Whenever I’m in a romance reading slump, the answer is to go back a decade or two. Brockway’s recently digitized historical romance All Through the Night (99 cents on Amazon, or free loan for Prime members) was a real treat. It was first published in 1997, and seems to have been a reader favorite. It was European Historical of the year at All About Romance, made it onto their list of top 100 romances for a couple of years, and got an A review. The Romance Reader gave it four stars, and a 99 from Mrs. Giggles. Even Wendy the Super Librarian — who waited six years to read it — gave it a B.
Note: There are some spoilers in what follows.
ATTN features one of these ridiculous romance novel plots which succeeds on a strong core of emotional truth. Colonel Henry “Jack” Seward is a bastard and orphan turned England’s super spy (“the War Office’s premier agent”) under the tutelage of Jamison, a very bad man who is proud that he’s “taken a boy with the rudest of skills and molded him into this splendid, remorseless, and analytical being.” Anne Wilder is a widow, a merchant’s daughter barely in society thanks to her marriage, a demure chaperone to Sophia North. When away from society, he’s the ruthless, but terrifyingly civilized “Whitehall’s Hound,” and she’s the daring, acrobatic, sensual thief known as “Wrexhall’s Wraith.”
Anne and Jack meet in the first chapter, in the dead of night, as she creeps into a marchioness’s suite to steal something and he waits for her. He doesn’t realize at first the Wraith is female, and she lets him know in no uncertain terms with a lingering kiss before she escapes via London’s rooftops. For Anne, it’s just another daring step out onto the precipice that’s become her life, but it sets the terminally bored Jack — who already felt “the respect of one professional for another” — aflame with desire and curiosity.
I actually didn’t love this scene while I read it, and if you plan to read ATTN, I ask that you power through it. It felt heavy handed when the author wrote without mentioning the thief’s gender in a very conspicuous way, made references to a “treacherous mouth”, and had the ice man melting under the thief’s — of course! — unpracticed but miraculously effective touch. But I am very glad I stuck with it, and reading it again for this review, I actually feel more affection for the overwrought scene.
The Wraith only steals from the wealthy, so Jack attends social events to ferret her out. As it happens, he strikes up a friendship with Anne Wilder, so the book runs on two rails. Jack is actually instantly attracted to Anne, but for the opposite reason he’s attracted to the bold Wraith:
She held him with a regard nearly masculine in its directness. Seasoned. Knowing. A touch of valiance. A portion of pain and much resignation. Hardly the eyes of a procuress… Rather, she gazed at him like a woman who sold her body might look at her buyer: with fatalism, submission, and a certain damning anticipation. It was an expression that said “Do it and be done.” And it aroused him.
While Jack is obsessed with the Wraith, it’s in his persona of Jack that Anne begins to fall for him. She finds him to be “refined,” a “gentleman,” a man of “delicacy and comportment” underneath the hard and scary exterior. This is interesting because it becomes clear that Anne is the real adrenaline junkie. Even when she first came out she “shone a little too brightly,” and she never really tires of stealing, of “these intense and empowering moments when she risked nothing more important than her life, when she belonged only to herself and the night and the cold distant stars.” If you don’t like the heroine-in-disguise trope, you still might enjoy this one, because what happens Jack discovers her identity halfway through and what happens later is just as exciting.
Both Anne and Jack have Things in Their Pasts that Keep Them From Intimacy. Jack’s story is probably more sad, and the flashbacks to his Faustian bargain pack an emotional punch. But I was even more interested in Anne’s relationship with her “perfect” husband, a husband who, it is very slowly revealed because Anne only slowly comes to see it, was far from perfect for her, and whose ghost haunts her in the worst way. It is partly for his memory that she steals, to pay an imagined debt she never really incurred. Anne’s growing awareness and even rage over this is one of the best things in the book. Jack’s motivation to stay loyal, after decades of serving Jamison, was a little less clear. The reader just has to accept that Anne snaps him out of it.
It was nice to read a historical romance about two non-dukes. The only reason either of them get to go to the big show is because they are useful, Jack to the War Office and Anne to Lady Sophia, who at first seems like a typical cardboard brainless beauty who serves merely as a counterpoint to our interesting heroine, but turns out to be much smarter and more ruthless than that. I also really liked Jack’s buddy, Giles Dalton, Lord Strand. He’s very attracted to Anne, yet he’s not some worthless rival, but rather a point of view character, a charmer who is subject to “self-defeating infatuations.” He’s a flawed man who still knows what goodness is. Of Anne, he thinks, “ultimately Anne belonged to someone he could never usurp, never wrest dominion from: herself. She was so uniquely and wholly her own creature.” (Giles finally got his own book, No Place for a Dame, this year, but sadly, the reviews have not enticed me.)
I haven’t read any other Brockway (As You Desire, another romance reader favorite, is in my TBR), but her style in this one is very dramatic, in action and emotion. It’s the kind of book where even in quiet scenes, when behavior and voice are very modulated, strong emotions and desires barely kept in check are percolating underneath. Some books are great with restrained emotion, and others are great with the big angry lusty scenes, but this is the rare book that does them both superbly. Reading it was kind of like listening to 90s grunge: tons of contrasting dynamics, apathy and angst, rawness and complexity, stop-start pacing. I really loved Brockway’s writing, but I’d guess it is not to everyone’s tastes:
She suddenly realized she’s been staring at him and, disconcerted, glanced away. His intense stillness was not the result of camouflage. Nor did she sense that he achieved it by drawing in on himself, burying the essence of himself so deeply it couldn’t be found.
On the contrary, she felt as if she were looking at a man whose soul has been caught in a hurricane, each layer ripped from him, piece by piece, until his soul had become diffused, so thin as to be imperceptible.
He was neither darkness nor light, but he was perpetually haunted by the potential for both. A twilight man, existing in some slender moment of glimmering darkness. My Lord, she realized, I have never seen him in the daylight.
When I think of my favorite romances, it’s always scenes that stick out, and in this one, there are many: one is the very erotic scene when Jack puts Anne’s disarrayed hair up for her. Another is the scene when Anne, as the thief, breaks into Jack’s bedroom, wakes him, ties him up and sexually teases him, only to fly out through his window. They chase each other through London, and kiss passionately while she holds a gun to his stomach. Another is the ballroom scene when Jack, mid-dance, figures out who Anne really is. And then there’s what happens after he forces her to marry him: “I hunted you, I tracked you. I trapped you. And now, by God, I’m going to keep you.” The scene when they consummate their marriage: he realizes that pleasure and punishment are so warped together for Anne that she has to feel powerless to climax, and she realizes at the same time that she really just needs him. Practically every scene was memorable.
If you make it through the masks and rooftop escapes and near death chases, you might be able to take the ending, which involves no less a personage than His Majesty, George the Third, King of England. I find that in the hands of a skilled writer I can go along for just about any ride, and I actually kind of miss this brand of zaniness in historical romance.
Finally, the brief epilogue is fantastic. Not a baby in sight, and I guarantee you’ll never be happier to read the words, “Say goodbye to all you hold dear.”