In The Secret Heart, we are introduced to Caroline Small, a mercenary debutante, the daughter of a dissolute Viscount. Caro was raised by his mistress Giselle, a former ballerina he had installed in their home as governess. She armed Caro with a cynical world view, coquettish charms and the exacting discipline of ballet. Caro is determined to secure a wealthy husband so she can provide for her younger brother Robin and herself in the ways her father hasn’t. She is flinty, determined but honest in her intentions. She has been invited to spend time with Daphne, niece to the Duke of Hastings at the family’s country estate. The visit is welcome respite from depredations she experiences in her father’s home, and when she meets Adam Spark, Lord Bexley, the Duke’s son alone one night, she sets her sights on him, but first she runs from him frightened by his thuggish appearance.
Bexley is not tall but he is imposing and brutish. Secretly a bare-knuckle boxer, Bexley buries the pain of his sister’s disappearance and presumed death and the betrayal of his best-friend by training as boxer and pounding into laborers at late-night fights under an assumed identity.
Caro and Bexley’s romance is not at all straightforward. Adam has grown up under the thumb of the Duke of Hastings, a power-hungry manipulative man who seeks to control everyone dependent on him, and Adam has made it his life’s ambition to financially free himself from him. He has saved every penny and it is on the verge of achieving it, when Caro enters his life. Caro is a grasping opportunist and sees in Adam first someone she can blackmail, later someone to entrap to win herself the comfort she has always wanted before she comes to see him as person whose hopes and dreams she can crush. Adam is initially disgusted by her machinations as much as he is attracted by her beauty and attentions. He plays along with her games of seduction hoping to scare her off, before he can no longer resist her lure. While incredibly angry at her he eventually able to recognize the vulnerability & fear that drives her and to see her as a treasure not a trap. The panic and dread Caro feels as she realizes that Adam is not simply a mark to be manipulated & that she has started to fall in love is perfect.
In some ways, The Secret Heart felt like historical NA because both Caro and Adam, have to wrestle with their fathers’ emotional baggage in order to become better adults than any one intends them to be. For their happy ending to be believable and achievable, Caro and Adam first learn to stand independently, and figure out how to get the better of all who will try to control them without playing the same destructive games. Their victory in the end depends on the fact that they gamble on each other and win.
While I loved th whole novel, one element in which Satie excelled in was in her world-building. She pours beautiful detail into this book, showing obvious care and research as she presented Caro and Adam’s passions for boxing and ballet. It is in all the little details she drops in to highlight Caro’s relative poverty (her need to sponge hems, rather than being able to change into new dresses like Daphne does) and how she describes the estate and surrounding community. The details ground the novel in a specific time and place and remind us that that these characters are not modern people playing dress up.
The second novel in the No Better Angels series is only loosely connected to the first through the appearance of a supporting character from the first book and the mention of another. Initially I was dismayed by this as I had just finished the Secret Heart and didn’t want to leave those characters behind. But I shouldn’t have worried. Once again the heroine completely caught my attention because she doesn’t behave like a romance heroine should. The story also departs from the usual romantic narrative arc. It is as much a murder mystery, and novel of memory & grief as it is a romance novel.
The book opens with the arrival of a new Duke. Julian Swann is an unlikely heir to a dukedom, once a ward of the Duke, he was seventh in line to inherit, but all the other men ahead of him have died without leaving sons or other heirs. The previous duke did leave a suicide note that Julian immediately recognizes as a fake. He runs off to confront Sophie Roe, his former fiancee and the only person in the vicinity with the skills to forge the letter.
Sophie Roe was once a lady, a young woman with a promising future and doting fiancee. Now is she is small business owner, a tradeswoman much to the embarrassment of her aunt and uncle. She distills ink and sells custom nibs to customers all over England out her small shop, Iron & Wine. Her hands are ink-stained, her clothing plain and her face scarred & tattooed. She hasn’t seen Julian since the night of their engagement ten years before, a night she barely remembers, but that left her indelibly marked, the night when she was injured, discovered her fortune had been lost, and she forsook Julian.
The Lover’s Knot centers on memory and fictions and how we can come to believe in lies more deeply than truth. Sophie is an orphan who can’t rely on her memory. While she can remember her distilling recipes and techniques, conversations and events start fading almost as soon as they happened. She obsessively journals, and sends herself letters written in her parents handwriting to comfort herself. These false letters mingle with her faint recollections to utterly muddle her memory. But Sophie is not the only one carefully self-deluding herself, just the most obvious. Julian deludes himself constantly about Sophie’s interest, motivations and intentions, The Duke’s daughter, his widowed second-wife, his old friends, all choose to dwell on one memory or fiction to justify their actions in the wake of the Duke’s death.
Julian is determined to uncover the truth about the Duke’s too convenient death, convincing Sophie that she has inadvertently aided a killer. He also hopes that through their work together he can finally learn why she rejected him and put it behind him.
Like in The Secret Heart, the secondary characters’ relationships and motivations are not secondary to the plot. The complexity of familial relationships, the ties of duty and fealty are essential to unraveling not only the mystery of the duke’s death but what happened on the night Julian and Sophie’s relationship was destroyed.
I really liked Sophie even when she was less than sympathetic. I liked her independence and single-mindedness, even if it made her blind to Julian’s needs. I enjoyed Julian’s frustration with her at her inability to behave how he expects her to, although I struggled with his destructive rages. I had a harder time with Julian. He is ruthless, angry, haunted and lonely, isolated by his physical beauty, and self-destructively obsessed with Sophie. He prefers a crumb of her attention to the full focus of anyone else, all the while building up resentment that for a great deal of the novel Sophie is fails to recognize. Their relationship is deeply unbalanced for a great part of the novel, because Sophie doesn’t realize how much he needs and wants from her and how much he does for her, that her success is not quite as independent as she thought.
After I finished this book I spent a lot of time thinking about unbalanced relationships, a theme in both novels and how people can try to earn love (Julian), manipulate it (Caro), avoid it (Adam), abuse it (Sophie) and how other seek to use money and power to force devotion perverting families ties, all the while being convinced of the rightness of what they are doing. It is one of the many interesting themes present in these novels and I can’t wait to read the next two books.
I’ve been following Erin Satie on Twitter for more than a year and she follows me. I started following her before I realized she was working on self-publishing her novels, because I enjoyed her responses to twitter conversations I was participating in. When her first novel The Secret Heart came out I ordered it almost automatically, but didn’t read it right away (my TBR is huge). I was caught off guard when I saw that her second novel was on Netgalley soon after that and ready for release. The premise of the second story caught my interest more than the first, so I requested it and decided to read the novels back to back.
I am incredibly happy that I did.