This is a series called Sheroes & Zeroes, about the people who defined our year in culture in both terrific and terrible ways.
As usual, I read a lot of romances this year, and I enjoyed most of them. I devoured Meredith Duran's backlist, I started reading Courtney Milan, I damn near got a new tattoo after binging on Kit Rocha. I even finally read a Tom and Sharon Curtis novel (The Lightning that Lingers) and it was goddamned amazing.
But it was Sarah MacLean who really hijacked my reading list this year. She springboarded off my assumptions about historical romance novels to execute a real triple backflip of a plot twist. She got me but good and I love her for it. But we'll get to the spoilers later.
MacLean is a historical romance novelist who's really broken out in the last couple of years. She's picked up two RITAs (awarded annually by the Romance Writers of America) and she writes a column for the Washington Post. In recent months, I've seen her books popping up in places I don't always associate with romance, like the window displays at McNally Jackson and (with zero explanation) this NPR review of a Dunkin' Donuts cronut ripoff. And it's really easy to understand why. Her banter, for starters, is on point:
"Is it true you once leapt from a countess's balcony quite unfortunately into a holly bush below?" Ralston's eyes widened slightly at her quiet question before amusement flashed. "A gentleman would neither confirm nor deny such an occurrence." Callie laughed. "On the contrary, my lord. A gentleman would most certainly deny such an occurrence."
(Important detail: The characters are waltzing during this exchange.)
She's also handy with the angst, weaving in just enough drama and baggage and self-doubt that you've got something to sigh over—without huffing and puffing in frustration at dunderheaded protagonists. And then there are her heroines, who are generally odd or imperfect or prickly in some way that's relatable rather than contrived. (Which is a tougher trick than authors are generally given credit for.)
Take Lady Penelope, the heroine of A Rogue by Any Other Name, the first in her Rules of Scoundrels series. She languishes for years after a broken engagement to a duke, despite plenty of perfectly acceptable offers. What makes this interesting is that she (and the novel itself) are quite self-aware about the fact that by the standards of nineteenth century England, this attitude isn't smart. It's the equivalent of the stereotypical liberal arts grad who won't come out of the basement and pick a career. What's more, her apparent refusal to move on probably dinged her sisters' marriage prospects, as well. It's not that she even particularly loved her fiance, given the boot by Penelope's father when his family was engulfed in scandal, leaving him free to marry his own scandalous beloved. She just can't quite make herself settle for anything less than a love match like her ex made, and so she's stuck. Until something comes along to jolt her, anyway. (That something being our broad-shouldered hero.)
What I really love, though, are the moments like this scene from Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake, about a spinster who grows sick of going with the flow and writes herself a list of scandalous life goals:
She paused, changing tack. "Have you ever wondered what it is that women do behind closed doors at teas and after dinners? What we talk about, how we live without you?"
"Of course not. Because our lives are out in the open. We may be alone in a room, sequestered from men, but you own the houses in which we congregate, you've been in the rooms in which we cloister ourselves. There is always the possibility that you might enter, and so we set ourselves to needlepoint or idle gossip and never allow ourselves to say or do too much beyond the bounds of propriety, for fear that you might see. "It's different for you," she pressed on, growing more impassioned as she spoke. "Men have these secret locations…taverns and sporting clubs and men's clubs. And there you can do and feel and experience anything you'd like. Far from the prying eyes of women."
Historicals are my very favorite romance subgenre, and I've read piles and piles of them. (Just can't get enough of that ballroom flirting.) Practically all of these novels reckon, to some degree or another, with the constraints society placed on women at the time. Sometimes it's handled in a perfunctory manner—with, say, an annoying chaperone character. And that's fine with me! Not every heroine needs to be Mary Wollstonecraft. Sometimes I just want some straightforward petticoat-era wooing. But it's a nice twist when somebody really goes head-to-head with all the period's bullshit strictures. (Courtney Milan is similarly talented in this department.) And MacLean is great at playing on her character's uneasy relationship to Society to ramp up the tension and produce some real nail-biters.
And so we come to MacLean's Rules of Scoundrels series, which just concluded with Never Judge a Lady by Her Cover. Set in the 1830s, these books revolve around the Fallen Angel, a casino run by three disgraced aristocrats and a mysterious fourth cofounder named "Chase" who rescued and put them to work building the business. Bourne (Aristocrat 1) lost everything not entailed to his title in a single disastrous card game; second-son Cross (Aristocrat2) turned his back on the earldom he was never supposed to inherit; and society thinks Temple (Aristocrat 3) murdered his father's fiancé. Cast out, they've built an empire ruthlessly fleecing the aristocracy. It's a bit like Revenge, but replace the Hamptons with a glamorous gaming hell visually dominated by an enormous stained glass window depicting Lucifer falling from Heaven.
(This is your spoiler warning; bail now if you don't want the twist ruined.)
The characters in this series were well-drawn and the dialogue was witty, but I couldn't get past the mysterious and all-powerful Chase. He annoyed me. We were getting zero details about this character, and obviously we were meant to be salivating for the big reveal. But all I saw was another post-Regency bro, drinking scotch and scheming. I figured he was secretly a runaway apprentice or a duke's illegitimate son or some such. Surely nothing could justify all this cloak-and-dagger crap. Also, this random unexplained courtesan kept showing up, matchmaking for the various men of the Fallen Angel.
And then I reached that big reveal: Chase was a woman.
Of fucking course Chase was a woman. I flipped back through and sure enough, that's why the scenes felt so strange and distant—never once did a pronoun appear. The evidence was right there in front of my face but I simply took for granted that I was reading a male character. I fell right into her trap, like falling for that old brainteaser where you're supposed to realize the doctor is (crazy talk!) a woman.
My appreciation doubled when I circled back to the sequels to Nine Rules to Break and realized how Penelope's original engagement ended—the Duke of Leighton had broken it off when his unmarried sister Georgiana (which I choose to read as an excellent Pride and Prejudice ref) turned up pregnant. Sure enough, Georgiana / Chase was the heroine of Never Judge a Lady By Her Cover, paired with an all-powerful self-made newspaper magnate. She chooses to re-enter society when she decides repairing her reputation is the only way to ensure a decent life for her daughter. In other words, MacLean took a character who could've easily been reduced to a plot device/cautionary tale and built an entire series around her. Georgiana is the grand finale, landing not simply on her feet, but as half of a power couple positioned to rule over early Victorian London. And there's nothing I love like a Victorian power couple (shout out to Amanda and Jack of Lisa Kleypas's classic Suddenly You).
It was just too, too perfect.
Genre fiction is a bit like gymnastics. Outsiders, noticing only the fairly strict adherence to certain forms and moves, might just see a bunch of teens tumbling around the floor. But if you follow gymnastics, you see the subtle differences, the playful touches that elevate a performance to something really special. I don't want to give the impression MacLean is romance Jesus, come to upend the genre. (Or, God forbid, "save" it.) She's just really, really talented at working within this particular writerly tradition, riffing on familiar tropes, choosing which conventions to use and which to chuck. Watching somebody stick the landing is its own, very specific pleasure.