I’m not sure there is any historical romance author who believes in the redemptive power of love as deeply as Jennifer Ashley. It’s the only reason I can think of for her persistence in creating exquisite examples of Victorian Douchelordery and making them her romantic leads.
The Untamed Mackenzie
First up is the novella The Untamed Mackenzie. Unless you are the magnificence that is Courtney Milan, or perhaps Tessa Dare, novellas are generally just a way to tide over fans and earn some extra money between major releases. They build a love story around previous secondary or even tertiary characters and, this is the important part, allow readers to revisit old favourites. Jennifer Ashley is not Courtney Milan, or perhaps Tessa Dare, so this is a rickety love story stopping over with each of the Mackenzies from the first four books in the series. Lloyd is the illegitimate son of the same fu*king monster that raised those tortured heroes. Louisa is the younger sister of Mac Mackenzie’s wife, Isabella.
If pater familias Hart Mackenzie is Douchelord in Chief, Lloyd is the Bastard Douchelord and/or Douchelord Bastard. An obsessive police detective, he was one of the villains in The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie and he acquitted his role in a thorough and reprehensible manner. I hated him and had well-founded concerns for his emotional stability. Admittedly, this is true of 78.3% of Ashley’s heroes. Lloyd and Louisa have flirted in previous encounters and when she is accused of murder, they feel the need to interview each of the Mackenzie characters to solve the crime. Whatever. The other characters are more interesting than Lloyd and Isabella anyway.
The Wicked Deeds of Daniel Mackenzie
I wanted to like The Wicked Deeds of Daniel Mackenzie. I wanted to like it so much. Daniel is an absolute doll, just the sweetest guy. He’s not really wicked at all, not even a little bit, although he does smoke which I thought was a fantastic period detail. Still, it’s a Jennifer Ashley novel, so Daniel’s mother was batshit insane and he has abandonment issues related to his father.
It is Ashley’s best written book to date, she generally excels at sincere romance, despite frequently getting mired in overwrought and histrionic plotting. The Wicked Deeds of Daniel Mackenzie avoided this pitfall. Ashley toned down the melodrama, ratcheted up the romance, and had just enough Mackenzie brothers camp to make the whole thing fun. But. There’s always a but.
The heroine, Violet, is a rape survivor, a “tortured heroine” if you will, and coming to terms with and moving past this episode was a major plot element. Violet’s experience infringes on her ability to form trusting relationships and complicates her attraction to Daniel. Ashley handled the subject matter sensitively and one could not help but feel for Violet, but I don’t want to read a romance novel which includes rape as a plot point; I don’t want to read a romance novel with any kind of abuse, sexual or otherwise. If the abuse is physical, I can just skip over these episodes. If it is sexual, it discomfits my entire reading experience. Violet’s recovery was central to the plot, so it doesn’t matter how well it was handled, it ruined the book for me. I am sure there is a book out there that could defy this rule, but I read romance novels for escapism. Every time the Violet’s experience is relived or described, it removed me from the disconnected reality I look to these books for.