, she’s immediately smitten. When she realizes he intended to kill her, she’s rightfully terrified for herself and her son, yet still oddly fascinated by him. When he promises to protect them from the danger, she agrees to his bargain. Millie is hiding a few secrets of her own, and those may be more dangerous to her than her would-be assassin.

MY TWO CENTS: I thought quite a bit about what to say in this review. I first considered who the character of Christopher reminded me of, and I came up with comparisons to Francis Dolarhyde, the serial killer played by Ralph Fiennes in “The Red Dragon;” Edward Nygma on “Gotham;” and to a lesser extent, Dr. Horrible. What do these three have in common? They’re all villains who, for a short time, start enjoying a romantic relationship with their dream girl (or almost, in Horrible’s case); then, through some sort of emotional breakdown, end up killing or attempting to kill the woman.

I’m not saying Christopher ends up killing Millie. I’m saying it would have made more sense if he had. Each of the characters mentioned previously have some sort of deep-seated psychosis (okay, Dr. Horrible was just a bullied nerd, but that was enough to push him over the edge). And in each case, romance was not enough to heal that mental illness. Which is absolutely a fact, and let me repeat it: finding true love does not, in and of itself, cure mental illness.

Kerrigan Byrne does a fantastic job of getting the reader into Christopher’s head. He has been significantly damaged by the trauma of his formative years. He is a cold-blooded murderer whose only code is to not rape women and not kill children. He can’t sleep in a real bed. He’s got a huge mansion with absolutely no furnishings in it, isn’t interested in personal items, and has one person he kinda/sorta counts as a friend. There are many, many signs here that Christopher is a full-blown psychotic. Maybe the problem is that Byrne does TOO good of a job painting the profile of a serial killer. Admittedly, she provides an even more evil assassin to serve as a comparison to Christopher. This person enjoys physically torturing his victims, mutilating them, leaving “trophies,” and having sex with corpses. (So maybe HE is closer to the character of Francis Dolarhyde.) But just because the other killer is worse doesn’t mean Christopher isn’t bad. The other may just be beyond help. Which leads to:

Can a person with psychotic tendencies overcome them? Can a killer repent? Can a villain redeem himself? Sure, but it takes more than a pretty face to inspire it. To truly heal, Christopher would need years of therapy and possibly some medication, as well as a strong support system. One friend, one lover, and a legitimate job are NOT going to fix everything that’s wrong with him.

Now, I’m fully aware that Argent wouldn’t have benefited from what passed for mental health care in the Victorian era, but there might have been ways around that. For example, consider another fictional character from a similar time period: Kenshin Himura of Rurouni Kenshin. He was traumatized and abandoned as a child, trained as a samurai, became a notorious assassin in the Bakumatsu, and was eventually responsible for the death of his own wife. But Kenshin’s redemption begins at the end of the war, when he vows never to kill again. As a wanderer, he focuses on protecting people, makes many friends, and eventually marries again. But his redemption doesn’t happen because of Karou; Kenshin is able to love her because he has already worked so hard to change. He lets go of enough guilt to believe he’s deserving of happiness.

For me, one of two options could have made this book better. The first is that, like Kenshin, Christopher was already working on turning over a new leaf before he met Millie. He might have been portrayed as a repenting former assassin who found out Millie was a target, felt compelled to step in to protect her, and eventually fell in love.

The other option would require this book to be a psychological thriller and not held to the unwritten rules of romances. If it weren’t limited to approximately 400 pages, required to have a happy ending, and of course focused on romance, it could be called a well-written exploration of someone striving to escape his past and become something better.

At least the book doesn’t leave Christopher as a fully rehabilitated individual. He may be on his way, but the reader is left to believe it will be an ongoing process. I just wish more than love had been the catalyst for his eventual redemption.

BOTTOM LINE: Definitely not for everyone. If violence and foul language are not your thing, skip it. If you’re drawn to very dark anti-heroes and tend to dismiss harsh reality when reading, then The Hunter may appeal to you. I wish the well-written title character had been featured in a psychological thriller instead of a romance. I will still read the next book in the series, The Highlander, coming in October.

TEACUP RATING: Out of five teacups: two-and-a-half to three.

ON SALE DATE: Available February 2, 2016, in paperback and e-formats.

Note: Review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Highwayman (Victorian Rebels #1) by Kerrigan Byrne

As I mentioned before, I tend to see romance books in falling in one of two categories: light and fluffy or dark and dangerous. Light romances include a lot of humor, tend to focus on social misunderstandings, and usually don’t involve anything too unpleasant. Dark romances include violence; a seedy, criminal element; quite foul language; and very graphic sex scenes. This new series by Kerrigan Byrne falls firmly into my “dark romance” category.

The Highwayman Front Cover (St. Martin's Paperback/Macmillan)

The Highwayman Front Cover (St. Martin’s Paperback/ Macmillan)

THE PLOT: Dougan Mackenzie and Farah Townsend meet as children in an orphanage. They bond when Farah is kind to the injured Dougan, and the two become inseparable. Dougan is especially protective of the younger Farah, whom he calls his Fairy. When Dougan is 13 and Farah 10, they perform a “handfast” marriage so no one can ever separate them. But when Dougan kills a man who tries to hurt Farah, he’s sent to Newgate Prison.

Seventeen years later, Farah (using the name Mrs. Mackenzie) is working for Scotland Yard when Dorian Blackwell, king of the London criminal underworld, is brought in. Dougan died years ago in prison, and Dorian was one of his cellmates. Upon his release, Dorian kidnaps Farah and takes her to his estate, Ben More. He tells her they will be married so he can pay a debt to Dougan by protecting his “Fairy” and helping her reclaim her true identity and inheritance. As her husband, Dorian will become an earl and gain a seat in Parliament. Dorian prefers a marriage in name only; his prison experiences have left him unable to touch or be touched by another person. Farah wants children, though, So somehow, they’ll have to navigate an actual marriage.

It won’t be easy. Both have baggage; Farah still grieves for her lost Dougan, and Dorian fears his own violence and its possible effect on Farah. Has Dorian been far too emotionally damaged to ever tell Farah the truth?

MY TWO CENTS: To me, this book has a similar tone to Elizabeth Hoyt’s “Maiden Lane” series, even though they’re set in different time periods. This is the gritty, dirty underworld of Victorian London. You can just imagine the smokey effects of the Industrial Revolution, the docks crawling with pimps and prostitutes and murderers. The setting sets the tone; there are no pristine, pretty drawing rooms or Regency balls.

More the an anything, this is book about healing. Two traumatized people have a very long way to go before they will trust anyone, let alone each other. It is NOT a polite romance. Profanity is used liberally, and it seems appropriate for this story in this setting. The only thing clean and untouched in this book is Farah herself…which is exactly why Dorian wants to stay away from her. He’s afraid to contaminate Dougan’s Fairy with his filth. Farah will have quite a job convincing him that she’s a person with faults and desires, not a perfect object he’ll ruin.

The author is definitely not afraid to pull punches with this book! She jumps fearlessly into the prison element, and has the reader rooting for the criminals. That may make some readers uncomfortable. I liked it, enough to add its upcoming sequel, The Hunter, to my must-read list.

BOTTOM LINE: If you don’t like your romances to have super-alpha heroes with a tragic background; profanity; sex scenes that are more graphic than romantic; and violence, this may not be the book for you. If you’re a fan of Elizabeth Hoyt, I recommend giving this one a try.

TEACUP RATING: Four out of five teacups.

ON SALE DATE: Available September 1, 2015, in paperback and eformats.

Note: Review is based on ARCs provided by the publisher via Netgalley and Amazon Vine in exchange for an honest review.

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