June 2012, Regency Romance (1814 England)
Harlequin Historical, $6.25, 281 pages, Amazon ASIN 0373296924
At times reviewing books is like a little kid eating vegetables. You avoid a book as long as possible and then read it in unpalatable hunks just trying to finish, choking and grimacing all the while. Following that same analogy, Carla Kelly's latest Marriage of Mercy is the dessert, sweet and fulfilling and ending much too soon.
It must be said first that the title and back cover blurb are very misleading. This book is not about a woman who marries a prisoner of war, the bastard son of a nobleman. It's about a woman who is assigned that prisoner's parole, in that if he's caught anywhere off her property without her beside him, he's subject to being shot on sight. The two scenarios are vastly different, and the second, in my opinion, is much more entertaining.
The daughter of a baronet, the heroine, Grace, has slipped. When her father died penniless, she was forced to become a baker and is now considered a member of the working class. Pragmatic Grace has never minded her new station in life, as she is doing work that she enjoys, and that allows her contact will people from all walks of life - from the candler's young grandson to the Marquis of Quarle, Lord Thomson. She bonds with the elderly Marquis over her specialty biscuits, Quimby Cremes, taking them to him personally when he becomes too ill to purchase them at the shop himself, and then feeding them to him when he becomes too ill to even do that. When the Marquis passes away, Grace is told to come to the reading of his will. There she learns that she is to be given the dower house and thirty pounds per anum from the estate, and that an American POW, the Marquis' bastard son, is to be paroled there under her care.
When Grace and the Marquis' lawyer reach Dartmoor to release the prisoner they find him dying. Before he passes away, the Marquis' son begs Grace to take another prisoner in his place, and while the lawyer is obtaining medical help the switch is made and Grace releases a different prisoner, Rob Inman. What follows is typical Carla Kelly. Rob quickly endears himself to Grace's friends and neighbors, and becomes Grace's friend and confidant. But a villain has plans for Rob, other than his release when the war is over, and it soon becomes difficult for Rob and Grace to decide friend from foe. Mysterious letters appear in the dower house, with instructions such as "Trust No One", and Rob is followed everywhere he goes by a man that will kill him if he's ever out of Grace's sight. In this atmosphere of confusion and danger, Rob and Grace fall in love.
One of the few complaints I ever hear about Kelly's books is how the villain in Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand gets off too lightly. I'm sorry to say that the same is true in Marriage of Mercy as well. The villain here is a real bastard, and his henchman is almost as bad. It takes a long time for the true villain to come to light, and once he does nothing dire enough happens to him. His motivations aren't apparent until the very end, and then the explanation is too pat. I didn't mind it too badly, because I enjoyed the rest of the book so much, but some might find that whole scenario frustrating.
One of my favorite aspects of this book is the history of the War of 1812 as related by an American on British soil. The Brits in Grace's village all believe that "once an Englishman, always an Englishman" and don't understand why the Americans have such a problem with impressment. Rob's explanations go a long way toward changing their opinions. Rob's search for any news of his home fills the reader with urgency, and his anguish when he reads about Washington D.C. burning is palpable.
Another thing I loved was how Rob's American thinking affected those around him. He treats everyone the same - gentry or common-folk - and expects to be treated with respect in return. To Grace, who has experienced both ends of the social spectrum, Rob's attitude is a revelation. Grace's conversion to the American way of thinking is delightful to read.
Apparently, Carla Kelly is unable to write a bad regency romance. Thank goodness.
-- Wendy Clyde
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