Great Historical Romance Novels

When I was a teen, I stumbled upon my first Jane Aiken Hodge book in the paperback section of my local thrift store. By the time her book Watch the Wall, My Darling came into my hands, the newsprint was yellowing with age. I started reading the book and discovered that turning the pages too quickly caused the binding to disintegrate.

Still, I had a very hard time remembering to be careful.

To my great disappointment, I seem to have lost the book in my last move, so I will tell you what I remember.

For one, the opening: “Damnation!” The voice was a gentleman’s.” I believe this was the first line, but if not, those words are on the first page.

I can truthfully say I have never read a more exciting “inciting incident.” The heroine, Christina, is on her way to her grandfather’s estate when her carriage is attacked by a band of smugglers. The ring leader is holding Christina captive and she bites his hand–the result is the aforementioned exclamation. I remember thinking, ooh, this is going to be good!

The following morning, the hero walks into breakfast. Christina looks at his bandaged hand and says something along the lines of “nasty bite” to which he replies that there is a litter in the stables and the bitch didn’t like how he was handling her. She, of course, counters with something equally warning and witty.

Forgive the fuzzy memory, it’s been more than 15 years, but who wouldn’t want to read on and see the sparks between these two fly?

The rest of the book lives up to the opening. There is a half-dead frenchman hidden on the estate (is he friend or foe?), a crumbling abbey, a few unexplained (read deliberate) accidents, a kidnapping, a bullet wound, a love triangle and an irascible old patriarch trying to manipulate his family while they fight for their lives. Now THAT makes for a lovely Saturday afternoon!

The Suspense Historical has been making a bit of come-back and I’m all for it. While I love a good romp, the characters that have lingered with me for years have always been the ones that had to find their grit to survive. Mrs. DeWinter (the second), Martha Leigh (later Mrs. TreMellyn), Maggie Chandler & Christina Trentton. Of course, all these heroines had complex and dark heros whose strength was burdened with secrets, hidden pain and a desperate need for the light the heroine could bring into their lives.

So, raising a glass to Ms. Hodge, who opened up a world of satisfying entertainment to me.

*note: the title Watch the Wall, My Darling is a reference to a chilling Kipling poem called A Smuggler’s Song.

I just ticked another romance off my TBR pile: Meljean Brook’s The Iron Duke & all I can say is damn, what a ride!

While this is not strictly a ‘historical,’ I’m certain any fan of thrillers, historicals and/or paranormals would fall in love with this book (sweet, small town romances? not so much). Once I started reading, I could not and did not stop.

Ms. Brook created an imaginative, intricate world whose social and political tensions feel familiar but spring from a series of events that are completely original.

England held for 200 years under Mongol rule, but liberated in the mid 1800’s? Well, OK, that is actually plausable. England having been conquered by nanoagents in sugar? What a marvelous twist on the Trojan horse! Zombies roaming an uninhabited Europe? Sure! Refugees having fled to a “New World” as carved up by colonial powers as the current map of Europe appears to us now? WOW! Add to all of that tensions between those who weathered the occupation vs. those who ran off, but now that England has been liberated, wish to return and recreate their “nostalgized” (excuse my made-up word, please)past and you have a lesson in brilliant world-building.

But to the heart: the romance. Our hero is a Pirate-turned-reluctant-savior-of-England and our heroine is an inspector fighting for justice and peace but looking, to the eyes of many, like the vanquished enemy.

Oh. my. God.

I’m just so happy to have taken the leap and purchased this book. Publisher’s Weekly named it among the best books of 2010, and for very good cause. If you haven’t had a chance to read it, it’s fabulous.

One thing that made this alternate world so much fun for me was my 2007 trip to Mongolia complete with a trip to the ruins of Karakorum. The Mongols left their imprint on the modern world in so many ways we in the west take for granted.

I was just thrilled with this very vivid steampunk romance & I cannot wait for more. In the mean time, here is a pic of me, my husband and our fabulous guide playing Mongol dress-up in Karakorum.

My favorite romance novelists do more than tell a story, they show characters caught in an inner struggle while reaching for the most elusive of prizes: a deeply intimate, passionate, requited love.

For great novels, the challenge to find love is hindered not because the protagonist cannot find someone suitable, but because before they take the prize, they must dig deep the courage to face the obstacles (read: their cherished but false beliefs about the way the world works) between them and happiness. There is no way around it: True love requires courage.

I just finished Courtney Milan’s Trial by Desire. In this book, the hero’s depth was sketched beautifully with an almost invisible hand. Not to give anything away, but he suffers from what we would call bi-polar disorder.

Early on in the novel, she eases us into the isolation of his mind in a perfectly written scene. A friend asks him to describe China and his thoughts follow:

Images flashed through his head–high green hills rising steeply out of the clear blue glass of the ocean, vegetation choking every inch of land; humid heat and the overpowering stench of human waste; the glint of water off polished steel, the sun hot over head; and then, once he’d left Hong Kong, the delta of the Pearl River, obscured by the acrid smoke of cannon fire.
This evening, Ned had no desire to delve into those feelings. Not at any length at all.
Hot was finally the word Ned settled upon.

I loved this passage. Without spelling out any of the hero’s feelings, Ms. Milan showed how detailed his experience and yet how limited his ability to express what he knew. Right then, I knew this was going to be one of those books where the courage to love took center stage.

Trial by Desire is a deeply satisfying novel!