I just finished Rose Lerner‘s A Lily Among Thorns, and ohhh, did I love it. I read it filled with delight and even exhilaration at certain points. Even a couple of scenes that felt slightly artificial to me, like the running gag of having a middle-aged Sir Percy Blakeney as a minor character (boring everyone with his endlessly-repeated reminiscences of his days as The Scarlet Pimpernel), still felt utterly forgivable as loving in-jokes for geeks like me who adore this period so, so much. Those brief bits swept me out of the book as I read them, reminding me that the other characters weren’t real either, so this really was just fiction after all – but I couldn’t help enjoying them anyway, possibly because I am pretty much the ideal target audience for this book.
Here is my second-favorite thing about A Lily Among Thorns (I’m leading up to my top favorite): it is not an ode to the British upper class. I love Regency novels, and I understand why so many of them are set among the haut ton, Britain’s wealthiest elite – it’s a setting full of glittering luxury, gorgeous clothes, fabulous parties, banquets and an awful lot of romantic dancing. Also, the characters don’t spend all their waking hours doing back-breaking work, so they have plenty of time and energy for flirtation and courtship. So all in all, it makes a lot of sense, even though I sometimes find the fantasy of wealth/luxury expressed a little too explicitly for my taste in the standard types of titles chosen for modern Regency romances, The Viscount Who Loved Me/The Taming of the Duke/etc. I actually love both of those novels I just mentioned, by the way – but over and over again, the man’s aristocratic title is used in historical romance titles as a shorthand description of why we should read the book, like a shorthand personals ad shouting: Rich! Powerful! Rich!
But guess what? The hero of A Lily Among Thorns, Solomon Hathaway, is…not a Marquis. Nor is he an Earl, a Viscount, or a Duke. He’s a tailor, and a hardworking chemist for his uncle’s tailoring business, with dye-stained hands, a practical focus and a living he has to earn. More than that, he comes from the kind of educated, intellectual middle-class family that reads Wollstonecraft and Bentham along with the Bible, espouses liberal, republican views, dislikes the institution of the royalty and disapproves of the class system. Which sets him up nicely for being open-minded enough to fall in love with the heroine, Lady Serena Blackthorn, who is – despite her title – an innkeeper and an infamously “fallen” woman, an ex-courtesan who’s fought her way out of prostitution but will never be seen as respectable.
The setup for the storyline is this: five years ago, Solomon was a Cambridge undergraduate hanging out with other students much wealthier and in a different class from his own. When they dragged him, drunk, to a brothel, he freaked out and ended up guiltily shoving all his money for the next term at the nameless (to him) girl he was meant to hire and running away instead of hiring her…leaving her with enough money to buy out her contract and be free. Using her own fierce determination and intelligence, she spent the next few years maneuvering for power (some of her background history is reminiscent of the real Regency courtesan Harriette Wilson) and finally became, first the part-owner, and then the full owner of her own inn, facing down every ex-client who leered at her and building a fearsome reputation within the London Underworld. But she never quite forgot the boy who started her on her path to freedom.
Solomon ends up meeting her again (without, at first, realizing who she is) when he’s sent to hire her help in tracking down stolen jewelry – her underworld connections can come in handy in cases like these. She immediately recognizes him, insists that he stay at her inn while they look for the jewelry – and then the plot zooms straight into a fast-moving rollercoaster of French spies, schemes, hidden compartments, mistaken identities, and much more.
It’s all zany and fun and it moves at an incredible pace…but here’s what is my very, very favorite thing of all about the book: Solomon and Serena really, really like each other. And I really do mean like. Romances are full of couples who spot each other across a crowded room and are smitten by the other’s beauty, who immediately want to get physical and start tearing at each other’s clothing…but that’s not the case here at all. (For one thing, because of her past, Serena has serious Issues about physical intimacy, and those are handled very believably.)
Instead, from the moment they meet again, what they immediately recognize in each other is a kindred spirit – someone they can genuinely talk to, despite the fact that (for very different reasons) they have both been living deeply emotionally-isolated lives. Their sense of instinctive intellectual and emotional connection – the way they lapse so quickly and easily into a mode of conversation that shows just how well they fit, as friends, and how desperate they have been to find someone who fits, as a true friend – felt infinitely more compelling to me than most of the insta-attraction storylines I’ve read lately. And oh, is it fun to read their conversations – and this is a book very much built on conversation. If you’re someone who devours good conversation in books, like me, it’s delicious.
I love the fact that Solomon is freckled, shy, and cares deeply about fine tailoring; I love the fact that Serena is prickly, has had to learn how to be scary, and finds such real sweetness in her relationship with Solomon. I love that they’re each as smart as each other, and they each call each other out on their evasions and half-truths. I love how much they admire each other for exactly what’s most important – and oh, how I love that they make each other laugh!
There’s also a lot of richness built into the world and the surrounding characters, of various ethnicities and classes. The secondary romance which makes up one subplot is between two men, and I thought the Regency issues involved in that – both legal and cultural – were handled really well. I also loved the fact that there was so much complexity even to most of the antagonists.
It wasn’t a perfect book, technically. A couple of the plot machinations felt a tiny bit clunky to me, especially near the beginning; the Scarlet Pimpernel gag did feel a little artificial and throw me out briefly from the world of the novel; and I wished there had been more resolution for the storyline of Serena’s father.
Those are all small niggles, though, when really what matters most is this: I read this book with a feeling of real delight, and the moment I finished, I thought: I want another one! Based on this (her second) book, Rose Lerner is my favorite new-to-me Regency author, and I’ll definitely be buying her first book very soon.
(Note: I read this book as a free e-ARC from Netgalley.)
You can read the Prologue and Chapter One on Rose Lerner’s website.
ETA: that review was written about the original edition of A Lily Among Thorns, on its original release through Dorchester Books. It’s now (1st September, 2014) been republished by Samhain Publishing, with a gorgeous new cover:
And after you read it (but only after! Because: major spoilers included!), you can read this sweet followup short story, “The Way of a Man with a Maid,” about Solomon’s younger sister and her first days of married life with her new husband, set shortly after the events of A Lily Among Thorns. (It’s explicitly about their sex life, but I wouldn’t call it an erotic story – it’s more of a very human story about a young couple awkwardly and sweetly coming to figure things out in the days before sex ed, and it includes some great funny moments as well as some painfully true ones. You shouldn’t read it to get a sense of what the book might be like – “The Way of a Man With a Maid” has a very different, much less zany tone than Lily – but having already read Lily and loved those side-characters, I really enjoyed their followup story.)