When Sir Daltrey Powell summons his niece’s old, stuffy piano teacher for a dressing-down, he’s more than surprised when the young, handsome Professor Northlund Merrit presents himself. Despite their dispute, Daltrey is convinced: He will do what he must to fan the spark he saw in Northlund’s eyes to flame.
Review by Hayden Thorne
This story is actually one of several from Dreamspinner Press’s 2008 Advent Stories series, hence the non-historical, all-purpose cover. Because of its length (it’s a novelette, I think), readers shouldn’t expect much by way of a thorough exploration of a romance developing between an earl and his niece’s music instructor.
What I enjoy the most is the story’s classic romantic plot. Two gentlemen from wildly diverging backgrounds cross paths, feel instant attraction, and the game, as they say, is afoot. Given their pasts and their temperaments, it’s natural to see both react to their attraction differently: Daltry Powell with arrogant ease and a sense of entitlement that’s expected from a peer, Northlund Merrit with dismay and horror, no thanks to his nomadic existence, which is forced on him by society and that damned annoying specter called convention.
The characters, both main and side, are interesting and fun to read. Though by and large, Bailey and McLaughlin leaned a little too heavily on archetypes, readers can still enjoy the interactions between the characters.
The difficulties I have with this story, though, outweigh the highlights, the characters’ lack of complexity being one of them. Then again, one might say, it is a novelette, and there’s only so much a writer can do with such a limited word count. In this case, the story feels as though it should be given a much, much wider berth or greater room to expand. There’s so much going on in the story that’s implicit and otherwise, and it’s disappointing not seeing it being brought to its full potential. Given the conflict between Powell and Merrit, the subplot involving Arabella (the niece) and the suffocating state of women’s roles back then, as well as the relationship between Lionel (Powell’s valet) and both Daltrey Powell and his father, I think there’s quite a bit of material that’s unfortunately sacrificed to the publisher’s length requirements. As things stand, the characters remain archetypal, and the plot unfolds quickly and almost haphazardly, with hardly anything solid on which it can ground itself.
The biggest problem I have involves setting. Yes, there’s mention of London. There are the references to a landau, balls, lavish dinner-parties, and manor houses. But we’re not given a specific period in English history in which we can firmly set the story, so we can have some point of reference when it comes to historical details.
The story is set in a small shire, with Greenholm as the main village where Merrit lives and works. Unfortunately, the actual location is never mentioned, and there are several shires in England, leaving us with no clear reference point. The manor house is very lightly described, and when it is, the details are generalized, so that you can think of any great house somewhere in England’s vast countryside, and you’ll have the place pegged. In fact, everything about the setting (landscape, buildings, etc.) is very generic and almost treated dismissively. I don’t find myself in England at all unless London’s mentioned. I just feel like the characters live in a strange historical vacuum that could be Georgian, Regency, or Victorian (I’m guessing Victorian, but I’m biased).
The scenes also change too abruptly. In one instance, we’re left with Merrit being escorted out of the house by Arabella. The next scene, we’re suddenly in his office, and he’s in the middle of being startled (or in the process of panicking) because his privacy is suddenly being invaded by a horny Powell. The beginning of the scene feels like it’s missing a little more material that could’ve allowed the reader a chance to shift gears (i.e., transitions). Again, the office isn’t described in detail, so for a moment, we’re forced to rearrange things mentally after we realize that the scene’s taking place in Merrit’s office in the school where he teaches. There’s another scene following this in which they’re suddenly outside, taking a walk in the snow, again with no easing into the scene that would’ve helped the reader keep track of the narrative’s movements. And where is this quiet footpath located? There’s mention of a river, but again, we’re left with nothing else.
The smaller problems involve errors in the use of titles (“Sir Daltrey” would be used in addressing a baronet or knight, not a peer), uneven dialogue that switches back and forth between modern/anachronistic and historical/stilted, and strong elements of OK Homo from start to finish, including a rather unrealistic detail near the end involving the sleeping arrangements of a mere tutor in reference to his employer’s.
It’s really too bad that the story was forced into such a short length. I do feel that it’s got quite a bit going for it, but it needs way more room than what a novelette can offer for it to be given the justice it deserves.
Buy the book: Dreamspinner Press