Eloisa James' Essex Sisters (2005 - 2006)
Eloisa James's books are wonderful. They are charming, bantery romances that are almost entirely populated by nice people doing nice things for one another. I've written in the past about how epic fantasy could pick up some tricks from historical romance, and the Essex Sisters series ticks those boxes nicely. There's clever foreshadowing with the interrelated characters and perspectives, a casual approach to historical authenticity that balances empowered female characters with Regency world-building, and an openness to both humour and (of course) romance. These four books - about the marital prospects of four orphaned sisters - aren't quite as conniving or as surprising as the Desperate Duchesses series, but they certainly have their highlights. The third, The Taming of the Duke, is perhaps my favourite, as both the male and female leads have their obstacles to overcome. (I was a little disappointed by the final volume, as it recycled some tricks, and used a 'woman in peril' shtick that felt tonally different from the rest of the series.)
In Duchesses, generally speaking, half of each romantic pairing appeared anew in each volume. Whereas in the Essex Sisters, the majority of 'core' eight romances are there from the start. Although this does make the inevitable partnerships a little more predictable, it also has makes us more attached to the characters: they're all 'on screen' a lot longer. Another side effect is that the reader finds that there's someone for everyone, in that, although there's no doubt all 8 of these protagonists are very attractive and rather wonderful, they grade 'one another' differently. One sister will have no chemistry with one gentleman, whereas another will. This is commented on, and, to some degree, even explored. There's something really beautiful in the relativity - it isn't about an objective definition of love, it is about compatibility. And, indeed, the four sisters all start off with various, somewhat cold-hearted, lists of what they want, but find that love is something altogether different, and altogether more individual.
The first of the Lucas Davenport thrillers and a delightfully campy artifact of its time. The bad guy is a serial killer who doesn't play by the rules... but nor does the cop. <growls manfully> Davenport is a highly-commended cop who doesn't fear drawing his gun. He's also a millionaire games designer. He's got a 'Network' of street informants! He wins money betting on horses - and he doesn't. even. care. He's got a wise-cracking nun for his best friend! He's got a house that's described in excruciating detail, down the titles of the books on his shelves and the calibre of the guns in his immaculate gun rack! He's got a Porsche! He's got an office - but he doesn't even use it. He's got a hot journalist girlfriend and a hot artist girlfriend and they know about one another and they don't even mind because LUCAS. DAVENPORT. CANNOT. BE. CONTAINED.
At the same tie, in the time-honoured serial killer style, we cut back and forth to 'The Chosen' (his own name), the serial killer that's ravaging Minneapolis. (Ok, Minneapolis is a lovely city, but there's something, I don't know, inherently funny about all this taking place in the upper midwest. LUCAS DAVENPORT OWNS 999 OF THE THOUSAND LAKES. LUCAS DAVENPORT CHURNS HIS OWN BUTTER. LUCAS DAVENPORT WOULD'VE MADE THAT KICK.) Anyway, Lecter-like, our villain is a meta-villain, with legal training, who knows the 'rules' and is out to be as random as possible in an effort to shrug off police attention. But at the same time, he can't help but take pride in his grisly work, which leads to his downfall, etc. etc.
As silly as Davenport is, Rules of Prey may have be better off spending even more time with him, as the book reveals everything - name, location, motivation, you name it - about its villain in the early pages. With the reader clued in to all the details, Rules shrugs off any pretence at 'if the bad guy is caught' and because wholly about 'when'. It is a procedural - of sorts - except with a cop that's flamboyantly anti-procedure. There's no mystery - and there's no procedure. So given Davenport's mental, physical and professional perfection, the tension therefore comes from a recurring series of third-party mistakes. A journalist releases a tip that she shouldn't. Cops on stake-out take a break at the wrong time. Patrolmen get tripped up during a chase. The protagonist is perfect; it is a shame he has to rely on mere mortals and their frailties. Eh.
Still, there's something delightfully late-80s about the excess of Rules of Prey, and despite my quibbles - it is a fast, fun, more-than-a-little ridiculous book: a proper airplane read. And, perhaps more importantly, I've heard that the series gets a lot better as it goes on. I can see myself trying again with another Davenport. If only because LUCAS. DAVENPORT. NEVER. QUITS.