Book Review: Kindred Hearts by Rowan Speedwell
(This review is by guest blogger Erin!)
(Note: there are some mild spoilers in this review.)
The set up is basically every Regency romance you’ve ever read: the hero is a rake with daddy issues who beds lots of women and reacts to any dare as if he were Marty McFly being called a chicken. His father, a duke, informs him early in the novel that he is required to produce an heir and thus will be marrying an on-the-shelf spinster with a well-respected father, and he’s to get right on that heir producing if he doesn’t want to get cut off. Luckily, said spinster turns out to be kind of a spitfire, albeit a plain-looking one, and when the hero meets her, he basically thinks, Well, okay, I don’t want to get married, but if I have to, she’s all right. Maybe this is not a sweeping declaration of love, but we’re not quite a third of the way into the book.
The story picks up again two years later, at which time our plucky former spinster has produced the required heir and has a spare on the way. While fireworks don’t exactly go off when our hero and heroine are in a room together, they have forged an easy friendship and the hero very clearly adores his young son. Things proceed, perhaps a little on the boring side, until the heroine’s brother comes back from the war. And then things get interesting.
Tristan Norwood is our hero. He’s labeled a rake at the beginning of the novel, but he’s not an especially good rake; he sticks to bedding prostitutes or else bored married ladies whose husbands can’t get the job done. He has a reputation for being a skilled lover, primarily because the one bit of advice from his father that he actually heeds is that a woman’s pleasure always comes first. He employs said skill with his new wife on their wedding night, and she basically tells him, “It was a’ight.” He’s shocked; no one who has spent the night with him has ever been anything less than a satisfied customer. This is our first clue that his new wife, Charlotte (called Lottie), is different than all those other girls. (She’s a Regency romance heroine, basically.)
But Tristan is also not like those other boys.
Lottie’s brother Charles (called Charlie) comes back to England from fighting with the Duke of Wellington. He intends to sell his commission and go to medical school. He’s not the marrying type, see. Soon after he arrives, Lottie references some dude named Gregory and has a whole conversation with Charlie about how she suspects her husband may also be the sort who is interested in “your kind of love.” She doesn’t have any evidence for this besides that she senses that her husband finds his philandering ways unsatisfying. (Although, to be fair to Tristan, at this point in the story, he’s faithful to his wife.)
Unfortunately, Tristan is also depressed. Really depressed. Needs-alcohol-to-sleep-every-night depressed. Putting-his-affairs-in-order-so-that-his-wife-and-children-will-be-provided-for-when-he-blows-his-brains-out depressed. Charlie’s appearance only makes things worse because Tristan and Charlie have an abundance of what you might call unresolved sexual tension. They attend a few parties together, then Charlie starts teaching Tristan about the things he’s learning in medical school, and Tristan’s world is suddenly looking less bleak. That can only mean one thing, of course: Tristan has fallen in love with Charlie. This has the effect of moving up Tristan’s planned death date, but luckily for us (since this is only the halfway point in the book) Charlie comes to his rescue. And then they have sex. A lot.
The real tension in the novel happens in the second half of the book, when Charlie gets called back to the field. Tristan follows him to Belgium, ostensibly because his wife sent him to keep an eye on her brother, but then both men end up tangled in the Battle of Waterloo. This is where the book really shines, because it’s clear Speedwell has done her research, and I think this is also a way in which a gay Regency is different from a het one: rather than being a polite comedy of manners among the peerage, we get a rather gruesome glimpse at the battlefields, at the carnage, at the places where only men are allowed to attend. We’re in an infirmary full of soldiers and doctors, and our heroes can gaze at each other longingly and still feel tense about everything going on around them and also about arising suspicion about the true nature of their relationship. (One of Charlie’s subordinates is on to them, in fact, and threatens to have Tristan prosecuted.)
If I have one complaint about the book, it’s that Charlotte is a little too saintly. Although it’s refreshing to have a female character in a gay romance novel who is not a harpy, she almost swings too far in the other direction. She’s not that into sex. She’s content to work on her needlepoint, is what she tells Tristan. And she likes Tristan fine, she feels they’ve forged a companionable friendship, but she’s not especially interested in having an intimate relationship with him. So when her brother comes along and it’s clear that he and Tristan are interested in each other, she gives them her blessing.
The other thing that keeps the book from getting that fifth star is that it feels a little like two separate books: Tristan’s marriage to Lottie and then courtship with Charlie; and Tristan and Charlie at Waterloo. Both books are good, but the cumulative story runs a little long. Still, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable read.