After Stuart's thoroughly entertaining contemporary romance/suspense INTO THE FIRE (****), I was a bit disappointed by PRINCE OF SWORDS which takes place during regency England. This novel's hero Alistair MacAlpin, the sixth Earl of Glenshiel, demonstrates Anne Stuart's unparalleled knack for bad boys with a very dark edge. These aren't just pining good guys masquerading as garden-variety rakes, these really are bad boys and some of the things they think, say and do will put most romance-hero rakes to shame. Although Alistair's tortured-soul, bad-boy rake routine seemed a lot more convincing than most rake characterizations from romance books, Alistair's overwhelming state of ennui percolated my reading experience and I was actually bored by his boredom. Although I liked Alistair's dearth of morals and soulless characterization, I found myself bored by his womanizing ways, common flavor of tall, dark and handsome, wealth, title and his insouciant attitude towards life like a dilettante. Alistair just seemed like a spoiled 32 year-old baby, mad at society for exploiting his older brother's predilection to drinking and gaming. Although both are bad boys, Alistair lacked the intensity we find in INTO THE FIRE's Dillon. The prose here is better than most historical romances, the settings are above average, while the plotting/pacing below average to average. The plotting and pacing suffered from an overabundance of introspection/banter, switching to a secondary pairing (Robert Brennan and Jessamine's sister Fleur), a decided absence of any engaging events, and an anticlimactic finale. Fueled by Alistair's ennui, the characterizations seemed mostly bland and formulaic. I grew tired of Jessamine's insecurity mocking her lack of beauty both in her words and thoughts. I actually liked Robert Brennan and Fleur better than the main characters (Alistair and Jessamine).
Fleur finally moved. "[Brennan] told you to keep your hands off me," she said firmly. "Yes, I spent the night in his room last night, yes, I'm a slut and a whore. But I'm Brennan's whore."
The book obviously belongs to its bad boy Alistair MacAlpin and how he makes everyone else dance to his tune. Most chick-lit postures goody boys who undeservedly suffer a lot to be with their "feisty" (translation, bitchy) heroines. Anne Stuart however really puts her heroine through hell to save her bad boy's soul or to be with her hero. Alistair mercilessly exploits, abuses and discards Jessamine, and yet Jessamine continues to love him returning to him time and time again. Alistair obviously doesn't deserve Jessamine and he'll be first to tell you that, but somehow Jessamine strives to rescue his soul anyway. Most chick-lit has their heroes taking the first step in love, taking the first chance, fighting for their heroines and continuing to sacrifice at every turn thereafter. Not Anne Stuart. Her heroines are gluttons for punishment and it seems both Jessamine and Fleur here take gargantuan leaps of faith driven by their love for Alistair and Robert, respectively. In spite of it all, it was refreshing to see heroines fighting to be with their heroes for a change in historical romance.
Many elements of the plotting failed to engage while the pacing sagged. I found it too convenient for Alistair to learn of all the relevant characters and connections involved in the story at the outset via the eccentric Nicodemus Bottom. Alistair knows of Jessamine's connection with the iniquitous Bow Street runner Josiah Clegg which places Jessamine at a disadvantage with Alistair throughout. Alistair accurately views the other Bow Street runner Robert Brennan a scrupulous man. Alistair knows of Brennan's attraction to Jessamine's sister Fleur and uses that later at the party to occupy Brennan. Even though the book characterizes Brennan as a clever, strong man, Brennan was always a step behind. Even at the very end, Brennan falls for the same trick twice (Alistair diverts his attention elsewhere) and he just appears impotent overall. The alternating passages between Fleur and Jessamine before the love scene crippled the pacing. Interminable musings without anything happening grates my soul and these passages specialized in such musings. The party at Blaine Manor was pointless and Alistair taking Jessamine on a pilfering "adventure" seemed less of an adventure than an excursion on repetitious introspection and banter.
Impoverished Lady Jessamine Maitland, her sister Fleur and their mother have fallen on hard times after her father debauched the family inheritance. Twenty-three year-old virgin Jessamine, decked out in plain gray garb and not nearly as pretty as her younger eighteen year-old sister Fleur, single-handedly sustains her family through her Tarot card reading talents. A gypsy tutors Jessamine on the arcane arts of card reading and warns that should she ever lose her virginity, her card-reading talents will also disappear. Jessamine's unique card-reading talents aid the wicked Bow Street runner Josiah Clegg to apprehend criminals. Jessamine is saving to help finance her beautiful younger sister's coming-out thereby ensnaring a wealthy gentleman who will secure their family's future.
Notoriously dubbed the "Cat," the sixth Earl of Glenshiel (Alistair) finds a solution to his boredom by stealing from the sinfully rich and prosperous. Tall, dark and handsome, a lewd rake, and exhibiting the common "alpha" traits, Alistair espies Jessamine at a party (he's just stolen some jewels). Jessamine entertains the guests via her card-reading talents. Alistair is immediately attracted to Jessamine and doggedly pursues her for sex. He even makes it clear to her that he wishes to deflower her and then abandon her.
Things slowly progress at a party in Blaine Manor attended by all the characters: Jessamine, Alistair, Jessamine's sister Fleur, Robert Brennan and Josiah Clegg. Nothing much happens except Alistair's continued mission to deflower and ruin Jessamine. Alistair knows Jessamine is in collusion with Clegg and endeavors to give her reasons not divulge his secret identity as the notorious "Cat." Robert Brennan and Josiah Clegg both are after the "Cat" and Clegg pressures Jessamine to divine the Cat's identity from the cards. Jess waits and waits all the while subconsciously knowing the Cat's identity.
I found the ending with one final heist involving the crown jewels very rushed and anticlimactic. Despite Jessamine's love and devotion, it takes a lot for Alistair to finally come to grips with his love for her. But such are Anne Stuart's bad boys, they don't make it easy.