Old Man River of No Return: A Steamy Regency Brought to You by Father Time?

THE RIVER OF NO RETURN by Bee Ridgway: A Regency time travel romance that meditates on time as a river, cultural hegemony, and the flow of history

The reluctant hero Time traveler Nick Davenant, an alpha-hero Regency soldier-aristocrat turned 21st-century dilettante artisanal cheese farmer (Vermont, of course), pop culture junkie, and ladies’ man. He unwittingly escaped death on the battlefield at Salamanca by jumping forward in time, but his story really takes off when he’s asked to go back and resume his life as Nicholas Falcott, Marquess of Blackdown.

The spinster heroine Powerful time-bender Lady Julia Percy. An orphan, she’s left alone following the death of her beloved grandfather. When his heir arrives she stops time in its tracks to narrowly escape the violent rage of this mad cousin, and then must learn the how and why of her unusual talents.

The setting Mainly London, 1815, but we also get to travel with Nick to 2003 and experience what happens when he first arrives in the 21st century, along with some of his travels in present-day Europe and America.

The tropes Regency lord with badass military experience, and battle trauma; Bluestocking spinster raised by eccentric and intellectual grandfather; Hero & heroine have shared brief yet compelling childhood encounter; Orphaned heroine at the mercy of villainous relative; Hero’s female relations offer heroine refuge and sisterhood, placing her under hero’s protection; Virginal heroine & reformed libertine hero; Heroine & hero as partners and crime-stoppers.

Islands in the Stream A lot of reviews of this book talk about its masterful blend of genres, from science fiction & fantasy, to romance and historical fiction, to adventure/suspense. And they’re right – The River of No Return is one of those books that’s impossible to pigeonhole. It’s a river with many tributaries. Which is one of the things I like most about it. It’s like a literary, tightly structured Outlander with a dash of the Pink Carnation and Amazing Grace (the film). Here’s how I break it down:

Steamy Regency Of course my starting point is the romance genre, and Julia and Blackdown are a couple with just the right amount of conflict, misperceptions and chemistry. We see them together only in the 19th century, but this is after Blackdown has spent a decade in 21st century America, wearing jeans and hooking up in bars. There’s something utterly sublime about the way Ridgway weaves together his two-fold responses to Julia, revealing his struggle to act the proper Regency lord while undoubtedly imagining what she’d look like in jeans or a bikini. But the romance offers an emotionally satisfying journey in its own right, as Julia moves from distrust to transparency and Blackdown learns her secrets. Strong dialogue and good conversation are the surefire way to draw me in to a romance, and I loved the layers of meaning embedded in their repartee.  As for the steamy part, it’s understated and erotic, not terribly explicit. But there is tangible sizzle, and one of the least icky, most effectively sexy recitations of the oft-used Elegy 20 from John Donne I’ve encountered.

Father Time As time travel Fantasy, The River of No Return is more conceptual than literal, and the world-building is sketched in only as much as necessary to convey the vision of history as a river through which people, via innate powers combined with powerful emotion and occasional talismanic objects, can move both forward and back. I’ve read some time travel romance but not very much SF/F, so I’ll tread carefully here. It seemed to me as I was reading that Ridgway’s construction of the river of time was – appropriately – fluid, and less about a mind-blowing time machine or time travel concept than about what happens when a powerful elite controls access to history and knowledge. There are two opposing time-controlling factions, with strident political differences regarding the use of time-stopping, history-altering powers. Each group has heroes, leaders, intelligence operatives & counter spies. Julia’s grandfather turns out to be a pivotal father figure for the ‘revolutionary’ Ofan, while Nick is embraced and set on his intelligence mission by the leaders of the entrenched and reactionary Guild.

In contrast to time travel romances where either the hero or heroine has traveled to a distant century and spends most of the book having comical reactions to newfangled contraptions or old-fashioned ideas, Ridgway exercises restraint in developing Nick as Blackdown’s 21st century TV-loving persona. Cleverer by far to whisk him to our time at the beginning of the novel, just long enough to be indoctrinated by the Guild, cram his head full of pop culture, and absorb the ironclad rule There Is No Going Back, and then plunge him back into his own 19th century life where he’s not ridiculously out of step but subtly and importantly modernized. Thus most of the novel takes place in Blackdown’s original time, and only at the very end do we learn where, and when, Julia is really from.  As a longtime romance reader I also very much appreciated that the time traveling hero was not a hunky medieval Scotsman, much as I appreciate a man in a kilt. In spite of the comedic restraint, however, there are some hilarious moments when Nick’s devotion to pop culture gets the better of Blackdown and I found myself chortling madly when he and a fellow traveler serenade Julia, on the run in a tumbledown barn in 1815, with Islands in the Stream, complete with fist-up pretend microphones.

Political History  The River of No Return contains a clear and nuanced account, from multiple perspectives, of the political and social upheaval in England after the Napoleonic Wars, when lands were enclosed, factories were on the rise, and the Corn Laws were debated. On the one hand there are Blackdown’s sister Clare and her friend Jem Jemison, attempting to democratize the distribution of land and labor on the family estate, and on the other hand Blackdown’s peers in the House of Lords, unashamedly cooking the books to pass laws that will prop up their own estates at the expense of their laborers. It’s woven into the narrative organically, so it doesn’t feel like an info dump, but it’s like a real-history case study for the larger point the book makes about cultural hegemony and the ruthlessness with which a ruling elite will seek to hold on to power and increase its wealth. Amazinggraceposter.jpgThis is the part that reminded me of Amazing Grace, an amazing film starring Ioann Gruffudd as William Wilberforce, leading a bitterly contested campaign to outlaw the slave trade in Britain. It’s a view of Parliament from a few decades before the Corn Bill debates, but if you haven’t seen it, you should, for all kinds of reasons (did I mention it’s Ioann Gruffudd?).

Good vs. Evil The suspense plot pits the Ofan vs. the Guild, and plays upon the trope of a secret organization bent on world domination while another equally secret, but more democratic and sympathetic, organization tries to keep the playing field level.  There’s a Talisman both groups seek to understand or control, which could be an object, but may actually be a person. My favorite part of this element of the book was the notion that these organizations would choose a particular moment in time — in this case 1815 London — and make of it a sort of safe house and meeting place for operatives and members. I guess I just like the idea of a bunch of people hanging out at Almack’s or Gunter’s, who are really Vikings from 800 AD or disco queens from 1984.

Is There Really No Return? I understand a sequel may be in the works, but I appreciated that The River of No Return offered an HEA for Blackdown and Julia. There was a lot about other characters and their respective roles with the Guild and the Ofan that was left unresolved, and I would be very very intrigued to read a follow-up novel that focused on Clare and mysterious Jem Jemison. For me the most appealing thing about this book was the playful way Ridgway approached the crafting of a literary romance novel. She even gave Nick and Julia – holding hands and jumping into the river of time together – a perfect theme song from the ’80s.

Islands in the stream

That is what we are

No one in between

How can we be wrong

Sail away with me to another world

And we rely on each other… etc.  (@ the Bee Gees, 1983)

I love a book that tosses the poetry of the Bee Gees in with John Donne. And just because it’s so incredibly fabulous, I’m making a second link to the Kenny Rogers/Dolly Parton video of this song.

The River of No Return is a 2013 release from Dutton; it is available in the usual formats and places. I read a copy borrowed from my local library, but I’m planning on snapping up a copy of the paperback which is due out soon.

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Regency Gossip: When a Bluestocking Is Like a Blogger

A final installment from the Lords Trilogy, In Which We Meet a Viscount in Love with Lord X, Gossip Swirls, and a Marriage is Forced

Badass: Ian Lennard, Viscount St. Clair – on the surface he’s a libertine with a wandering eye, but underneath lies a painful past, strong convictions, and a distinguished record of service to his country that it will take a VERY “tart-tongued, self-righteous spinster” to unmask.

Falls For: Lord X – no, it’s not m/m.  Gossip columnist Lord X is really Felicity Taylor, society architect’s daughter and penniless wielder of London’s most notorious pen. She may be more of a badass than Ian.  Pen mightier than sword, etc.

Brought To You By:  Sabrina Jeffries, in The Dangerous Lord (2000) (re-issued 2009)books

Hangs Out In: 1820’s London, where he has returned after a decade or so as an expat and (of course!) brilliant spy for His Majesty’s government.

Likes:  Keeping secrets secret; covering up his distinguished service record; triplets; Spanish endearments — querida — inexplicably slip out during intimate encounters.

Dislikes: Being forced to find a wife in order to gain his inheritance (but he’ll suck it up and make it happen once he encounters feisty Felicity.)

Badass Annoying Moment: Forcing Felicity to the altar.

Badass Hero Moment: Forcing Felicity to the altar. She’s actually kind of annoying in staunchly and ridiculously insisting that marriage to Ian would be The Most Awful Thing. Ever.

(too) Frequently Described As: Brooding.

Tom-Brady-s-Hottest-Pics-male-models-28291631-500-680Casting? I dunno, but don’t you think the 2009 cover picture looks almost exactly like Tom Brady?  That’s just weird.

Is it a Badass Read?   This is the final book in a trilogy of Lords, and I was distracted by the appearance of the other two heroes, whose stories I had not yet read. My bad, for reading out of order. That aside, it was an enjoyable, quick read, buoyed by SJ’s characteristic deft and funny dialogue.  Although these are not characters that will linger everlastingly with me once I close the book, Felicity is slightly more memorable due to her bullheadedness. Both are variations of the Regency rake and bluestocking.  Honestly, I had a hard time remembering details about what Ian likes/dislikes to do with his time, other than the usual gentleman’s pursuits.  The most memorable characters in the book are the housekeeper Mrs. Box (and isn’t that the perfect name for a housekeeper?!) and Felicity’s younger brothers (think slightly older versions of the manic triplets from Brave!).

I quite like the rake/bluestocking trope, and I liked the attention devoted to conveying something about Felicity’s writerly craft.  She was the equivalent of an influential blogger with 1000’s of followers, and/or a power Twitter user. As a new book blogger and super newbie Tweet-er, I found myself quite sympathetic to her near-constant worry about finding sources (access) and material for her next post, er… column. While at the same time it’s clear she really loves her work and her writing.

What do you think? Are you up to here with rakes and bluestockings? Do you think this match-up is eternally popular with readers for transparent yet genuine reasons having to do with growing up bookish in a culture that celebrates beauty…?

  JeffriesADangerousLord_2000

Never Say Die: Speaking Up for Badass Regencies

I have to say I am loving all this talk about historical romance over the past couple of weeks. Last week I tossed around my own musings on the provocative yet substantive discussion launched by the influential All About Romance and Dear Author blogs. This week finds historical romance “troubles” cropping up again at Risky Regencies, which I think is great.  Sick of the Regency? Well maybe, but….

Sharpe-sean-bean-22356711-885-1280

As many have pointed out, readers have had a decades-long love affair with Regency-set historical romance for good reason, and if there is a real or perceived Regency Fatigue among readers, the candid discussion we’ve all been having stems mainly from deeply rooted affection for this Heyer- and Austen-inspired world. In re-examining my own sentiments this week, I realized I’m probably slightly ambivalent.  I’ve confessed to suffering a mild disenchantment with Regencies that feel too wall-paperish or insubstantial.  I do actively hunt out historicals with settings based on American history, and the erstwhile art historian in me still wishes there were more badass romances set in southern Europe during the Renaissance (and not yet another Tudor- or Borgia-inspired historical novel with romantic elements).

PDVD_415But I’ve read hundreds, probably thousands, of Regencies, and there are so many on my DIK shelf that it’s overflowing. Also, there really are badass Regency heroes /heroines who aren’t dukes, earls, or even the slightest bit aristocratic — through they’re frequently noble, in the best sense of the word. There’s an element of truth in the suggestion that some Regencies offer a fairytale version of England which is devoid of politics, or gritty social and economic realities.  sharpeBut it’s equally true that some Regencies offer well-researched military and/or social history, plots that center on wartime or post-war conflict, and even themes of class conflict, industrialization, domestic violence, and addiction — though I don’t claim to know how Regencies that touch on these darker themes stack up to their frothier siblings in terms of sales figures.

I thought it would be fun to take a few manic Monday minutes to list a few of my all-time favorite Badass Regencies.  If there’s a thread running through this list, it’s my love for intricately connected books, especially a series structured around a plausible group of badass heroes. I am probably repeating something I’ve said elsewhere, but I am drawn to fiction that explores themes like loyalty, honor, kinship, friendship, bravery, and family. Romances against such a backdrop are especially powerful, and it’s a big part of my devotion to historicals.

kinopoisk.ruI’m also a sucker for the band of brothers trope, if it’s done well, with careful and well-researched world-building. Hell, even if it’s a barely plausible Saving England From the Forces of Evil Secret Spy Ring, if it has compelling characters, a strong story and finely honed dialogue, I’m willing to suspend disbelief.

What are your favorite Really Good Regencies??  Today’s list is heavily weighted towards uber alphas, with a lot of war heroes and spies.  I haven’t even mentioned Loretta Chase once yet (!). I’ll return at some point to come up with my list of top badass Regencies where the heroes fight their battles in ballrooms, drawing rooms, and gaming hells, and there are plenty I still haven’t yet read, so please help me out and let me know who you’d add!

Badass Regencies That Won’t. Back. Down

Joanna Bourne, the Spymaster series / Darkly exquisite; French and English spies from all rungs of the social ladder. Words fail me.  If anything, these books just keep getting better and better.  The heroines are as badass as the heroes. Adrian’s story (The Black Hawk) was one of the best books I read in 2012.

Stephanie Laurens, the early Cynster books / Lush and nostalgic; curiously addictive. This family operates like a clan of badass white knights, reminding me both of Scottish medievals and, oddly, of “fixers” like Olivia Pope and her band of gladiators in suits.

Jo Beverley, the Company of Rogues series / Richly satisfying; wonderful secondary characters and friendships; some middle class protagonists. This series is wonderful and only suffers the tiniest bit from probably being constantly compared to the (Georgian-set) Malloren series.

Laurel McKee, Daughters of Erin series / Fiery and pretty political; there are riots and revolutionaries. Broadly speaking, these qualify as Regency-era historicals, but set in Ireland during and following the 1798 rebellion. I loved the theme of SISTERhood in this series, and the history is woven in seamlessly.

Gaelen Foley, Knight Miscellany/ A duke, twin heroes of the Peninsular Wars and their other siblings; these books explore sibling rivalry quite intensely, and the war-damaged brothers are heart-stoppingly enigmatic and tormented.

Eileen Dreyer, Drake’s Rakes series / A genuine band of brothers series; they fought and barely survived Waterloo together. The journey home is fraught with perils like amnesia, mistaken identity, deception, treason, abandonment and a disgraced wife.  The depiction of military life, especially the officer’s wives/daughters who traveled with the army made Never a Gentleman my favorite.  This series also reminded me so strongly of Bernard Cornwell’s legendary hero Richard Sharpe, that some of the glory of Sharpe’s Rifles may have rubbed off on Drake’s Rakes.

seanbean

Sean Bean as Richard Sharpe, a particular favorite Regency badass who fought his way to being an officer but never a gentleman, before he got involved with Lords or Rings or playing the Game of Thrones.

Please Do Not Touch

FORBIDDEN….. About Touching Things You’re Not Supposed To, and When Heroes are Better in Someone Else’s Story

Elgin Marbles

Name:  Jordan Willis, auburn-haired Earl of Blackmore; by day he crusades for social reforms in Parliament, by night he’s busy winning the affections of the bored wives and widows of the ton.

Falls For: Prim yet proper rector’s daughter Miss Emily Fairchild, blackmailed into posing as wild Scottish debutante Lady Emma Campbell.

forbidden lordStory Recounted By:  Sabrina Jeffries, in The Forbidden Lord (1999)

Hangs Out In: Parliament, the British Museum, clubs, the opera (London 1819)

Likes: merry “uncomplicated” widows, social reform, his militant sister Sara.

Dislikes: falling in love (but he does fall in the end, and there’s quite a lot of heat along the way!)

Badass Hero Moment: Arranges sizzling hands-on private encounter with the Elgin Marbles, newly displayed at the British Museum.  “I’m a trustee of the museum…”

Badass Annoying Moment: Insists throughout that he doesn’t believe in love, that his heart remains untouchable and his desire for our heroine is purely physical, yet proves his emotions are deeply involved — and confused — when he’s all too willing to believe the worst of her.

(too) Frequently Described As: Controlled.

Might Look Like:  Rupert Penry-Jones as Captain Wentworth in the 2007 PBS Persuasion.. ?

capt wentworth

To Read Or Not To Read?  This is the middle book in the Lord trilogy, and, like the other two, it’s a bit of a romp, with occasional interludes of character development revealing painful histories and inner emotions.  A fun read largely because SJ does such a good job building the ever-intensifying sexual attraction between Jordan and Em(ma)ily. There are evil, scheming relatives and unsuitable suitors all over the place getting in the way of the HEA, but there is connection and chemistry to get them past these obstacles. Usually false identity “uncanny double” storylines are irritating because you can’t believe the hero/ine doesn’t realize the deception sooner, but in this case we get that out of the way quickly, which is a relief.  Blackmore is nothing if not keenly observant when it comes to women.

The odd thing is that I think I found Jordan more compelling, and even more sexy, as Sara’s ruthless brother in Book 1 of the Trilogy than in his own book, where his edge seems blunted by the plot device that drives the central conflict — his insistence that he doesn’t “believe in love” just comes off as annoying and repetitive.forbidden

This trilogy from a decade or so ago was reissued by Avon and I think if Steamy Regency is your thing, this fits the bill quite nicely. Lord’s sake, I could not stop reading in spite of it being neither the steamiest, nor the funniest, of its ilk!  (And I’m not sure why, but I think in this case I actually like the old cover better…)

elgin_marblesTangentially Related … and Possibly Diverting:

Arrival, Exhibition and Early Reception of the Elgin Marbles in London, from APOLLO.

These iconic fragments of classical Greek sculpture were removed from the Parthenon in Athens in the 1790’s and brought to London. Controversy over this looting/appropriation/rescue (you decide) raged even then, and they were not displayed publicly until after 1816, but they remain in London today and the controversy over where they belong continues.  It could just be the erstwhile art historian in me, but the scene in the Museum where they’re alone together with their hands all over the freaking Elgin Marbles really got my attention. All that forbidden touching!!

Pamela Poll:  Who are your favorite secondary character heroes? Have you ever been disappointed when they seemed less Badass in their own book?

BONUS QUESTION:  Have you ever touched something in a museum that was off-limits?