Pandora's Box

Devil's Wager

Mary Spencer
2000, European Historical Romance (Regency England)
Dell, $5.99, 384 pages, Amazon ASIN 0440224934
Part of a series

Grade: N/A
Sensuality: N/A

Devil's Wager is the third in a trilogy by Mary Spencer (following Dark Wager and Lady's Wager). Set in England during the Regency period, Devil's Wager is Lad's story, who was introduced to us in the earlier books. Lad, an American who has his own prosperous property in Tennessee, has inherited an impoverished English earldom at the close of the War of 1812. In order to earn the money necessary to save Kerlain, Lad became a professional gambler. His earlier wagers form the basis for the first two books of the trilogy. He marries his late grandfather's godchild, Diana, to comply with the old man's request. But Diana was raised on the Kerlain estate and is seen by tenants as the Lady of the Manor, creating immediate conflict for the couple.

Carol:   Linda, It's hard for me to believe I found an author you hadn't read before my recommendation. Are you going to give me as tough a time as I gave you over Jayne Ann Krentz last month?

Linda:   Well only 1/3 as hard a time. I loved two of the three and didn't dislike the other one.

Carol:   If you've been reading the AAR Reviews message board, you've learned that you made me like two JAK books, Trust Me and Family Man, written when she wasn't trying to become the next Raymond Chandler, the original noir mystery writer.

Linda:   Apparently all of the comments from JAK's readers have had an effect. JAK just announced that her hardbacks will continue to be Romantic Suspense, but she is going to write paperbacks in the old romance style. I'm thrilled. (g) I thought that Mary Spencer had much of what I love about JAK, particularly some wonderful heroes and two strong heroines.

Carol:   Well, heroes are Spencer's strength just like they were in the JAK's I just mentioned. Spencer creates three hard-to-forget heroes in her trilogy and my absolute favorite hero is the last one, Lad, in Devil's Wager. I'd been waiting for his story and it was worth it.

Linda:   Yes, Lad was all one could want in a hero. His integrity and dedication to regaining his estate, Kerlain, were wonderful. But, what really distinguishes him from many romance heroes is that he was a genuine friend to the heroines of the first two books. To see a genuine friendship between a man and a woman other than the hero and heroine was really nice. I especially liked his relationship with Bella in the first two Wager books.

Carol:   Those instances were when I really began falling for Lad as a future hero. However, another amazing aspect to him was how much he reminded me of what I'd have been like if sent to England during the second decade of the 1800s. Lad inherits this earldom but it's a totally impoverished one that needs complete rebuilding. He wants to save the people from starving and they fight him every step of the way because he doesn't act like an earl! For example, he gets out in the fields and works so they will have some crops and his tenants have a fit. I shared his frustration with the English class system. It was a constant stressing of style over substance at every turn.

Linda:   Yes, we are the descendants of people who left England because of the class system and I think our rebellious roots are showing. What distinguishes Lad is that he is intelligent and realizes that he has to become a "proper English Gentleman." He achieves this with help from his mentor, Sir Geoffrey, and it's fun watching the changes. It is ironic that Lad's basic gentleness and goodness are both his most attractive feature, and the cause of his problems.

Carol:   Actually, I think Lad's conflicts are exterior, they come from the outside. He arrives in England a happy and contented man and then has to deal with Diana, the woman he falls in love with and marries, and the man who also wanted to marry her. The heroes in the other two books, Lucien and Jack, have conflicts which come from within. Lucien's conflict, for example, came from having a father who murdered his mother for carrying on with another man, and then killed himself. Jack's interior conflicts are raised of doubts about his origins - is his real father Robbie, Lucien's guardian? They have to solve these interior dilemmas before they have a HEA with the heroines, whereas Lad has to defeat an enemy outside of himself.

Linda:   Although Lad had a happy childhood, he was not happy and content when he arrived at Kerlain. He was grief-stricken over the deaths of his parents and brother. He seemed lonely and empty and quickly fell in love with Diana and realized she was what he needed in his life. His regret over losing Kerlain is so real and I loved the fact that he made no excuses. He also did not use her ultimatum to regain Kerlain as an excuse to be unfaithful during their separation. Nor was he abusive to her when he returned, although he had been led to believe she'd been unfaithful. Lad is truly a wonderful hero and I'm glad we got to see him grow and change throughout three books.

Carol:   Well, I think any of us would be unhappy if both our parents and our only sibling died all in the same year. But those are still exterior forces of conflict. The only "reformation" needed by Lad is he needs to turn himself into an Englishman as far as the way he presents and handles himself. However, he can remain the same wonderful, good, kind man he's always been and that his family raised him to be. However, Lucien, in Dark Wager, has to come to terms with whether his personality is more like his murdered mother's or suicidal father's. This is a deeply internalized conflict that nowadays would be resolved through psychoanalysis. Spencer is very skillful at handling these remarkably different heroes.

Linda:   Yes, Jack's problems in Lady's Wager were more internal too. In fact they were really self-generated. It was clear his adopted family loved him with the same depth of feeling as they did their natural son. I did find myself contrasting how Spencer handled Jack's feelings about his illegitimacy with the way Johanna Lindsey dealt with a similar situation in Love Only Once.

Carol:   Sorry, I haven't read that book. How does it contrast?

Linda:   Nicholas Eden abandoned his bride on their wedding day and stayed gone for months because he thought she would despise him if she knew he was a bastard. He was gone for half the book and I hated it.

By contrast, Jack tells Gwen of his feelings and lets her help him deal with the issue. They worked together as a team and I really enjoyed their interaction. I liked the second and third books but didn't like the first book as much. My least favorite plot device is the "misunderstanding" and that novel was full of them. Plus I thought Clara, in Dark Wager, needed more backbone. I liked her much better when she appeared in the second book, Lady's Wager. I liked Devil's Wager a lot, but had a couple of problems with it, one of which was its construction.

Carol:   What construction problem?

Linda:   I had a problem with the prologue of Devil's Wager. I felt it was confusing and when it was virtually repeated at the end of the book, redundant. I read this one first and, when I finished Lady's Wager, it occurred to me that I would have liked the beginning of Devil's Wager to occur in Lad's head as he rides to Kerlain. The whole story could have been told that way ending with his awakening Diana.

Carol:   I think the prologue is another effort to please the publisher's demands which we are seeing all too much of as readers. Authors are told to write the most shattering opening chapter they possibly can so the reader will buy the book at once in the bookstore. Now many authors use prologues to take you to the most dramatic scene in the book and then "start" the book in the next chapter. They call that next chapter "Chapter One," appropriately enough, for that is really where the book should begin.

Linda:   I also had some problems with the climactic scene between the villain and Diana. She crossed over my "yuck factor" line.

Carol:   I didn't have any "yuck" problem at the end but I also can read much darker books than you can so I do more yuck!

Linda:   LOL, I am a weenie when it comes to "yuck."

I really liked Diana and Lad a lot. They were such honorable people and I liked the fact that they talked and listened to each other. There were no accusations and no long misunderstandings after the separation. They were both very strong people. Spencer has a knack for writing very likable couples. Even the secondary romances and characters were finely drawn. There is a lot to like here and I will definitely be looking for both her backlist and future books.

Carol:   I agree with you that the characters, all characters, are her strength. I can't think of a single character that didn't interest me from Wulf, their scientist chum, to Sir Geoffrey, Lad's mentor, to Robbie, Lucien's former guardian. Another plus is that none of the heroines are aggravating, although I think her heroes are her hallmark.

Linda:   What did you think of the way she handled the historical detail of the era?

Carol:   Although the period is Regency England, in the second decade of the 1800s, I didn't feel that I was being beaten over the head with the fact that we were in the Regency. I was made more aware of the effects the war of 1812 would have had on British and American characters who met immediately after that war.

In this trilogy, we didn't go over that same Regency ground that we've been over a million times before. With so many other authors, I've given up on them if they continue writing in the Regency period because they keep covering the same ground. I feel as if I want to use the fast-forward button on my VCR so I can "skip the boring stuff." To avoid this, if you are writing a story set during the Regency, I think you have to get into characterization and plot very heavily and let that carry most of the book. Spencer did this. Although the style of the times is there, it is only there to the extent needed to move the story forward and develop the characters.

Linda:   I felt that this was like Amanda Quick's type of regency-set historical - not a lot of detail into the era, but still a feel of it. I think sometimes authors get bogged down in the historical detail. Lady's Wager and Devil's Wager reminded me of the best of Quick and Garwood and that is not faint praise. Lady's Wager had a different tone to it, of course, because it was more of an action story. I liked Gwen and thought she was a great match for Jack. My only problem was that she occasionally acted TSTL (too stupid to live). Her instant recognition that Jack was "the one for her" was a bit much, and racing off after him to the worst rookery in London, unescorted, was sheer idiocy. But, I liked the way they bantered with each other and I loved when they joined forces to work together. This is my favorite type of couple.

Carol:   I agree with you about Gwen and Jack. Gwen's following Jack in that instance was ridiculous. You couldn't even realistically tell yourself you'd get out alive. As for instantly knowing Jack was the man she was going to marry, some people do feel that it happens like that. I guess I can let that slide easier than her following him into the rookery. Simple self-preservation is at issue when one races off to the worst neighborhood in a city.

Linda:   I think it was hard to accept her doing something that stupid because she was obviously an intelligent woman. I also liked Diana in Devil's Wager a lot. She was all that kept the people at Kerlain going for a long time. Her strength was amazing. I liked the fact that she saw right through her childhood chum and tried to warn Lad about him. Lad was much too trusting and his friends recognized this facet of his character and tried to protect him. But, it is hard to fault him for being "too nice."

Carol:   One thing I found hilarious was Diana thought Lad must be overwhelmed because he'd gone overnight from being a commoner to an earl and that elevation must be such a momentous thing to accept. At the same time, Lad is cursing to himself because he hates being made into an earl and thinks stratified British society is nonsense. He would much prefer to return to being a commoner, especially the wealthy American commoner he was before this "elevation."

Linda:   Yes that was funny and showed their completely disparate perceptions of the world very succinctly. What was ironic was that when Lad returns, after being made over into the perfect earl, she wants the former Lad back. It was kind of a "be careful what you wish for" moment.

I really enjoyed the way their letters to each other spanned the gap of their separation. The creation of an epistolary relationship, I've found, is very effective at bridging these gaps.

It is impressive that Spencer used my two least favorite plot devices: misunderstandings and separations, yet I really enjoyed these books. In fact, I think this is one of the best uses of a trilogy building to the last book that I've seen, they are really integrated well.

Carol:   Linda, let me ask you a question. If you had to rank these books in order of preference, what would your preference be? I think we are going to be quite different in our preferences.

Linda:   I loved Lady's Wager best of all. Devil's Wager is my second favorite, and I liked Dark Wager least of the three. Am I to assume your order will be reversed?

Carol:   Of course it's the reverse.

My favorite book is the first, Dark Wager, because of the excellent characterizations, and the darkness balanced with just enough light elements. I was riveted by the whole story and couldn't put it down; it truly captivated my emotions. My second choice is the third book, Devil's Wager, primarily because of Lad, who is my favorite hero from all three books. My least favorite is Lady's Wager because I needed more conflict and more darkness. But I enjoyed it. The point I'm making is that our personal preferences for light versus dark, and the heaviness of the conflict, immediately show up when we compare the way we rank them. I knew when I recommended the trilogy to you that the second book would be your favorite because it wasn't as dark or as heavily conflicted as the other two. I think our readers are probably beginning to spot these personal preferences of ours as well and can identify with one of us more easily than the other based on their own preferences for these aspects.

Linda:   Since the first book is harder to find, I think one could start with Lady's Wager and enjoy Devil's Wager. I read them backwards, which I hate doing, but I still enjoyed the lot of them.

These definitely achieve keeper status and I could easily see re-reading Lady's Wager, the second one. I would recommend all of them, with the warning that the tone of Dark Wager is as the title implies, darker.

Carol:   Devil's Wager will stand on it's own but I definitely recommend reading all three in order for maximum impact, something I don't usually feel is necessary. This series is right up there for me.

I did run into some problems with historical accuracy but, as our readers know, neither of us are history buffs. Spencer explains one of them at the end of Devil's Wager in a note that says she took liberties with the date of the end of the War of 1812. This was done because of an error she made in Dark Wager regarding date of the Battle of New Orleans. Spencer also stumbles over some of the finer aspects of English law regarding entailments, adoptions and titles in her trilogy and she needs to improve her research methodology regarding these matters.

Several of our reviewers here at AAR are really bothered by historical inaccuracies and their enjoyment of romances can be seriously hindered by these kinds of errors. Personally, I felt the characters and stories more than made up for inaccuracies, even these legal ones. I might be less forgiving, however, if she does it again in her next book or trilogy.

Linda:   You're right. I can't say I really noticed these problems but I know this can be an important factor for some romance readers. Some of the readers and reviewers on-line can get very passionate about historical inaccuracies. I do think Spencer should probably do a bit more research for things as easy to establish as war dates. Heck, even I know when the Battle of New Orleans was! It would be a shame for such an excellent writer to lose some future readers due to something this easy to correct. She certainly does not lack writing ability and is an author that deserves to be better known.

Carol:   Well, are you glad I recommended Mary Spencer to you?

Linda:   Yes, Carol, I'm glad to have discovered her. I found in looking for her backlist that Mary Spencer also writes as Susan Spencer Paul. Under that pen name she has written an extraordinary book in the Harlequin Historical series, Beguiled. The heroine is a mute and much of the book deals with the hardships that handicapped people have historically dealt with. A wonderful hero and a courageous heroine, a book worth hunting up. Our readers will probably want to look for her books under both names.

Carol:   I agree. For the romance reader who really wants something different in her regency historicals, she should try Mary Spencer's Wager trilogy with its emphasis on outstanding characterization of both heroes and heroines and plots which move right along. You won't get bogged down with all those regency manners and morals that you are used to but will be into some riveting stories instead.

Ok Linda, now you get to tell everyone what we will be discussing next month.

Linda:   Next month we are reviewing the long awaited Devilish, Rothgar Malloren's story from Jo Beverley. Since there are many people running around with "Waiting for Rothgar" buttons (including me), I know that this one is much anticipated. Carol has read the whole series but for Devilish and I'm one book short in addition to Devilish. I will be reading both books while Carol reads Devilish. We thus should be able to give an overview of the entire Malloren series.

Carol:   Amazingly enough, Linda and I enter this Malloren quest with both of us liking Beverley's Tempting Fortune, with the incredible hero Bryght, as our very same favorite to date in the series.

Linda:   Bryght is one of my favorite heroes in Romance and Rothgar has been a tantalizing presence in the other books, so we are looking forward to next month's reading.

--Carol Irvin and Linda Hurst, for

-- Pandora's Box

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