Nine Rules to Break when Romancing a Rake – Sarah MacLean (Review)

Sarah MacLean Nine Rules to Break when Romancing a Rake

I’m very attached to romances, particularly ones set during the Regency. It’s a fascinating and easily embellished period of history – it has everything one could ever need for an exciting, bodice-ripping story: duels, balls, rakes and elopements. Engagements are made and broken, caddish men attempt to take liberties, remarkable eyes ensnare eligible and inveterate bachelors. It’s all very exciting, and they always end happily.

I find that such books always improve my mood – everything works out in the end, which is positive and gratifying, but the road to that end is fraught with danger, intrigue, and fits of the vapours. Georgette Heyer is, obviously, the foremost in the genre, having written a huge number of books that all contain a broadly similar narrative and yet manage to remain distinct and interesting. Her work (and Austen’s too, though I feel that people who are inspired by Pride and Prejudice to write romance novels have rather missed the point) have spawned a host of imitators ranging in quality from the absolutely appalling to the very readable.

Nine Rules to Break when Romancing a Rake is such a romance, and one that tries to cram in as many of the above elements as it can get away with. The book features gambling hells and ballgowns, spurned mistresses and discreet manservants. It has everything that a Regency romance needs.

Lady Calpurnia is not a happy woman. She’s followed every rule of decorum and deportment, and is still lonely and bored. Romance is a forlorn hope – she is not considered attractive, and her only suitors want her for her dowry. With nothing more to look forward to from life than more weary decades of having a spotless reputation, Lady Calpurnia decides to make a change, and a list. A list of things that she wants to do, a list of things that ladies of good breeding do not do.

To cross off items on her list, she enlists the help of the Marquess of Ralston – a notorious rake and a man she finds utterly compelling and rather frightening. For his part, he needs a woman of unimpeachable reputation to help introduce his (debatably illegitimate, certainly Catholic) half-sister to high society. Events unfold as one would expect in such books.

Nine Rules to Break when Romancing a Rake is not great literature. It’s not the best book I’ve ever read, and it is not written in deathless prose. However, so few things are. What it was was fun, somewhat trashy, and very readable. I enjoyed it – the dramatic sections were exciting, the rough patches in the course of true love filled me with trepidation, the eventual resolution was satisfying and sweet. The whole point of such books is to pick up your emotions and carry them along – I’m easily moved by books, but it still doesn’t always work. If you are looking for something light and entertaining, you could do a lot worse.

It’s very much written in the “Regency style” that Heyer made so recognizable. All of the expected slang appears – people get “foxed”, the ton disapproves, et cetera. Sentences are lengthy and ornate – not the fashion, I know, but I love that style – done even half competently, it has a wonderful ring to it, and allows authors and characters to be incredibly catty (when appropriate) with style and ease.

It’s done competently here, even with slight nods towards the more immediate style favoured by modern authors – Sarah MacLean frequently breaks up the long, descriptive and decorative paragraphs with short, snappy one-line paragraphs. It sounds like an obvious point, barely worth mentioning, but it’s a noticeable authorial fingerprint, used for emphasis and impact. She uses it to round off scenes and chapters with a final pithy remark – it’s well done and helps keep up the pace.

The overall structure of the narrative is a little messy – it’s quite a long book that seeks to include almost every idea that the genre admits as a trope, which does lead to a slowing of the pace in the book – each item on Calpurnia’s list needs to be ticked off, even if that puts the overall story on hold for a little while. There are scenes that never tie off as well – set up for the sequels I think, but I did find it a little confusing; a character that looked like they might end up being key walked out of the story after one short scene, and never returned. Hopefully they will reappear in a later book.

The big difference between Sarah MacLean’s book and Georgette Heyer’s work is that Georgette Heyer never included sex. Burning kisses, sure, and the appearance of children in the books shows that it was a relevant concept, but the actual act itself had a veil drawn over it,  happening (presumably) after the end of the book, or perhaps on the blank page between the final chapter and the epilogue. Sarah MacLean shows no such restraint.

What I’m saying here is that there is quite a lot of sex. I get why – society is more relaxed (or licentious, depending on perspective) than it was in 1921, and the genre has newer, more fleshy conventions. It doesn’t quite fit the narrative though, which occasionally, when you notice, is rather jarring. The overall story is about a reserved and sensible woman falling in love in a society in which pre-marital sex was (publicly at least) utterly beyond the pale. This narrative is somewhat undermined when she ends up half naked in a rake’s carriage with incredible speed, and continues to strip with alarming regularity. It doesn’t quite fit – she’s still vocalising all of these proper, decorous ideals and opinions long after she’s broken that taboo – still agonising about being ruined long after she definitely has been. Similarly, she’ll flip from fury and heartache to lust in a heartbeat, pushing her emotions and immediate concerns to one side because the book hasn’t had a sex scene in a while.

It’s a similar issue, I guess, to ludo-narrative dissonance, in which the overall story or themes of a game are contradicted by the gameplay. A hero trying to fix a broken land who spends all of his time blowing stuff up, for a (non-specific) example. For the sake of the story, the sex should progress more slowly, but the conventions of the genre demand a faster pace to her seduction and succumbing.

In the end, I don’t really mind that, or the other issues I mentioned – I just occasionally got knocked out of immersion. Overall, I liked the book, as should probably be clear by now; I’m a sucker for romances and happy endings. It has a couple of rough edges, but Nine Rules to Break when Romancing a Rake is a better-than-average example of the genre, and it was fun to read.

It’s the first of a series – “Love by Numbers”, so it looks like all of the loose ends from the first book will eventually get tied up. I’m already part way through the second, because they’re so easy to pick up and get into. If you want an easy-reading, entertaining and exciting romance, this is one I’d recommend.

Buy it here.

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