Cold-Hearted Rake, by Lisa Kleypas

16 Mar
Cover for Cold-Hearted Rake; background shows part of a medieval-ish stone house and some gardens, in a blueish tint. Foreground shows a white redheaded woman wearing a pink gown, with the back mostly open and no underpinnings, looking at the reader over her soulder

I am trying to keep up with Wendy the SuperLibrarian’s TBR Challenge and struggling some to find novels that fit the themes; not because I don’t have entire cordilleras of TBR tittles, but because I have done nothing but over-commit this year. So when I realized how little time I had to get the reading done and the review written, I went off what I remembered of the “look inside” sample, wherein the male protagonist appears to be a callous and resentful ass.

Spoiler: turns out that neither of the main characters are all that grumpy by nature; rather, they’re reacting to pretty shitty circumstances. BUT I DON’T CARE, IT FITS THE THEME.

(Also, there are letters)

::ahem::

Reader beware: there’s quite a bit of sex on the page, a little bit of graphic language, neglectful parents, a dead abusive husband, and one past incident of attempted rape (mentioned, not described). There’s also a bit of slut shaming of a dead character, and an insinuation that this was a result of mental illness. Victorian railroad accident and the resulting deaths.

Cold-Hearted Rake, by Lisa Kleypas

This novel is the first in the Ravenels series, and it marks the return of Ms Kleypas to historical romance, with the books set a few decades after the Wallflowers and Hathaway series (so, moving from the early 1840s to the early-to-mid 1870s, from late UK Regency to Victorian eras)

Kathleen’s marriage lasted three days, but the trauma and the guilt are as fresh three months later as they were on the day of her husband’s death. When her introduction to the new earl is hearing him callously state that he’ll kick her three innocent, sheltered sisters-in-law to the street, then sell the state and raze the only home they’ve ever known…well, her reaction to the situation, and him, is predictably angry.

Our hero, Devon Ravenel, is described as a rake, but mostly, he’s just a single man without occupation or obligations, and just enough money (and sense) to keep himself going. Up till now, his only loyalty has been to is younger brother West. Suddenly, he’s responsible for over 200 tenant families, never mind the three penniless young sisters of the man whose title he inherited–or the widow.

As I said above, these two aren’t so much inherently grumpy as having a really bad life when they meet.

DA BLURB!

A twist of fate . . .

Devon Ravenel, London’s most wickedly charming rake, has just inherited an earldom. But his powerful new rank in society comes with unwanted responsibilities . . . and more than a few surprises. His estate is saddled with debt, and the late earl’s three innocent sisters are still occupying the house . . . along with Kathleen, Lady Trenear, a beautiful young widow whose sharp wit and determination are a match for Devon’s own.

A clash of wills . . .

Kathleen knows better than to trust a ruthless scoundrel like Devon. But the fiery attraction between them is impossible to deny—and from the first moment Devon holds her in his arms, he vows to do whatever it takes to possess her. As Kathleen finds herself yielding to his skillfully erotic seduction, only one question remains:

Can she keep from surrendering her heart to the most dangerous man she’s ever known?

There are two main interconnected plot threads in the book: saving the Trenear estate from ruin, and the development of Devon’s and Kathleen’s relationship.

The Trenear estate has been in decline for decades; partly because most of the earls die fairly young, which has meant lack of continuity and frequent death taxes, but also because Britain is going through the industrial revolution, with all the economic and social disruption it brought to everyone.

For Devon, a distant twig in a minor branch of the Ravenel family tree, the task of figuring out how to preserve the estate is beyond Herculean–not only does he know nothing about farming, land management and the like, just saving the house would cost a fortune he does not have. In fact, trying to save the house and the estate is likely to result in irreversible financial ruin in pretty short order.

The sensible alternative is to sell the land and properties for whatever he can get, and move on.

The novel makes the argument that saving the estate equals protecting the tenants’ livelihoods, as well as the prosperity of the nearby town, along with providing security for the estate’s servants, and that thus, the ethical stance is to try and find the funds to rebuild the house and make improvements to the land.

And so, Devon’s decision not to sell the land is presented as essentially altruistic: he is rising to the occasion, showing his mettle and his essential goodness; being the Earl of Trenear in full means a life of obligation, working for the benefit of ‘his people’ (i.e., the tenants who pay the earl for the use of the land). 1

The novel takes place over a period of several months (three? maybe four?) first in Eversby Priory and later in London, as Devon works to first figure out what needs to be done to bring the estate back from ruin, and later to raise the large amount of money needed to even start to do it.

During this time, Devon and Kathleen start very much as declared antagonists who become allies for the greater good: the welfare of the three Ravenel sisters, and the prosperity of Eversby Priory and the Trenear lands. There is a lot about Victorian mourning practices, and the (frankly ridiculous) mores of ‘polite society’, which inform the development of their relationship.

There’s a trust separate from the land (and we never learn where that money is coming from). There is all that industry, changing the literal face of the country. And then, there’s the three young Ravenel ladies, sisters of the previous earl, who are unlikely to catch an aristocrat, since they have no dowry, but who are also lovely enough to conceivably be married off to some wealthy man wanting to climb society’s ladder.

Then there’s the letters.

Okay, it’s more like a flurry of angry notes, but still, they’re funny and lovely. (Full disclosure: I’m a sucker for epistolary stories; I blame reading Jean Webster’s Daddy-Long-Legs at an entirely-too-early age 2)

I liked both main characters, even though was irritated more than once by Kathleen’s assumption that she had a right to make decisions regarding her sisters-in-law’s lives, especially Helen’s, and most especially because what Helen wants is quite clear to the reader.

Some of this is explained by Kathleen’s childhood: her parents sent her to live with some friends as a young child, because they basically couldn’t be bothered to give the first damn about her. While she lucked out and landed with a family who cares for her, this callous abandonment affects her sense of self deeply, in ways that influence her decisions as an adult: she wants love and a family. After her husband’s death, Kathleen’s attachment to his sisters only strengthens. They are now her family and her responsibility, and woe betide anyone who even thinks of causing them harm or pain.

On the other side of the relationship, much is made of the infamous Ravenel temper, which has led the males of the family to generally die young, either through violence, or recklessness leading to lethal accidents. They also seem to contract ill-fated, if passionate, marriages, selecting beautiful but equally temperamental women.

Devon’s and West’s parents were both self-entered and irresponsible; after losing their father at an early age, their mother abandoned them to the tender mercies of distant relatives as she pursued a life of short-lived romantic relationships all over Europe until her death a few years later. As far as Devon is concerned, the best thing he can do is never sire a child, lest he damn it to the same fate of neglect and lovelessness.

Of course, when immovable object Devon meets unstoppable force Kathleen, inevitably, the object moves.

I enjoy Ms Kleypas’ writing voice, and I like how her writing has evolved over time. The sex is, as usual, very well written, and every sex scene informs the developing feelings between the characters. 3

Generally, this is a gentler story than even the Wallflowers or the Hathaways, not only because Devon is a different kind of hero (well-born but not previously noble or wealthy, among other things), but also because there is no villain to this story; the tension is two-fold: the pressure Devon is under to find ways to save the estate without accruing ruinous debt, which brings him into conflict with Kathleen’s ideals, hopes, and needs, and internal from childhood trauma on both sides.

This book is clearly the first in a series in the sense that the setup for the immediate sequel is pretty clear, but it’s also very much an ensemble book in a good way: all of the characters have a reason to be there that moves the main plotline along, even if they don’t always contribute directly to the progress of Devon’s and Kathleen’s relationship.

Also, most of the secondary characters have personalities and lives and relationships outside of the two main characters’ relationship. It’s a well constructed world, with many moving and interconnected parts.

I read this one in one sitting, and went looking for the rest of the series.

Cold-Hearted Rake gets a 9.00 out of 10.

* * * *

1 This is part of the genre romance Regency chronotope: the circular noblesse oblige argument! rather than some people believing they’re entitled to the labor of others by virtue of birth. But the fantasy also involves the ingrained snobbery of marrying within their own class, toeing the line of ‘society’ expectation, and so on.

2 I really need to write about this book in more detail.

3 There is one thing that bothers me, entirely out of proportion, about a couple of the sex scenes, though: the idea that tight-laced corsets could be unhooked at the front without loosening the laces first. Which is essentially impossible. But, if it were possible to unhook the busk under those circumstances, hooking it again, with the laces still tight? Not happening, period. Hint: a corset is emphatically not a bra with a front closure.

15 Responses to “Cold-Hearted Rake, by Lisa Kleypas”

  1. S. 17/03/2022 at 5:29 AM #

    I still have this one in the pile. I also saw some reviews with plenty of negative aspects and I think that has influenced my decision to not pick it for one of my monthly lists. Thank you for this positive review, it certainly gives me another perspective. 😀

    • azteclady 17/03/2022 at 7:00 AM #

      This is interesting; all I heard about this book when it came out (and since, to be honest) are good things. Would you mind telling me what are the negative aspects mentioned in those reviews?

      • S. 18/03/2022 at 5:45 AM #

        Hi!
        From top of my head, what I remember is mentions of how unromantic the main relationship was, too much time dedicated to secondary characters, some anachronism and then back to “rules” when convenient… but I haven’t read any reviews with detailed explanations.

      • azteclady 18/03/2022 at 8:25 AM #

        I think that a lot of the ‘anachronisms’ issue is a problem people have because they forget/don’t internalize that it’s set in 1875, not the early 1800s. There was a lot of technological and social progress in those decades, while at the same time the upper crust clung to rigid social mores (the rules for mourning, for example).

        Some readers subconsciously expect that every historical romance that is not explicitly labeled say, “Medieval” or “Gilded Age”, will be set in the magical Heyer Regency chronotope. These books share some of that setting (the “good noble” thing) but they’re accurate in most other respects.

        As far as the relationship between Kathleen and Devon being unromantic…well, that’s a matter of taste indeed. Like I said, I like very much how Kleypas’s writing has evolved, and that is part of what I mean.

        It is a long book, which is why I didn’t mind the ‘ensemble cast’ feel of it; there was enough space for the main relationship to develop to my satisfaction.

  2. Lori 17/03/2022 at 7:06 PM #

    Another book to join the TBR pile of doom.

    • azteclady 17/03/2022 at 7:33 PM #

      If you liked the Wallflowers or the Hathaways, you are quite likely to like these, I think.

      I have since glommed all seven books in the Ravenels series–which I don’t recommend because writing tics become evident and can get annoying–and I’ll say, as much as I like those two series, I like this one more, in a different way.

      These books are more connected than the others, with a couple of the later pairings developing in earlier books, but in a very organic way, rather than sequel baiting. I feel like there’s continued character development for most of the main characters (of the series) all through the books. Like, one can see the change in Devon from this one to the last one, in how he relates with all the other characters in their own books. (I hope that made sense)

      Also (is it a spoiler?), major connections to the Wallflowers in later books, in ways that tickled me pink.

  3. whiskeyinthejar 18/03/2022 at 2:27 PM #

    Kathleen’s assumption that she had a right to make decisions regarding her sisters-in-law’s lives, especially Helen’s

    This drove me crazy in this book, I was almost foaming at the mouth towards the end with butting in with Helen and Rhys, lol.
    I was one of the few who weren’t the biggest fan of this, because of the butting in and I got bored with the drainage issues talk. But I liked the pig!

    • azteclady 18/03/2022 at 2:43 PM #

      The pig is definitely a winner!

      And yes, there’s a lot of talk about drainage; I enjoyed it, but I understand how it can feel “too much of the trivial” to other people.

  4. willaful 18/03/2022 at 4:43 PM #

    I gave this 3 stars, but unfortunately don’t seem to have reviewed it so I don’t remember why. I think I found it on the dull side.

    I also imprinted on DLL and still love it; despite some issues, it holds up pretty well. But seriously, don’t read/reread _Dear Enemy_. It is far beyond problematic.

    • azteclady 18/03/2022 at 4:48 PM #

      I am a sucker for Lisa Kleypas’ writing voice, which influences the rating quite a bit, but I think it also matters when you read something. Today, with ::gestures at the world:: I found it to be exactly what I needed: very little to no angst, no stupid misunderstandings, etc. (basically, likely what made it dull for other readers when it came out).

      • willaful 18/03/2022 at 6:27 PM #

        Oh, very much so. Weirdly, I have once again been enjoying Harlequin angst-o-ramas, but in anything approaching a realistic romance, I want soft and easy!

      • azteclady 18/03/2022 at 6:31 PM #

        Yes, exactly this!

        Although…I was going to say that this is why I was able to lose myself so readily in the Mila Vane’s A Gathering of Dragons series, but it doesn’t hold since I struggled so mightily with the (relatively minor) angst of Felicia Davin’s Nowhere books, the setting of which is anything but realistic, and yet.

        Just weird how the brain works, innit.

  5. SuperWendy 22/03/2022 at 11:41 PM #

    I should go back and read the review on my blog to refresh my memory but what I remember about this book was feeling very ho-hum on the main romance and more invested in Helen and Rhys. That said have I read Marrying Winterbourne yet? HA HA HA HA!

    What I do distinctly remember for a fact was just falling into the writing. I think I picked this up after a string of poorly written tripe and I felt like this was a book written by a grown-up. Like the author cared, the editor cared, everybody involved in the book CARED – and it was so damn lovely.

    • azteclady 23/03/2022 at 12:14 AM #

      Yes! The care is very much evident all the way through.

      Also: I think you’d really enjoy Marrying Winterborne; it really delivers on the set up from this book, and the resolution to the big obstacle is, IMO, wonderful.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Marrying Winterborne, by Lisa Kleypas | Her Hands, My Hands - 30/05/2022

    […] coupe of months ago, I finally read Cold-Hearted Rake, the first title in the Ravenels series of historical romances set in the mid- to late 1870s, and […]

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