As I may have mentioned before, I'm not much for romance novels. I've read a few, and there are even a few that I love and reread. But invariably, those are the ones that have something going on besides the romance, whether it's grand adventure or a detailed look at ranching in the 1880s.
What I am into, though, is swashbuckling. And girls who dress up as boys and run away to (fill in the blank). So I picked up Elizabeth Essex's Almost a Scandal on a whim, with trepidation in my heart.
But oh, it's so worth it! Ignore the cover--I'm halfway through and Sally hasn't worn a dress yet. You see, when her brother, Richard, ran away to become a parson instead of following family tradition into the Royal Navy, she simply had to preserve the family's honor by showing up in his place. Luckily, at 18, she can pass for a 16-year-old boy. She's soon faced with an overbearing midshipman and a suspicious commanding officer, but she was raised by the navy, so she's ready for anything.
Now, the big risk with any girl-disguised-as-boy romance novel is the fact that the hero naturally doesn't know she's a girl. So the requisite barely-repressed longing becomes confusing, especially for romance. It's not that the authors aren't open-minded, but romance novels cross a lot of political divides, and when I see that particular dilemma coming, I'm never sure if the author or the characters are going to be able to handle that confusion of throbbing organs without some horrible pangs of homophobia.
Bless Elizabeth Essex (if that is your real name--who believes that?), she sidestepped the question entirely. Mr. Colyear recognizes the little sister of his old friends very early on in the story, leaving him free to be maddened and bewitched, and to feel electricity shoot through his body and all sorts of other feelings that permeate every fiber of his being.
Because that's what feelings do in romance novels, and yeah, it's a romance novel. But really, those parts are just punctuating things. Again, halfway through, this is really a story of Sally doing her thing, and Col admiring her and not being sure what to do about her. Yeah, there's the occasional bout of thinking about each other too much, and the occasional unfeminist desire to teach her a lesson (spanking or kissing, not sure). But mostly they respect and like each other and are trying to manage the situation--with the added difficulty of his being the commanding officer of a great sailor who's also kind of stubborn.
Of course, since this is a Harlequin Historical, they won't have sex until page 180, and they won't end up together until at least 275. I did a careful study during my misspent high school years.
So yeah, this book is, thus far, pretty awesome as romance novels go. Really, if they were all like this, I'd read them all the time. "Headstrong" is too often a word for flaky in these books, but not this one. This book reminds me very much of Bloody Jack--the first one, before Jacky's life started getting more and more hypermanic--and of the Temeraire series, in its fun, detail-filled picture of the Napoleonic war. In short, I'm seriously loving it.
Here's where I disclose that I got a free copy for review. And I'm so glad I did, because I can tell you I never would have paid money for a romance novel, but knowing what I know now, I really might for this one. And I think I might give another Elizabeth Essex book a shot. It depends on how the rest of the book pans out--if she maintains a strong, smart, competent female character who doesn't fall apart just when the man needs to pick her up, nor do stupid things that prove that the guy's the only logical one in the story, then yeah, I'm all over the Essex oeuvre.