Scoundrel – Zoe Archer
Lately, one of the ways I’ve been finding new Fantasy Romance books is by mining the literary awards database for all the past winners of the RITA for Paranormal Romance. I came across the book Rebel, book 3 in The Blades of the Rose series, and was intrigued so I added it to my TBR, not really sure which square I’d use it for. I was about to dig into the series, when unexpectedly a Historical Romance writer (Eva Leigh) who I’ve read in the past and follow on Twitter posted about this exact series and that she had written it under the penname Zoe Archer. I had no idea! It seemed as though the fates aligned to encourage me to read this series, and so I decided to dive in.
This review was originally written as part of a personal project to complete an all Fantasy Romance card for r/fantasy’s 2022 Book Bingo. You can read an introduction to my project here. All opinions are my own.
RELEASE DATE: 01/01/2010
STAR RATING: 5/5 ✶
It didn’t take me long to figure out which square was best for this series – Historical Fantasy. Why? Because this series reads and feels like a Historical Romance. The writing, the structure, the tone – you can tell it is written by a prominent Historical Romance author. I think one of the things I found unique about this series was the fact that it’s an accurate Historial Romance first and Fantasy second – the magic system and world-building were layered atop of the accurate historical setting. In some respects, the Fantasy plot is suppoting!
The series takes during the late Victorian era. The main characters are all British and are fighting a war for the posession of magical Sources. The Blades of the Rose are a secret society of English men and women who are protecting ancient artifacts – Sources – from falling into the wrong hands. The Heirs of Albion are another secret society in opposition to the Blades; the Heirs are Imperialists, their goal is to acquire as many Sources as possible with the intent of using their powerful magic to promote the expansion of the British Empire and establish England as the center of the world. These books have a strong anti-colonialism theme.
This world is our world – it is an accurate historical representation. Magic is simply layered on top. Magical Sources are artifacts pulled from various traditions and myths. In other words, the magic is that these myths are real and are sources of incredible power. For example, in the first book we learn that many historical battles were actually won due to an army in possession of one of the Sources.
What’s great about this series is that although the main characters are all English, they are traveling around the world to find and protect the Sources. The first book takes place in Mongolia and the second in Greece. This really ups the ante in terms of history, because not only is English history being referenced, but the reader also becomes immersed in some of the culture and history of the location where the Blades and the Heirs are hunting for the Source.
I picked the second book in this series to review – Scoundrel – because it blew me away. I’d been in a reading slump, and this book pulled me right out of it. It had so many of the romance tropes I love all tied together nicely in a neat little package. For me, this one was all about the character and relationship arc and how beautifully Archer developed both.
I absolutely loved the dynamic between Bennett and London. This is a true enemies-to-lovers story, because London is the daughter of one of the Heirs and Bennett is a Blade. They are sworn enemies, and the path they take to become allies is so well-constructed and natural, it was a pleasure to read. London’s character arc as Bennett encourages and supports her to grow into her personal power after being sheltered and held back by her father is magnificent.
One of my pet peeves in HR is when the rake really isn’t a rake. When the title of the book and characters referring to him as a rake are the only things that tell me that the MMC is a scoundrel, I take issue. But that is not the case here and I absolutely loved it. Bennett is set up as the quintessential rake, the opening scene showing him being chased through the streets by an angry husband. Heck! He even slept with the other woman in their group of allies! Even after he and London come together, he admits to her he can’t bind himself to one woman or love her the way she wants. The transformation of Bennett’s character given his love for London is perfection. This is one of the best “reformed rake” stories I’ve ever read.
And the steam – whew! The tension between these two characters is palpable and their encounters absolutely delicious. In particular, the scene between them on the ruins was incredibly erotic. I knew Archer could write wonderfully explicit and erotic sex scenes from her HR novels, and she does not disappoint here!
The adventure was just as compelling as the romance. This book has strong Indiana Jones / The Mummy vibes – a true treasure hunt filled with riddles, hidden maps, traps, all to uncover the location of the hidden magical treasure. They were truly a team working together to find the lost artifact and defeat their enemies. Archer also really stepped up the magic in this second installment. Unlike the first, this book also had powerful sorcery, wielding both by a powerful witch Blade named Athena and an evil Heir Chernock as well as magical creatures. The pacing and balance between the fantastical and historical was perfectly achieved.
Leigh/Archer’s prose is delicious without being overwrought. She’s such an amazing writer, and her prose is consistent across the various genres in which she writes.
You don’t have to read the first book in order to enjoy the second. There is some backstory presented in the first, but the majority of it is covered in the second book, so the only thing you’d miss out on is references to the plot of the first. That being said, the first book is still an enjoyable read. I will read on in this series. It’s a total of four books and the last two take us to the wilds of northern Canada and then to Chicago. I hope you enjoy this series as much as I’m enjoying it!