January 3, 2013

Review: The Sweetest Revenge by Dawn Halliday

We have all read wonderful stories about the handsome rakes and dashing scoundrels; the debauched dukes, the wicked earls, and the roguish viscounts. In these stories, the mad, bad aristocrats find the woman who ultimately tames them, who turns them into a monogamous man, a loving husband and father.
I have always wondered, though, what happened to all those women who came before that woman who tamed him? What happened to those poor souls he debauched and ruined? How did they survive the scandal? How did they go on after the rake left them behind?
This is the story of three women in that exact situation—three women who’ve been the victims of one rake who has compromised them all. These three women have decided that enough is enough, and while they can’t take on society, perhaps—just perhaps—they can change one man. This is the story of his reformation.
The author's prelude, along with a man tied up on the cover, made me pretty excited about this book. An original concept and so obvious. The whole thing of promiscuous men being glamourized, this one woman being 'different' and all the women of his past just melt away has always bothered me. And who could resist this?:
This book does not shirk away from the dark consequences of a dissolute rake’s behavior. It contains rough language and erotic situations. You’ve been warned.
The biggest strength of this book is the concept - original, it had me wondering how things were going to sort themselves out. Telling you about the plot though requires some spoilers.

Three wronged women from Lord Leothaid's past kidnap him: Isabelle, Anna and Susan. Isabelle was Leo's young love, but after he writes her an explicit letter which is intercepted she is ruined and exiled. He didn't come for her. Anna's ruin is more recent; Leo slept with her then ran away when he realized that she was a virgin. She was shunned by her family and ended up as prostitute. Susan was ruined in a different way; she was emotionally destroyed. A widow, Susan and Leo took up together and she began to fall for him. Leo squashed her hopes cruelly and consequently Susan doesn't believe in love or men. Susan is angry at Leo's treatment of all three women, as well as all the other women he's discarded.

So they kidnap him, to give him some uncomfortable treatment to go with the uncomfortable truths. Revenge, in other words. Susan orchestrates his physical discomfort - a cold cellar, bread and water, her beefy french lover to beat him up. Anna's revenge is humiliation. She brings him almost to orgasm then leaves him tied up with his pants around his ankles and frustratingly aroused. (Fun! Hot! Yay!) Isabelle's main role is to be the timid wet blanket. Okay, actually, I think the idea is that she provides emotional torment. But she does this completely passively - she touches his foot gently and he is inexplicably set afire and remembers his first love, now dead, who broke his heart so thoroughly that he became a complete bastard. Can you see what is going to happen? Oh yes.... Poor Leo. He thought that his 'Belle' was dead, but everyone lied and conspired to keep them apart. This is frankly improbable.

The main romance is Belle and Leo's convoluted route back together. Realizing that Leo knows who Belle is and is besotted, Susan plans the perfect revenge: Belle will seduce and desert Leo, breaking his heart like his has done to so many others. Without this inspiration, I'm not quite sure whether Susan's cold floors and progressive feminist reading and Anna's increasingly kind sexual torture would work. Well, not the way they were doing it. I think a lot more could have been made of Susan and Anna's revenge. Instead, the focus is on Leo's desperation to see Belle and the unravelling of the past relationships of the protagonists.

There are also some sub-plot romances for Anna and Susan. Poor old Susan has no character or plot development at all. She begins widowed, with a lover and a cynical attitude towards love and marriage and ends exactly the same. Susan is pretty sane although her advice to the other two women is rather questionable. Anna on the other hand seems remarkably unharmed by her traumatic year as a prostitute and falls immediately into the arms of Lord Archer, a rakish compatriot of Leo. Susan goes to all the trouble of giving Anna a new, respectable identity, only for Anna to throw it all away by becoming a mistress. Susan is annoyed and points out that Lord Archer is no better than Lord Leothaid. But Anna acts like an impetuous child, insisting that she is 'healed' and wants Lord Archer. The mind boggles.

The other sub-plot is the rivalry between Mr. Sutherland and Lord Leothaid. They compete over women, and that ends up including Isabelle. Mr. Sutherland is set up as the villan who led Leo astray and then tries to steal away his first love. Susan encourages Isabelle to become Mr. Sutherland's mistress (I'm not sure about the wisdom of this advice) and when Leo doesn't come for her, Isabelle gives in. Now is the time for even bigger spoilers than I have already told. Look away now if you don't want to know.

It's the end of the book, Susan and Anna consider Leo 'cured' of his misogynistic and unacceptable behavior. Leo has been searching for Isabelle and begs Susan and Anna to tell him where she is. Susan throws his own words back at him:
"Go find a whore, then. That'll satisfy. All women have the same basic parts, after all, don't they, my lord?"
Anger rose within him, an instinctual response. She mocked Belle, said she was no better than any common harlot.
That doesn't sound to me like a man who has gained any respect for the situation that women find themselves in when men take advantage of them. By throwing back his own words at him, Susan doesn't (imo) suggest that Isabelle is a 'common harlot', but that every woman deserves more respect than Leo previously gave them. It seems to me that far from having any change of opinion or sense of remorse over his treatment of women, Leo is still an idiot.

It doesn't get any better. Leo arrives at Mr. Sutherland's house, just in the nick of time to stop Isabelle and he consummating their relationship. And he's furious. They fight over her and she stands there wringing her hands like the object girl that she is.
***End Spoilers***

The problem for me is that this isn't truly a story of redemption or reformation, as Leo is still a dick. It isn't an effective story of revenge either. This book takes a revolutionary premise and then tries to execute it in a standard cookie-cutter romance novel way. It's a pity, because even without the amount of kinkiness that tying up a Lord in your basement invites, this is nearly inspired. The emphasis is just too much on the rather boring and sappy Isabelle. I think I would have liked to see her show some gumption and run off with Mr. Sutherland, but no such luck. She lurrrves Leo and so he gets much better ending than he deserves. Nobody really gets the revenge on Leo; not Mr. Sutherland, Isabelle, Susan or Anna. Everyone except Mr. Sutherland ends the book pretty happy and I think that is supposed to represent that they have forgiven him his misdeeds and moved on. Personally, I think the victims of rakes deserve rather more revenge, sweet or not, than these characters got. This book suggests at, but doesn't deliver, what a rake really deserves in terms of punishment and redemption.


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