"I was always a mad comet..." Wilfred Owen
Publishers Weekly reviewer.
I picked this up after reading Mari Ness's review, and am quite glad I did. It's a slim book (~280 pages) which doesn't flag for a minute.
The plot: Deb, who works in a gambling house, is the object of the naive Lord Mablethorpe's affections. His cousin Ravenscar tries to bribe her not to marry him. Deb never intended to do so, but outraged by Ravenscar's assumptions, she decides to pretend she will as revenge. Deb and Ravenscar's battle escalates to blackmail and kidnapping as the two prideful and combative antagonists gradually come to respect one another.
I really liked both protagonists, though Deb is a little flighty for my taste, with her wild threats of boiling people in oil and her lack of an actual plan to restore the family finances, though she definitely knows what cannot be honorably done to restore them. But the way she both overawes and takes care of the younger characters, rescuing a young girl from a forced marriage, shows that she has some real substance.
Of course, being a romance heroine, she can't actually like her work in a casino, but this actually makes her look better compared to her overspending brother, who looks down on the casino while spending its money. She frequently quotes Beatrice ("Oh would that I were a man") as she wishes to fight Ravenscar, thus backing up my (unoriginal) theory that the romance genre is descended for Much Ado About Nothing.
The main pair make stupid decisions as they become increasingly caught up in their contest, in a very recognizable way. They ultimately prove a match for each other in both cunning and honor, with Deb actually gaining the final victory, though Ravenscar shows enough magnanimity to be a worthy opponent.
Ravenscar himself is a jerk, but a principled jerk who doesn't much care what others think of him, and he does his best to protect his cousin and sister without spying on them or curbing their freedom. His cool, sarcastic defiance when Deb kidnaps him hits my narrative sweet spot.
The side characters are all entertaining, from Ravenscar's playful and flirtatious sister to young Mablethorpe to Deb's older friend, the unsavory but loving Lucius Kennet. I was slightly disturbed by the ending of Kennet's thread- Deb is once again mad at him for overstepping the bounds of honor after she basically gave him a blank check to get revenge, and we don't see an interaction between them on the subject as the book ends a few pages after Deb learns what he's done. I hope they stay friends as while he's a slippery character, he clearly cares for Deb and his misdeeds are mainly in the service of her feud. As well, I was somewhat uneasy with the way Deb leads Mablethorpe on just to get revenge on his cousin, though she makes sure it turns out for the best for him and he's amused and relieved when he finds out what she did.
It's nice to see such vividly defined and unconventional women. Ravenscar's sister flirts recklessly with multiple men and is not ruined. Though she needs some guidance from her brother, she retains a sense of fun even as she becomes more mature and proper. Deb gets to rescue of the book's damsel-in-distress, and while said damsel falls in love with the man who helped rescue her, the readers know who was really responsible for her salvation. And the main romantic pair combine a fierce competitive urge with an appealing magnanimity.