Rakes and rogues and rascals (oh, my!) have long been a staple in historical romance. And one of their biggest proponents and creators is author Sarah MacLean, whose latest novel, Bombshell (Avon), the first in her new Hell’s Belles series, exploded into release yesterday.
MacLean has often professed her interest in the worst of the romance heroes, the absolute scoundrels and the nearly irredeemable men, infamously embodied by Derek Craven in Dreaming of You by Lisa Kleypas; so much so that she and Fated Mates podcast partner Jen Prokop have declared February 2 as Derek Craven Day. She’s written her own fair share of incorrigible heroes, including Ewan, Duke of Marwick, from Daring and the Duke, and Malcolm Bevingstoke, Duke of Haven, from Day of the Duchess. She seems to take particular delight in compelling these cads down the path of reformation, puncturing their bombast, prying open the clamp on their feelings and forcing them to grovel as they work their way toward the emotional growth necessary to be worthy of the women they love. She’s a master at the romance novelist’s game of Break the Rake.
Given such a predilection, it’s a pleasant surprise that the hero of Bombshell is the rake’s opposite. He’s the man with a heart of gold who has endured the darkest of circumstances. MacLean spins 180 degrees away from her Stygian-hearted cad in the Bareknuckle Bastards trilogy and gives us the cinnamon roll who can’t seem to stop sacrificing himself for others: Caleb Calhoun.
A GIDDY RIOT OF A BOOK
We first met Caleb in Day of the Duchess, as the American best friend and business partner of the former Seraphina Talbot, now Duchess of Haven. Caleb had sworn to stand by her side after she strolled into Parliament and demanded a divorce from her reprehensible husband. A lesser author might have taken the obvious path and paired up Seraphina and Caleb as a romantic couple. Not MacLean. Instead, Seraphina unravels the duke as Caleb is bewitched by her younger sister, Sesily, a fierce free spirit who doesn’t bow to convention. I’m not overstating things when I say Caleb and Sesily almost stole the show, which might be why MacLean purposely left their love story unfinished at the end of Day of the Duchess. Readers have been waiting impatiently ever since to learn their fate.
The wait is over. I’m happy to tell you, Bombshell delivers.
Bombshell is a giddy riot of a book and Sesily is still a whirlwind of a woman, the kind who runs into danger. Caleb is the kind of nurturing man who is driven to distraction by his need to protect such a woman, while secretly admiring her skill, determination and values. He’s a refreshing change from the usual parade of dukes. (To MacLean’s credit, she loves to subvert that trope.) He’s “The American” with an unfortunate habit of running back to Boston every time Sesily gets too close. (He seems to have no problem with transatlantic crossings, despite it taking two to three months in the Victorian era.)
MISSION: MAYHEM GENERATOR
With Caleb hiding on the other side of the Atlantic, what’s a girl to do? Why, get busy, of course; in this case, in her role as mayhem generator for a tightly-knit and secret network of women working behind the scenes to save vulnerable individuals, particularly women, from the cruelties of powerful men. This is the Victorian girl gang MacLean promised her readers. Sesily’s comrades are the Duchess of Trevescan, spymaster; Miss Adelaide Frampton, thief and con woman; and Lady Imogen Loveless, scientific genius with a penchant for blowing things up. The four women, the Hell’s Belles of the series title, are dedicated to righting wrongs and dispensing justice. Caleb has no idea what he’s walking into when he returns to London. Sesily is a woman with no compunction about breaking a man’s nose three times or wearing a dagger strapped to her thigh.
MacLean layers Sesily’s machinations, and the mystery about Caleb’s past, over one another until they merge in surprising ways. In the end, Caleb, like most of MacLean’s heroes, needs to be set free from the traumas of his past. How this happens through the efforts of Hell’s Belles and the collaboration between a fierce woman and a tender man makes for quite a bit of steamy, sexy and occasionally over-the-top fun. And for once, the good guy gets the girl. Let the rakes beware.
“Daring and the Duke” Finishes the Bareknuckle Bastards Series on the Upswing
Sarah MacLean on Wickedly Weaving Scandal & Privilege