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Libertine’s Kiss

by Judith James

Book Review by Lynne Connolly


Libertine's Kiss

Judith James’ Broken Wing took the romance world by storm last year, and her follow-up, Libertine's Kiss has some of the hallmarks of the earlier book. I found it a very enjoyable read.

It’s set, for the most part, in the dissolute court of Charles II, with an earlier section in the England of Oliver Cromwell, with an appearance by the great man himself. For the most part James takes the traditional view of the Commonwealth, best explained by Sellers and Yeatman, who said that the Royalists were Wrong but Romantic and the Puritans Right but Repulsive. While scholarship has long passed that point, it’s still a comfortable view and it works very well in a romance.

Her evocation of time and place are the best things about this book, and that isn’t damning with faint praise, they really are good. In some scenes you just want her to go on describing things. Her descriptions of the English countryside and Whitehall, where Charles II based his court, were excellent and she must have done a great deal of research. However they don’t come across as at all academic, rather they are a great setting for the story.

Lizzie is of the Puritan persuasion, but as a child she meets and plays with William, from the neighboring estate. They separate when the Civil War sends William into exile with his King, and her to an unhappy and abusive marriage. The details of the abuse she received never really seemed to affect her subsequent behavior, so it seemed a bit unreal to this reader. Just before the end of the war, Lizzie finds a wounded William and tends to his wounds. I was rather surprised that she stitched his wounds up, rather than leaving them open, as was the custom at that time. In an age before antibiotics, when the danger of dying from infection was so great, it was preferable to heal a wound from the inside out, and pack it to remove the impurities. The other thing I found a little odd was that William found himself well enough that night to persuade Lizzie into some hot sex. He was exhausted and wounded, and she was wary of sex after an abusive relationship, but they managed to do the horizontal rumba. And he didn’t recognize her. That part I didn’t quite buy, especially with later occurrences. There was no reason why he shouldn’t, so I don’t know why James decided to do it that way.

Lizzie and William soon get together after the Restoration and the bulk of the story is their romance. While it’s in the Spice line, I wouldn’t call it erotic, because the scenes were vanilla m/f and there were no scenes featuring secondary characters. It followed the dictates of a romance in another way, that after they meet, although there are a few misunderstandings, they don’t sleep with anyone else.

The story doesn’t have a lot of energy, unlike “Broken Wing.” It’s taken at a leisurely pace, which in some ways is a good thing, when most romances race at a frenetic pace toward the end. The affair between William and Lizzie is sweet, and then there occurs a typical romance trope, which happens to be one that I deeply dislike.

Spoiler – Lizzie refuses marriage from William because he won’t give her fidelity and won’t say he loves her. In the days when arranged marriages were the norm, I found it a little hard to believe. The “You didn’t ask me properly and you don’t love me enough” doesn’t often work for me, particularly in historicals.

William is, as she mentions in the Author’s Note, based on Rochester, the poet and dissolute member of Charles II’s court who in reality died of syphilis and probably cirrhosis of the liver. He turned from a handsome lover to a raddled, ruined person, his body softened and marked by his alcoholism and venereal disease. I found William’s reasons for his dissolute behavior too facile and his recovery from alcohol abuse too easy. I also wondered how he managed to avoid the pox, since he was free with his favors before Lizzie came to court.

It was pleasant to read some of Rochester’s poetry in the book, although the inclusion of the distinctively different poems by the likes of Lovelace jarred a little.

The editing was also a little lacking, although I did read an ARC, and maybe that was corrected for the final copy. A few quotation marks were missing from the end of speeches and twice “discrete” was used when “discreet” was meant.

Interesting that she gave William the title of Lord Rivers, and the woman he meets first in the book and sleeps with is Jane Shore. I suspect Judith James is a Ricardian, or she wants to write a book set in the Wars of the Roses, since Lord Rivers was the brother of Queen Elizabeth, the wife of Edward IV, and Jane Shore was Edward’s mistress.

The occasional “bloody hell” and “milord” aside, both of which are anachronistic, I found it strange that William referred to Lizzie the puritan as “the abbess” as that meant the madam of a brothel in popular slang, and she did refer to the characters as “having sex,” a term that wasn’t current until the 20th century (I know, I was surprised when I looked it up). But on the whole her sense of period was superb, enabling me to immerse myself in what I found to be an excellent historical romance. And it’s nice to see a period other than the Regency in a novel. Keep it up, Ms. James.

Official blurb: Abandoned by his cavalier father at a young age, William de Veres grew up knowing precious little happiness. But William has put the past firmly behind him and as a military hero and noted rake, he rises fast in the ranks of the hedonistic Restoration court. Until he is forced to seek shelter from a young Puritan woman...

The civil wars have cost the once-high-spirited Elizabeth Walters her best friend and her father, leaving her unprotected and alone. She flees an unwanted marriage, seeking safe haven, but what she finds is something she never expected. When her kindness and her beauty bring her to the attention of William, and then the king, she will have a choice to make. After all, can a notorious libertine really be capable of love?

Lynne Connolly
August 2010

Libertine’s Kiss by Judith James
(HQN Books, August, 2010; ISBN-10: 0373775059)
Available at: Amazon | Amazon UK

© 2010 Lynne Connolly. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission.

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