The Rules of Seduction, by Madeline Hunter

>> Monday, February 19, 2007

Even though I consider Madeline Hunter's first three Medievals to be her best books so far, I have enjoyed her other books, and quite a bit. Enough to keep her in my autobuy list, even. So I would have bought The Rules of Seduction even if I hadn't started hearing a persistent buzz about how it was her best book in years and years.

book coverHis rules will teach her the most sensual seductions and pleasures.

Her rules will bring him to his knees.

He enters her home without warning or invitation—a stranger of shadowy motives and commanding charisma. Within hours, Alexia Welbourne is penniless, without any hope of marriage. Until Hayden Rothwell takes her innocence in one impulsive act of passion.

Society's rules of seduction force Alexia to marry the very man who has ruined her family. What Alexia doesn't know is that her masterful, sensual new husband is driven by a secret purpose and bears a dark debt of honor. He will risk anything, give everything, to repay it. Except, he discovers, the woman who starts playing by her own rules.
Well, that buzz was right: I loved TROS and did, indeed, think it was her best in a while. It's a thoughtful, character-driven, very sensual book. An A- from me.

Hayden Rothwell only put some of his money in his longtime friend's bank to support and help him. But his friend Benjamin is now dead, and so when Hayden discovers that the new partner, his former friend's brother, Timothy, has been defrauding the bank's depositors, he feels no obligation to him. He does, however, know that if the situation becomes public it might be disastrous for his country. Banks have already been failing right and left, and if this new manouver becomes known, it might result in even more of them, as people lose whatever faith they had in the financial system.

So Hayden does what he can to fix the situation. Practically every one of Timothy's belongings will be taken away to pay back what he stole, but though he and his family will be ruined financially, he will be allowed to keep his good name, because the real reasons for his ruin won't be publicized. Hayden even promises on his honour that he won't reveal the truth.

Unfortunately, almost as soon as he makes this promise, he begins to regret it, because Timothy tells all his family that the only reason for his ruin was that Hayden suddenly removed his money from the bank, forcing him to ruin himself to keep the institution solvent. Hayden wouldn't ordinarily care about what these people think of him, except that Timothy has a destitute cousin living with them, Miss Alexia Welbourne.

For Alexia, her cousins' ruin means she loses all hopes she might have for a future. And that, together with seeing her cousins suffer under their newly reduced circumstances, makes her despise Hayden for so carelessly ruining them. So why would Hayden care? Simple: despite himself, he finds Alexia very attractive, and as he gets to know her better, that attraction intensifies into something even stronger.

Yes, TROS is a book in which the heroine spends most of the story operating under a misconception about the hero, a misconception the hero can't correct simply because of a promise to someone who really would deserve that promise to be broken. A priori, I thougth I'd find this very frustrating, but Hunter somehow managed to pull it off. It's just that his actions fit Hayden's personality so perfectly, and I think his frustration at having made that damned promise relieved mine. I also thought the way the situation was finally resolved was excellently done. I won't give spoilers here, but I loved how Hunter avoided a painful sudden revelation (which would have come complete with Alexia exclaiming "oh, then I don't hate you"). It's all much more subtle than this, and speaks very well of Alexia's intelligence and increasing knowledge of her husband.

TROS has a perfect balance between plot and romance, which doesn't mean that it's equal parts of each. AAR recently had an ATBF column talking about historical fiction as an alternative to historical romance for those readers who are tired of wall-paper historicals and crave something with a more vivid historical feel. Well, if more writers were like Hunter, that problem wouldn't exist. She strikes what for me is the perfect balance: the story is very much a romance, and the focus is on the relationship, but at the same time, the history forms a rich backdrop to the plot, shaping events and people's personalities. And something else I love about how Hunter does it is that she takes little known (to me, at least) aspects and makes them the basis of her plot. In this case it was the financial crisis of 1825, with its wave of bank failures, while in other books she's used things like the issue of reapportionment (The Charmer), for instance.

But what really made TROS so excellent was that against this fascinating setting, we get a beatiful romance, one between two interesting and well-developed characters.

I liked Alexia because she was so pragmatic, but at the same time, human enough to resent having to be practical and make the best of things. She's intelligent and realistic enough to know that she'll need to make the choice that gives her the best chance for a good future, even if this choice means a blow to her pride and surrendering some of her romantic dreams. But what made her rise above a placid and doormattish character was that she had those prides and those dreams, and that though she makes the practical choice and ends up making the best of things, it's not without some resentment, and she takes great pleasure in rebelling in the small ways she can afford.

Hayden was as fascinating a character as Alexia, maybe even more so. This is a serious-minded, extremely analytical and even somewhat cold man, who, nonetheless, goes crazy for this woman whom he knows doesn't like him very much at all, and with good reason (at least to her mind, and Hayden knows that too). The best thing about this increasing madness of Hayden's was that he went crazy but in a very Haydenesque way. He didn't go wild and change personalities completely, he just fell for her in a quiet, completely intense kind of way that I found incredibly romantic.

There are no huge, passionate fights in this relationship, but it's fraught with deep, heart-felt conflicts, all the more dangerous because they're not regularly hashed out in the open. There's nothing Hayden wants more than Alexia's love and trust, and yet he is pretty sure that Alexia's heart is still with her dead cousin Ben. And as for her loyalty, he also fears it's with her family, not with him. Which is not really that off the mark, at least not at first. Alexia really has to struggle with this issue, because her love and trust, which she thinks should belong with her family, are slowly changing and becoming focused on Hayden, something she regards as a kind of betrayal. These conflicts are beautifully written and explored, in a way that isn't any less heartwrenching for being expressed quietly.

I think my favourite part of the book has to be the last one, the ending, for its lovely, intensely romantic feel. Still trying not to spoil anything, I'll just say Alexia is given the chance to make a choice she never would have thought she'd be able to make, and Hayden goes practically to pieces, even while allowing her to freely make that choice, because her happiness has become more important to him than his own. My, oh, my, it was an amazing and wonderful way of showing the intensity and depth of their feelings, and it ended the book in a perfect note.


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