I gave up reading historical romances for a little while because they started feeling dated and repetitive. I understand that it’s hard to write about independent women and diverse characters in times that don’t lend themselves to that. I’m grateful to Evie Dunmore – and now Mimi Matthews – for bringing me back to historical romances. I love Evie Dunmore’s books because she explores feminism in the context of the suffrage movement, and despite the restrictions of the era, her books don’t lack in character or romance.
The Belles of London series is about four friends in Victorian-era London who defy the rules of propriety to find love and independence. There’s nothing original about this setup, except the friends are also avid horsewomen (as is the author). The horse-riding adds a nice note to the character development in both books, as these women are knowledgeable, athletic, and thoughtful about their “sport”. I was happy to receive an Advance Review Copy of the second book in Matthews’ series, as I’d heard good things about the first one, The Siren of Sussex. When I received the ARC for Book Two, I picked up the first book and loved it.
Sussex is the story of Evelyn Maltravers, who comes to London to find a wealthy husband who can help her support her sisters. She commissions a tailor, Mr. Ahmad Malik, to design a riding habit for her that will let her shine in London’s very competitive marriage market. Mr. Malik desperately needs a society woman who can show off his talents, because otherwise no one will come to a tailor who is half-Indian.
These books won’t surprise in terms of structure or plot, but I was very happy to find compelling dialogue and deep character development. Evelyn and Ahmad’s story was fantastic, full of rich historical detail about British colonialism and how London treated immigrants from India, particularly those who were fathered by English soldiers. There was quite a lot of detail about clothing design, which sometimes was a bit much for me, but I’d always rather a book be too detailed than not detailed enough.
Book 2, The Belle of Belgrave Square, tells the story of Julia Wychwood, who is first afraid of, and then intrigued by Captain Blunt, a Crimean war hero with an intimidating scar and rough demeanor. Julia, unlike most romance heroines, is timid and nervous, and prefers to be home in bed with a novel over any ball. Their romance is built on the fact that both are uncomfortable in society, yet they find they are comfortable with each other. While the first book deals with pretty serious topics like racism and colonialism, the second book is more playful, echoing the tropes of gothic romances of the time with a crumbling mansion, a locked tower, mischievous orphans, and a brooding hero who’s something of a “beast”. There are literary references to Jane Austen, Wilkie Collins, and L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle, which is a book I’ve been wanting to read. I loved that the author explains her source material and historical information at the end of each novel.
While the characters in Book 1 are very open and honest with each other, Book 2 is built around secrets. The story of Captain Blunt’s past kept me guessing – some of it was obvious, but it turned out to be more complicated, which I appreciated. Though I struggled a bit with the idea that he could be so emotionally honest with her but so secretive about other parts of his life (of course as readers we know it will all come out anyway, but he doesn’t know that).
If this book has a fault, it’s that it throws so many barriers at our hero and heroine, so they felt a bit too easily dealt with by the end. I also would have liked more insights about Julia’s personality – is she just shy or are there deeper issues related to trauma or anxiety, or neurological issues like being on the spectrum. Matthews leaves much of this open to interpretation. Ultimately, I rooted for these two characters throughout. I liked the way Julia comes to see the darker side to her very privileged upbringing, and I found myself moved by Blunt’s blend of toughness and gentleness.
Matthews’ books are much less “open door” (in other words, not explicit) than Dunmore’s, which will please some readers. I don’t mind romances being explicit so that’s not a selling point for me – but it wasn’t a big detraction either. Both Belle and Siren are fantastic slow-burn relationships with strong character development. What I enjoyed most about both books was that the characters really build a friendship before they’re even thinking about romance. I look forward to reading the other two books in the series, or some of Matthews’ other works.
Note: I received an advanced review copy from NetGalley and publisher Berkley Publishing. This book was published October 11, 2022.