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Friday, September 4, 2015

Review: The Highwayman (Victorian Rebels #1) by Kerrigan Byrne

The widow Farah MacKenzie has built her life with meaning and compassion, even as she crosses paths with London's criminals as a clerk at Scotland Yard. Despite the passage of years, time did not diminish her love for the young man whom she'd wed and lost to a cruel world.

Dorian Blackwell, the Blackheart of Ben More was a legend; a dark shadow controlling the strings of the dangerous London underworld. Calculating and cruel, and forged by suffering and injustice, he is determined to keep a promise made long ago, by any means necessary.

Protecting Farah from a danger she'd thought she'd escaped, Dorian sets in motion a plan that will forever change her life and circumstances. Intrigue, passion and secrets soon tie them together, but Dorian is as determined to protect Farah from himself as from the sinister machinations that threaten her life. His implacable will is constantly challenged by the soul-deep temptation of Farah. Her gentle strength remains unwavering in the face of her own peril, but the safety of her heart lies in Dorian's ruthless hands.

“Do not speak of love, Farah. For it is something I cannot give. I can offer you protection. I can offer you revenge. But I cannot offer you my heart, because I am not capable of giving something I do not possess.”

For many years, historical and regency romances were my reading cornerstone. Lindsay, Garwood, McNaught and a host of others still adorn my bookshelves. I'd comb bookstores, saving my money to buy their backlog of work. Then, I'd return once or twice a month, hoping to see an upcoming release heralded on an announcement board. On release day, I'd be there as early as possible to get my copy, reading late into the night. Over the years, the historical changed shape and my tastes evolved. The last new historical I read was almost a decade ago. Since then, any I've tried seemed to be missing...something.

I came across Byrne's work through a friend. My friend's recommendations were solid; she'd never steered me wrong. In this case, my hopes were exceeded. Byrne's berserker series captured my imagination completely. The writing style was fresh, but was reminiscent of the books I loved.

So, many months ago, when I found out The Highwayman was to be released in September, I felt that old familiar tingle of pre-book anticipation. The literary gods must have been smiling down on me, because at the RT convention in May, I got an advance copy. (And squealed like a fangirl at a boy band concert!) Eschewing sleep for several days, I devoured the book, and have been eagerly anticipating the day when the rest of the world could get their hands on it, too.

The Highwayman is eloquent. Byrne's style of showing rather than telling draws the reader into the tale swiftly. Her ability to convey the subtleties of emotion and the nuances of personality gives all the characters a richness that brings them to vivid life. While most of these details are focused on the hero and heroine, the supporting players each have their own voice.

Farah is resourceful and clever. Her kindness is not naive, instead it's hopeful. Pragmatism keeps her from becoming a Pollyanna clone. Though the period restricts some of her behaviors, her unconventional occupation showcases the sweep of her character, without stretching credulity. Her humor makes her a lovely contrast to Dorian.

Dorian is a deep well of neurosis, and his back story is painted with an ever darker brush, unflinchingly revealing atrocities that are often brushed over or merely hinted at by other authors. Because of this, the angst and harshness of his character is not alienating. Even when he seems unflinchingly cruel, his humanity is never completely gone.

The peripheral characters are more than plot-movers, they are interesting in their own right. Dorian's companions are each given enough back story to make the reader want to know more about them. Morley is not a foppish suitor, but a worthy rival for Farah's affections. Warrington is fiendish, but not a caricature of evil. Though he's not always present, his wily intelligence is implied.

The scenes between Farah and Dorian build with a riveting tension. Byrne's deft handling of their slow dance toward each other keeps the relationship from stagnating or causing reader frustration. Even as you think Dorian's walls will come down, the author validates his character traits with his continued, but fraying, resistance.

The intimacy between the two is scorching, and I was very impressed with the author's continuation of Farah and Dorian's personalities throughout their sexiest scenes. Dorian's darkness is soul-deep, and his psychological scars are shown with raw clarity in the way he beds Farah. It gives a small release to the reader, but actually adds to the tangled issues that prevent them from being together.

Overall, the story moves along very well. It's a sizeable read, but doesn't suffer any hand-wringing filler that's so often found when one of the characters is so troubled. Though there is some foreshadowing, the reader doesn't always know what's going to happen.

I enjoyed this story immensely. It was everything I'd hoped it would be, and more. I'm absolutely delighted to know it's the first in a series, and I eagerly await the next book!

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