Edward de Raaf, the Earl of Swartingham, has returned to his country estate after spending many years away. He was the sole survivor of a smallpox outbreak that claimed his entire family, and is now preparing for an arranged marriage to a young woman in hopes of carrying on the family line and once again, make the mansion a home, filled with the laughter of children. Edward is also a respected member of the Agrarian Society, and frequently lectures there and writes scholarly articles on agriculture. He needs a secretary in his employ to transcribe his work, but his temperamental nature has already driven away several male secretaries. Now in dire straits, Edward has demanded that his estate manager, Mr. Hopple, find him a new secretary within in two days, but there doesn't seem to be anyone left in the village who isn't afraid of the Earl's temper.
Anna Wren is a widow, living with her elderly mother-in-law and an orphan girl who acts as their maid. When she discovers that the small stipend her husband left them upon his death is about to run out, she determinedly goes about looking for employment, but no one in the village seems to be interested in hiring a gently bred lady. When Anna runs into Mr. Hopple and learns that the Earl is seeking a secretary, she skillfully worms her way into the job even though it isn't really considered a proper position for a lady.
Anna has no fear of Edward's irritable disposition, and in fact, banters with him on more than one occasion, earning his respect. As they work closely together, they become friends and an even deeper mutual attraction begins to grow. Edward is too much of a gentleman to engage Anna in an illicit affair, yet he feels he cannot marry her either. Anna believes herself barren, and Edward has an obligation to produce an heir. When Anna finds out that Edward is traveling to London on "business," she know that he is really going to slake his lust for her at his favorite upscale brothel. Not willing to allow him to cheapen their desire for one another and wishing for a bit of sexual freedom herself, Anna puts a bold plan into action. She had recently rescued an injured prostitute whose sister, Coral, a London courtesan, had offered any favor of her choosing in repayment for her kindness. Anna decides that she wants nothing more than a secret liaison with the Earl, so Coral helps her to don a disguise and get a room at the brothel to do just that. Edward and Anna share two nights of boundless passion, but in the light of day, Anna realizes that her heart has become entangled in what she had thought would be nothing more than an anonymous affair. Back at home, Anna and Edward's feelings for one another continue to grow, but what of his engagement, and what would he or anyone else think if they ever discovered the truth about Anna's very improper deception?
The Raven Prince was an enjoyable read which I thought had some rather unusual elements. As I read the first chapter or so of the book, I was reminded of one of my all-time favorite romances, Loretta Chase's Lord of Scoundrels. While The Raven Prince does bear some resemblance to Lord of Scoundrels, it is still very much it's own distinctive story. Much like their counterparts in Lord of Scoundrels, Edward can be rather temperamental and boorish, while Anna is very plucky and unconventional. They share a few moments of sharp, witty bantering, but I wouldn't have minded seeing them go toe-to-toe a few more times than they did. I can certainly appreciate attractive people, but the ratio of impossibly beautiful characters in romance novels to those found in the real world, is so disproportionately inflated, I can't help getting bored with them sometimes. I actually found it refreshing that Anna's very first impression of Edward was "ugly," and Edward's first impression of Anna was "frumpy." I think this allowed the author to send a subtle message that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" and "love truly is blind," because once these two started falling for one another, they were each thoroughly beautiful to the other, something to which I can really relate. I have only come across a couple of authors I can think of who have a tendency to write more mature characters, so having Edward and Anna be a little older was a very pleasant change as well. She was 31, and I initially had the impression that he was nearer 40 until it was revealed late in the story that he was 34, although I had to do the math to figure out his age.
Elizabeth Hoyt has a slightly different writing style in that she doesn't seem to reveal all of her character's insecurities, vulnerabilities and motivations right away. Most authors have a tendency to let the reader in on these things up front, and then the story centers around them making peace with those things and finding healing if the pain is deep. With Edward and Anna, Ms. Hoyt leaves the reader with the sense that there are mysterious things lurking beneath the surface that can't be seen, but she takes her time, revealing them one-by-one when the situation seems ripe for it. This does give the story a more languid feel which may not work well for readers who prefer a faster pace, but I thought that it was an interesting approach. The story also has a very angsty quality to it, I think, in large part, because of Edward's intensity. I found a certain beauty to it though, an emotional depth that was somehow different from other stories I've read. Edward and Anna have both suffered emotional pain in their lives, yet both seem to be fairly comfortable in their own skin and not harboring major neuroses. Once again, I thought this was a unique blend which made the characters very complex and multi-dimensional.
Edward had his moments of intensity, but I don't think that I would quite classify him as tortured. He had times of what I would characterize as personal reflection that would sometimes reach an emotional high, but he always came back down rather quickly. Edward was quite temperamental though, having scared away several male secretaries, before hiring Anna. He could occasionally be prone to throwing things in a fit of anger, but was probably equally likely to express himself with sarcasm. Some people don't want to be around him, not just because of his temper, but also because he is badly scarred from the smallpox, so he always respects anyone who doesn't mind his scars and can hold their own against his boorish behavior. It becomes readily apparent as the story progresses that Edward's bark is really worse that his bite. I really liked Edward's complexity of thinking, how he fell hard for Anna, but was conflicted both in his feelings for her, especially after he discovered her deception, and his sense of duty to his family line. Watching him try to figure things out and understanding what he was feeling and thinking made him a very interesting character to read. Another thing that made him quite appealing to me was his combination of erudition and earthiness. He was obviously a very intelligent man, but one who wasn't afraid to go out in his fields and come back covered in muck. Edward also made my geek list because he seemed more comfortable alone or out on the land with his tenants than in social settings, and he was extremely knowledgeable about agriculture, having written a number of scholarly papers on the topic, as well as lecturing at the Agrarian Society. In fact, he could sometimes get so wrapped up in his work that he would become oblivious to the time and what was happening around him. I've always loved smart men, but that, in addition to all of his other qualities made him positively irresistible.
Anna was a very spirited heroine that I liked very much too. I loved how she was never afraid of Edward's temper, and always handled him quite deftly. She was strong and fairly confident, but the few times she allowed her insecurities to get the best of her, she realized her mistake pretty quickly and came back fighting. She is also very kind and caring, doing what she must to make sure her elderly mother-in-law and their orphan maid are provided for, and she even takes in an injured prostitute when no one else would have, even though her actions set tongues to wagging. What I think I liked most about Anna and the whole story though, is how she discovers her attraction for Edward, and boldly decides to be naughty just once in her life to get what she think she wants. She seduces him in disguise at the brothel he frequents, because she simply can't bear the thought of him bedding anyone else. Yet even though she thoroughly enjoys the experience, she is terribly conflicted afterward. She feels a bit of guilt for having deceived Edward, but most of all she realizes that the physical pleasure wasn't all that she truly desired. I loved that the author brought out these feelings in Anna. It was exactly what I was thinking and feeling at that moment in the story, and I would have been quite disappointed if Anna hadn't felt that way too. Everything worked together to make her a very relatable character for me.
There were a number of great secondary characters in The Raven Prince as well. Edward's estate manager, Felix Hopple, was a hoot with his flamboyant clothes, but we find out later that he is also a rather shy, sweet man. Edward's valet, Davis, is another fun character. He's a feisty old man who rarely works and constantly goads Edward into threatening to fire him. Their interactions were quite amusing. I also enjoyed Edward's initially nameless dog, and the little rabbit trail of Anna trying to help him think of a suitable name. Anna's mother-in-law is a sweet old lady who is always very supportive of her. I also liked Pearl, the prostitute Anna rescued, and her sister Coral. They became the catalyst for and the confidantes of her naughty exploits. There are a couple of ne'er-do-well characters who try to stir up a bit of trouble for Edward and Anna after they discover what Anna did. Last but not least there were Edward's two friends, Harry and Simon, who become the heroes of the next two books in the series, The Leopard Prince and The Serpent Prince respectively.
There were a couple of other elements of The Raven Prince that I particularly savored. Each chapter begins with a snippet of a fairy tale with the same title, which Anna had found in Edward's library. I'm sorry to say that I'm not up on my Greek mythology, but I discovered through other reviewers that this is apparently a re-telling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche. I liked it every bit as much as the main novel and found myself eagerly waiting to get to the next chapter to discover what would happen next in that story too. Ms. Hoyt also has a talent for writing deeply sensuous love scenes that are like a sweet treat for the imagination. I thought that everything was very tastefully done, but sensitive readers should know that these scenes do get rather spicy and the use of a handful of explicit words that I've rarely seen outside the erotic sub-genre (and which some may find offensive) do push the traditional historical envelope a bit. Ultimately, my only complaint about the book which kept it from a perfect five stars was that the first ¼ or so of the book moved a little too slow and I felt that the initial attraction between Edward and Anna in those pages was a bit too subtle and not quite palpable enough to suit me. Once I got past that section though, it became a very engrossing read. Overall, The Raven Prince was an excellent debut novel from Elizabeth Hoyt, and one I very much enjoyed reading. It was my first book by Ms. Hoyt, but it has earned a spot on my keeper shelf and has left me quite eager to continue The Princes Trilogy.
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Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase
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