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Book Review: Marriage of Mercy by Carla Kelly

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Marriage of Mercy

Synopsis:

From riches to rags, Grace has had to swallow her pride and get a job as a baker. But everything changes when she’s the beneficiary of a surprise inheritance.

Her benefactor’s deal comes with a catch: give up her life of toil and live in luxury only if she marries his illegitimate son, a prisoner of war. It’s an offer she can’t afford to refuse. But her husband-to-be is dying, and he begs her to take one of his men instead—to marry purely out of mercy….

A marriage of convenience with a complete stranger… Could this arrangement ever work?

I am a faithless reader. The authors that I love are not necessarily auto-buys for me; no matter how much I appreciate an author’s talent, the subject really has to draw me in before I’ll read the book. Here’s the story of how I almost missed a great book by one of my favorite authors, simply because of a bad synopsis.

Although Carla Kelly has been writing category romance for several years now, it’s obvious that Harlequin, the publisher of Marriage of Mercy, has no interest in playing up the strengths of her writing, but is anxious to pigeonhole her books, perhaps to give them greater appeal. That’s the only explanation that makes sense of the fact that Harlequin gave Marriage of Mercy a title that has nothing to do with the story, then slapped a synopsis on the book that gets many of the major plot details wrong.

Since I couldn’t do it better myself, here’s a great synopsis, courtesy of Wendy Clyde’s review at All About Romance:

The daughter of a baronet, the heroine, Grace, has slipped. When her father died penniless, she was forced to become a baker and is now considered a member of the working class. Pragmatic Grace has never minded her new station in life, as she is doing work that she enjoys, and that allows her contact will people from all walks of life – from the candler’s young grandson to the Marquis of Quarle, Lord Thomson. She bonds with the elderly Marquis over her specialty biscuits, Quimby Cremes, taking them to him personally when he becomes too ill to purchase them at the shop himself, and then feeding them to him when he becomes too ill to even do that. When the Marquis passes away, Grace is told to come to the reading of his will. There she learns that she is to be given the dower house and thirty pounds per anum from the estate, and that an American POW, the Marquis’ bastard son, is to be paroled there under her care.

When Grace and the Marquis’ lawyer reach Dartmoor to release the prisoner they find him dying. Before he passes away, the Marquis’ son begs Grace to take another prisoner in his place, and while the lawyer is obtaining medical help the switch is made and Grace releases a different prisoner, Rob Inman. What follows is typical Carla Kelly. Rob quickly endears himself to Grace’s friends and neighbors, and becomes Grace’s friend and confidant. But a villain has plans for Rob, other than his release when the war is over, and it soon becomes difficult for Rob and Grace to decide friend from foe. Mysterious letters appear in the dower house, with instructions such as “Trust No One”, and Rob is followed everywhere he goes by a man that will kill him if he’s ever out of Grace’s sight. In this atmosphere of confusion and danger, Rob and Grace fall in love.

I would have read the book that Wendy Clyde describes in a heartbeat — not so the book Harlequin is touting.

There’s nothing in the Harlequin synopsis that even hints at Marriage of Mercy’s unusual hero, an American prisoner of war, or of the book’s unusual setting, the War of 1812. It’s as though Harlequin hoped you’d buy the book because you love Regency settings and the umpteenth hero who was Wellington’s secret right-hand man.

Whether Harlequin just doesn’t know how to market books like Marriage of Mercy, or is hoping to bait-and-switch readers into buying a book that’s unlike most other Regency-set books, I don’t know. I just hope they appreciate what a rare talent they have in Carla Kelly.

Not to make this review more about the author than the book, but I can’t say enough good things about Kelly. She’s the rare romance novelist who transcends the limitations of the genre. She routinely turns the Regency setting that has become synonymous with silly, wallpaper historicals on its head. Her heroes and heroines are rarely wealthy or titled, and are never exceptionally beautiful or of the alpha male variety. Even minor characters are imbued with detail that makes them real.

While many of her books have the wartime settings that are so popular in Regency romances, glittering balls are few and far between, as are drawing rooms, for that matter. Rather, her talent is for the collateral damage of war that is often glossed over in romance novels; few characters escape unscathed.  But there’s no purple prose in a Carla Kelly book; she employs a spare, elegant prose style, full of small, telling details, and truly creates a world within the covers of her books. Kelly’s the one writer I’ve encountered who can, in three or four sentences, sum up years of a character’s back story.

Marriage of Mercy, I’m happy to say, displays all of Kelly’s remarkable talents. As usual with her books, the characters are unforgettable. In a less-skilled writer’s hands, both Grace and Rob would have been bitter about their lot in life, but Kelly never takes the easy way out, and instead gives us a heroine who has accepted her lost social position with all that her name implies, and a hero who, rather than hold a grudge against the English who’ve attacked his country and imprisoned him in deplorable conditions, brings joy to all he meets.

I can’t say enough about the deft way Kelly handles the War of 1812 in this novel. Kelly truly captures the essence of life during wartime, from the belligerent treatment of prisoners of war to the uncertainty faced by citizens in both countries in an era when news from the war front was weeks or months out of date.

My only minor quibble with Marriage of Mercy revolves around the subplot that Wendy Clyde mentions, the mysterious letters and even more mysterious villain. Grace and Rob’s story simply didn’t need this, and wonder if that may not have been an editorial decision on the part of Harlequin.

I give Marriage of Mercy 4 out of 5 Quimby Cremes. Grace and Rob, however, get 5 each! 

No matter what its title, Marriage of Mercy is well worth reading. I just wish Harlequin would have a bit more faith in an author who has done much to prove her worth.

Marriage of Mercy

Carla Kelly

Mass Market Paperback: 288 pages

Publisher: Harlequin

Release Date: May 22, 2012

Did you like this book, dumpling? Here are a couple more books similar to Marriage of Mercy:

Charity Begins at Home by Alicia Rasley (look over that awful cover – it’s a good one, I promise)

One Perfect Rose by Mary Jo Putney

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Author: J.E.

Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

5 thoughts on “Book Review: Marriage of Mercy by Carla Kelly

  1. It sounds like Harlequin really shot themselves in the foot, packaging the book this way. I’m glad reviewers like you can tell us what it’s really about! Harlequin’s cover alone makes me want to run a mile, but your review really piques my interest.

    • I’m mystified by Harlequin’s handling of this. Most of Carla Kelly’s Regencies were published under Signet’s Regency imprint (very traditional Regency territory), but they never whitewashed her books in the blurbs. And considering that Harlequin Historical line has actually been a open to publishing books other than Regencies lately, it makes even less sense.

      And I don’t even want to talk about the cover. Harlequin’s covers seem to be degenerating all the time… I think I feel a post coming on 😉

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