Julia Ross turns the tables on romance genre's stereotypical hero and heroine in the poetically-written GAMES OF PLEASURE. Like most historical romances, sexual experience factors in big time in GAMES OF PLEASURE. The hero's mother summarizes the theme here best, noting, "...if a reformed rake makes a good spouse, then so may a courtesan who has genuinely lost her heart." In this novel, skilled courtesan Miracle Heather dominates our honorable, less-experienced (tall, dark and handsome nonetheless) hero the Duke's eldest son Lord Ryderbourne ("Ryder"), a domination both in terms of wit and sexual prowess. Yep, this novel belongs to its courtesan heroine Miracle Heather through and through. I had flashes of Wen Spencer's A BROTHER'S PRICE (*) which has its hero melt and shiver from his heroine's touch and kiss, Small's THE LOVE SLAVE (*) which details an adept concubine's sexual triumphs, and Jo Goodman's A SEASON TO BE SINFUL (**) which has its hero Sherry moronically secure an agreement with the villain only to have the villain return to terrorize the heroine later. This book highlights a glaring imbalance in sexual skill and maturity, ultimately subscribing to the opposites-attract rule (opposite in every way). It isn't like Ryder is younger (than Miracle) or young in general either.
Madeline Hunter's STEALING HEAVEN (*****) still reigns supreme amongst novels featuring strong heroines with a history of her own.
The book is a page-turner but I can't say I enjoyed it. My main problem: the hero Ryder fails to make an impact and apparently a hero's limited sexual experience automatically equates to witless, whiny and debased. I didn't care for the ridiculous ending which makes Ryder look terribly naive and dumb, letting the villain go a la Jo Goodman's A SEASON TO BE SINFUL. All it serves is give the villain an opportunity to return and terrorize in the finale. Then again, Ryder looks inept and naive most of the novel, and not just about sex. All he contributes to the novel is his capacity to "organize," and disgustingly forgive and forget everyone because he's high on lust/love for Miracle. The love scenes are poor, if not downright lazy. The writing is the strongest part of this novel. Oh and I detest harebrained, convenient plotting which prevents childbirth with so many other men because of an absence of "true-love." Miracle fails to conceive with 6 other men and assumes she's barren while magically conceiving one night under the stars with Ryder. I have nothing against rosy, superficial romances, but this sort of mushy, contrived plot device only serves to test a hero before marriage who didn't deserve it and eliminate any possibility of a heroine's past children interfering with a "pure" romance. The heroine's supposed barrenness rears its ugly head in Jo Goodman's A SEASON TO BE SINFUL as well.
It's official, I think I like my h/h to be more on equal ground both from an appearance standpoint and from a sexual experience standpoint. Too contemporary maybe? Well that's why there's some contemporary novels on tap!
Intimately and conversationally, our cynical heroine Miracle makes a mockery of our noble, well-intentioned hero Ryder. Even spirited virgin heroines from most romance novels retort and quip with the profligate libertine hero, but not GAMES OF PLEASURE's Ryder, our melting puppy dog of a hero in eternal heat. I'm at a loss to explain most romance novelists failure to write plausibly honorable heroes with less sexual experience than your typical libertine hero. Why does honor and limited sexual experience in heroes (only 2 widows in this case) automatically equate to whiny, weak and immature? I enjoyed one of their first conversations where Miracle and Ryder flirt over dinner and the food on the table. But similar to all the lovemaking, most of the novel portrays Miracle conquering Ryder in all of their private verbal sparring. Time and time again, the book has Ryder just look immature and impotent in everything: the lovemaking, banter and combat ability. Ryder is at Miracle's mercy in every way whether he's melting at Miracle's touch and kiss, or whether he's laughing like a dolt at Miracle's witty jibes mocking his honor and character.
Miracle is consistently cruel to poor Ryder. I understand her motive to drive Ryder away, and to save him from her, but some of the things she blithely says and does really cuts. It's like driving a dagger through Ryder's heart again and again and again and again. Ryder seriously has the honor of gold to stick around as long he does... or he's just a pathetic puppy dog in heat begging for some of Miracle's expert attentions. Miracle heartlessly uses and abuses Ryder, she wins every conversation, has her way in every dispute, conquers Ryder sexually, and sensually kisses and gropes other men in Ryder's plain sight. Julia Ross would have us believe that sexually inequality suits. No, this is a classic case of the heroine running roughshod all over the honorable hero who's too pathetic to care and too witless to notice. Seriously, she's without mercy.
At the very end, Miracle remarks, "I'd wed Ryder even if he were as poor as our father..." I call bullshit! Miracle wouldn't have given him a second thought if he were poor, that's not what a successful courtesan looks for in a Protector, that much was obvious from the outset. She knew who he was, that he was the Duke's son from the first moment she lays eyes on him. Besides, for Miracle, his wealth and rank help mitigate her dour position.
During the scenes where Miracle deliberately gropes and kisses other men sensually in front of Ryder, we read about Ryder's very cutting and heart-shattering reaction. Nevertheless, Ryder takes it up the chin, impotently and meekly stepping aside. After witnessing a sensual embrace and kiss between Miracle and a handsome member of an acting troupe, Ryder turns away assuming the worst. When she finds Ryder later, she inflames his passion for her again and they have sex. After, he asks whether she slept with the other guy. Did it not occur to you to ask before lying with her again? Ryder, buddy, have some self-respect for yourself maybe? Just a little pride? Virginal heroines common to romances exude more self-respect and formidable wit than Ryder.
At another point in the novel, Miracle stands on tippy-toe to provocatively kiss Ryder's cousin Guy Devoran, again in Ryder's plain sight. Later, Miracle explains Ryder need not feel threatened by Guy, and that Guy was a part of her past. The mature response here would be to laugh and make some self-deprecating comment about his dearth of self-respect around Miracle but instead Ross has Ryder immaturely respond how "it doesn't matter." Miracle recognizes that it did matter to him. Yet she cruelly continues to drive stakes into his honorable heart over and over again and again deliberately and forcefully.
You would think Ryder would make his presence felt at least in the banter. But no, he comes across very immature (often repeating the same words in a whine), while our cynically, disenchanted heroine Miracle wins every conversational exchange. If Ryder isn't laughing like a buffoon every other sentence, he's constantly apologizing for Miracle's articulate (and deft) manipulation of the argument identifying his perceived hypocrisy, ineptitude and unwarranted jealousy. No, Ryder doesn't make an impact anywhere. Julia Ross does have him "organize" safety efforts during a troupe's performance of Hamlet. When a fire hits the congested area, he shouts like a child to order and lead the rescue (the book attempts to make the organizing and ordering about seem like some esteemed and meticulous mark of a noble aristocrat.).
When Miracle thinks and discusses how Ryder will soon tire of her because that's how men are, Ryder again immaturely sulks and broods. If Ross had given any thought to her hero's wit and pride, the mature response would be, "Ah, but why do I get the feeling the question isn't when I'll tire of you, but in fact when you'll tire of me? I wouldn't dishonor you with other women no matter your notorious reputation. I'm the boring one without the sexual experience, remember?"
For a large part of the novel, Ryder laments over everything his younger brother Jack is (Lord Jonathan from Ross' NIGHT OF SIN) and everything Ryder is not -- Jack is the competent fighter, the experienced libertine, blah, blah, blah. Ryder's thoughts and conversations brings up the spectacular Jack at every turn. Ofttimes, GAMES OF PLEASURE felt like a tribute to Jack and NIGHT OF SIN, never really rising above Ross' previous book and its hero. The epilogue again features his brother Jack.
Towards the end, marriage of course becomes the solution to everyone's problems. Ryder meekly assures Hanley that he will marry Miracle and in so doing, guarantees that neither he nor Miracle will expose Hanley. Florid and muddled resolutions in the plotting to say the least. Despite chasing after Miracle for the entire novel, Hanley agrees to Ryder's arrangement. Despite mistrusting and hating Hanley, Ryder diffidently strikes the bargain with Hanley. Of course this only protracts the ending giving an opportunity for Hanley to incite his worst later. The book presents the marriage solution as if it's a novel idea, completely revolutionary, and maybe it is given the context of a notorious harlot and respectable Duke's son. But c'mon, from the reader's perspective, marriage always forms the foundation of romance novelist's repertoire, and unlike the characters in the story, it's impossible to forget its eventuality. Certainly, Ryder has a heart of gold and is a far better man than I. He jumps at the possibility of marriage with a barren and promiscuous Miracle. As his wife, I had to wonder whether she'll continue just flaunting her sensual favors with every man in front of Ryder like she does with him already. Ryder's devotion to Miracle is inviolate, but he sure has a lot of faith Miracle to trust her after she grinds his pride to dust in all of their conversations. Even during the marriage proposal, she's beyond cruel to him implying she'll cheat on him.
The worst of it is Ryder meets many of Miracle's past lovers. Ryder's encounters with many of Miracle's past lovers incite Ryder's anger, but of course Ryder remains impotent and accepting in the end, a classic example of "love" handicapping a man instead of empowering him. In the conventional hero-heroine characterizations of most romance novels, the virginal heroine may meet one of the libertine hero's past mistresses, but usually romance novelists spare their virgin heroines from the circumstances and emotional angst Ryder experiences. Ryder's mother the duchess advises Ryder to free his heart of possessive jealousy from meeting Miracle's past lovers (a possessive jealousy he anguishes over, but does nothing about). As if it's his fault that Miracle taunted him mercilessly with other men right in front of him. Again, I understand Miracle's motivations, but she lacks any faith in Ryder and continues to believe he'll tire of her after their marriage. Even though Ryder had everything to lose in the marriage. Even though he marries with the understanding she'll never bear any children, children he's always wanted. Even though he loves her. So if Ryder is to trust Miracle and free his heart of jealous possession, where is Miracle's faith that Ryder will not leave her? Where's some sign from Miracle to Ryder that she actually returns his love? In her thoughts, maybe, but otherwise? Nope.
The Story, briefly.
Tall, dark and handsome Lord Ryderbourne ("Ryder"), the Duke of Blackstone's eldest son, rescues a scantily-clad, unconscious woman in a dinghy. Though bruised and battered, the woman is uncommonly beautiful, and he takes her to an inn for succor. Obviously, he's instantly attracted to her and she grooms his attraction for her over dinner in her room by flagrantly flirting with him, and then seducing him. While he's sleeping, she absconds early next morning with supplies and a horse in exchange for servicing Ryder sexually the night before.
Ryder later discovers that the woman who he can't seem to evict from his mind and loins is none other than London's most notorious courtesan Miracle Heather. Ryder is consumed, while Miracle merely shrugs off the encounter admitting to herself that he's handsome. Ryder gives chase to protect her. When they meet again, Miracle shows no mercy as she bluntly rejects Ryder in an attempt to drive him away. Ryder doggedly remains with Miracle as escort in a journey to Miracle's brother's home.
We learn more about Miracle's history and the circumstances which lead to Ryder finding her in death's clutches at the beginning of the novel. Lord Hanley was Miracle's last lover, and now Hanley seeks to hang Miracle over charges of killing another man. Hanley pursues Ryder and Miracle, and Ryder hopes for some adventure in his dull, well-ordered life.
The story continues with the focus steadfastly resting on making Ryder look dumb, inept and immature. There's traces of Miracle's burgeoning love for Ryder, but for the most part it's about Ryder ingratiating himself to a level of wretched debasement in his thoughts and words.
As I mentioned, the ending has Ryder look even more impotent and dumb. The book belongs to Miracle, and you can file Ryder's character under pusillanimously pathetic. Apparently having limited sexual experience prompts these rather pathetic qualities.