In this new Castles Ever After series, Dare is going where Eloisa James went before her — away from too much specific historical context and into a more fairytale version of Regency England. Like James, Dare is using actual fairytales as her inspiration — this is hardly new in romance, and in particular, we have quite a selection of Beauty and the Beast retellings. Readers who want their history accurate and detailed probably won’t enjoy this book. I really had to give myself over to it as alternate history, or that delightful period called The Recency. Once I determined that I could do that, I thoroughly enjoyed it.
The set-up is that Izzy Goodnight has been left without money or a means to support herself upon the death of her father, whose fantasy stories had been the source of their income since Izzy’s childhood. Her only hope is that she’s been notified that her godfather left her a castle, so she goes there to take possession. Of course things don’t go so smoothly, as the castle is inhabited by the Duke of Rothbury, who claims that he owns it. (The castle is in terrible shape, of course, and Rothbury [Ransom] is a recluse with terrible social skills and an interesting injury that he believes renders him hideous and unloveable.) Ransom refuses to acknowledge Izzy’s claim to the castle, while she refuses to leave in deference to his. Also, the sexual chemistry between them is hot and heavy from the start.
What made the book work for me was, as always, Dare’s skill at characterization. I liked Izzy — I liked that she had a practical side but also a taste for fantasy, and how that played out. (She talks to herself, and I found her conversations pretty amusing.) I liked that she wasn’t pretty, and that was okay for several reasons. Most of all, I liked how she went after what she wanted, including Ransom.
Ransom is the beast figure, of course — wounded, withdrawn from the world, unwillingly dragged out of his solitude by a fascinating beauty. (I said Izzy wasn’t pretty, and she’s not, but Ransom’s injury has affected his vision, so he judges her by her voice, her figure, her skin and her hair, rather than her facial features.) He is quick enough to value Izzy and to see that she can help him that the story doesn’t get bogged down in his determination to remain a recluse. That storyline runs along with their attempts to unravel the ownership of the property and to handle the challenges of sharing it. What made Ransom work for me was the way he handled his injury, and the way the author handled it. He’s not a victim, he’s certainly not less of a man, and he doesn’t need his vision to return in order to get on with his life.
There’s a good set of secondary characters, although slightly more caricatured than I expect from this author. Most of her previous books feature characters who have been or will be in multiple books, and I don’t think that’s the case here, so maybe that’s one reason. There are some incidents where you either suspend your disbelief or give up, I think, mostly to do with Izzy’s father’s writing and people’s extreme reactions to it. I was willing to do that, but I imagine that an unwilling (or unable!) reader would have a terrible time.
I think this book is supposed to be angsty — Ransom is badly wounded, the castle and his fortune are at stake, Izzy is potentially homeless, and Ransom is determined not to get caught in an ongoing relationship. But honestly, to me those obstacles worked more like romantic comedy than angst. That’s not a complaint, because I laughed my way through this book and sighed happily at the end.