by Lisa Kleypas
I didn’t really get into this book until well past the first half: in fact, at around (according to my ebook copy) 75% read. The hero gets shot, things look very bad for a while, and then they take a very interesting turn. But more on that later.
The Devil in Winter is the third book in a series about a foursome of friends known as the Wallflowers; the other titles are Secrets of a Summer Night, It Happened One Autumn, and Scandal in Spring. I mention this because I actually didn’t know this going in, and had read most of the book before finding out. It popped up in the Romance section of my Scribd subscription account (Scribd is like a Netflix for books), and the plot sounded interesting (I’m a sucker for reformed rakes). I’d also read Kleypas’ Bow Street Runners books some years ago, and remembered that I liked her style.
With that caveat, on to the story.
Evangeline (Evie) Jenner has run away from her abusive relatives when she finds out that they plan to marry her off to her cousin, so that her fortune (her dissolute father is dying of consumption) can remain within the family. She foils their plot by showing up, unchaperoned and in the middle of the night, at the house of Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent, to persuade him to elope with her. She knows that Sebastian is licking his wounds after trying to kidnap his best friend’s fiancee: his fortune is dwindling away, and he needs to marry into money. Though not titled, Evie has (or will have) money from her father’s successful gambling club, and she hopes this will be enough to entice him. It is, and they’re immediately off on the long carriage ride to Gretna Green for the ceremony.
The first half of the book is the usual getting-to-know you storyline, with some details that I really liked. Evie has always been the shyest of the Wallflower bunch, with an awkward physique and a debilitating stutter. To Kleypas’ credit, this impediment doesn’t magically disappear as Evie grows into a confident woman throughout the novel. She doesn’t have a miraculous transformation, and her stutter reappears during the times when her confidence falters. She’s also smart enough to know that Sebastian isn’t going to change immediately, if at all, once he’s married; she has no illusions about his ability to remain faithful, nor does she expect him to. Although her decision not to sleep with St. Vincent beyond the requisite consummation, and her subsequent bet with him, could have turned out to be facile plot devices, given what we know about her they actually become a logical means of self-protection for her. She’s also willing to give him, in a credibly gradual way, the benefit of the doubt: “although the man she had initially married was not deserving of such faith, the man he was becoming just might be” (324). In the end, the bet has an unexpected resolution, and the reasons for it make sense.
I also liked the setting. So many historical romances limit themselves to mansions and ballrooms that I found the gambling club a great departure from the norm. It also gave both Evie and Sebastian a chance to be half-out of their element. Evie has visited the club most of her life, but it’s certainly no respectable place for a woman to be, much less live. And, while Sebastian’s presence would be normal as an aristocratic client, as the new owner he has to prove himself to the rest of the staff (he doesn’t seem to care as much about his reputation among his peers).
As I mentioned up top, the parts I liked best about The Devil in Winter come in the latter part of the story, after Sebastian has been shot. I appreciated the way the medical details were handled: there’s an interesting dialogue between Dr. Hammond’s establishment views, Lord Westcliff’s more progressive knowledge, and Cam’s traditional wisdom. I liked the fact that, while Hammond’s insistence on bloodletting is eventually rejected, the doctor is not portrayed as a villain, just a man of his time trying to do his best according to the accepted methods of the period. In the end, it’s a combination of Westcliff’s and Cam’s solutions that save the day, while Dr. Hammond fades away with his dignity intact.
Once Sebastian is on the mend, Evie takes over his care, and this is another aspect of the novel that I really enjoyed. I think at this point Evie is still doubtful of Sebastian’s ability to remain monogamous, but maybe because he’s proven himself capable of self-sacrifice in saving her life, she decides to add a good dollop of kindness to his daily treatment, and see what happens. There are some humorous moments here, as Evie sets about basically killing Sebastian with kindness and he doesn’t know quite how to react. And humor is another think Kleypas does very well, and here it extends to a wink-wink self-awareness of the tropes she’s handling: “Really, someone should tell St. Vincent that he’s a living cliche. He has become the embodiment of everything they say about reformed rakes.” (375)
Eventually, all bets are off, the sex is steamy, and the couple’s focus eventually shifts to finding the villain. From this point on, the story moves quickly, with a couple of unexpected detours, towards the inevitably happy conclusion. So in all, there were many things I liked about The Devil in Winter.
What I didn’t like about the book might have to do partly with the fact that I didn’t read the previous novels in the series; on the other hand, I think I should be able to read a book and come to appreciate it without all the background. Regardless of Sebastian’s character and actions as shown in the previous books, I should get a clear sense of him in this one, because it’s his story. With that in mind, there were a couple of issues I had with The Devil in Winter.
First, I would have liked to have known more about Sebastian’s family background, especially his relationship with his father. This relationship is hinted at during the novel, but never fully developed. Again, maybe there was some information divulged in the previous books, but if that’s the case at least a recap of that info would have been greatly appreciated.
Second, there was the sudden appearance and disappearance of Evie’s family, the Maybricks. They show up to play villain for a chapter or so, and are thereafter completely banished from the story. I think the family might have been put to better use in bolstering the “real” villain’s actions, since there’s a temporary alliance between them, but as it stands the Maybricks just read as a handy plot device to show off Sebastian’s protective side and ability to change: a villain ex machina, if you will. Also, I found the description of her cousin somewhat cheap: next to strong, tall, dashing Sebastian, Eustace (he even has a wimpy name) is presented as nothing short of an angry, whiny lump of blubber. He reminded me of a grown-up Dudley Dursley: Dudley makes a fun character as a kid/teen, but this adult version just seemed like an easy way to provide another foil for Sebastian.
Thirdly, and this is just a personal gripe, is the red herring interlude with Cam and Daisy. I think Cam is a terrific character (if somewhat stereotyped at times), and the bookish, spunky Daisy would have been a really fun match for him. But when I looked at the description for Daisy’s story in Scandal in Spring, I saw that her hero is someone else! Cam does get his own book (Mine Till Midnight, which is actually the start of yet another series), and I’ll probably read that one at some point, but I was disappointed in this missed opportunity, and was left wondering why the Cam/Daisy story didn’t happen (or if it was ever meant to).
My final, and really small, quibble with the story comes near the end. Evie and Sebastian are at the club, and she’s approached by an older gentleman who says that he’s only seen one other person move through a crowd with such command and confidence. Sebastian promptly goes to Evie, and warns her away from the older man, only half-jokingly. His name is mentioned at one point (Lord Haldane), and then that’s it. Is he a previous character, or a future one? He’s not presented as a potential future hero, so he might have come from an earlier novel. Also, who’s the person he was talking about, the one who could command a crowd the way Sebastian could? Again, crickets (possibly followed by some cursing on my part).
So overall, I enjoyed many aspects of this book, but felt there were a few very rough edges that often jolted me out of the experience. Nevertheless, Lisa Kleypas remains very much a “comfort read” for me, because she always adds unique touches to her stories that I really appreciate.