I will say that the author did a good job role-reversing the usual trope of the Draco in Leather Pants duke of slut who sleeps around because of past traumas (usually daddy issues). Seraphenia is definitely a rakess of slut, and yes, she does it due to past trauma, although she also seems to have confused herself of her own white feminist doctrines: in leashing the male gaze, she has become the mistress of her own femininity, et al. I may have rolled my eyes the tiniest bit. And no, it's not because I was annoyed that the heroine wasn't a virgin (I actually hate the trope where the heroine is supposed to be a famed mistress, but she's actually a virgin widow and her "reputation" is a total lie), I'm not a fan of emo manbaby dukes and having a woman wear the slutty pants from the Duchy of Sublimated Issues didn't really make me embrace it any more.
That said, what really ended up being the saving grace was the fact that she was obviously inspired by Mary Wallstonecraft, and she had some genuinely prescient things to say about why being a woman in Regency England really, really sucked, even if you were a woman of means, but especially if you weren't. That's something a lot of the Julia Quinn and Lisa Kleypas novels of this era sometimes forget. It's all fun and games to tup in the carriage until your lover gets tired of you and tries to ruin your reputation, pay off your male guardian to shut your pretty, kiss-bruised mouth, or lock you in an insane asylum (or some variant of all three). The past belongs in the past, and as fun as it can be to read idealized versions of it, it's important to keep that unpleasant grain of truth top of mind. There were some events in this book that felt a little like wish fulfillment, but it was fun to envision a version of the past where a woman could publish a book publicly denouncing those who wronged her and steal her friend out of an insane asylum, especially since Peckham did acknowledge that things were shit.
I also liked Adam, who's the no-nonsense hero of this book (with a kinky side), although he's set up to be so likable that he almost feels like a Gary Stu. A widower with two precious children who works as an architect and falls for the first damaged woman he sees, despite knowing that she's no good? It sounds like a John Green book or a Judd Apatow movie. Naturally, the two of them find solace in one another, and find out that they share many of the same sorrows. And naturally, she teaches him to be a better man, and they find sexual healing in one another because theirs is a matching of souls, et al. I was not a fan of the sex scenes, though. Too much stickiness and gushing fluids. Ew, no.
Perhaps I'm being too hard on THE RAKESS. I'm just disappointed, because I wanted it to be so much more than it was. I think if you're looking for costume historical fiction with themes of female empowerment, and don't mind sex scenes of the gloppy, dripping variety (still ew), you'll probably really love this book. I'm still curious about her other series, because I've heard it's much darker than this one, and I might even continue with this series as long as Seraphina and Adam aren't the main characters, but this just felt a little too stock, and even though I loved the feminist themes, I just couldn't quite get on board with the story-- or the heroine.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review!
2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars