Side by Side: Julia Quinn and Cecilia Grant

A Night Like This by Julia Quinn A Gentleman Undone by Cecilia Grant
  • Title: A Night Like This
  • Author: Julia Quinn
  • Series: Smythe-Smith Quartet, Book 2
  • Genre(s): Historical
  • Publisher: Avon, May 2012
  • Source: Amazon, $6.99
  • Trope(s): Regency, Virgin, Beta Hero, Angst, Redemption
  • Quick blurb: Ruined-by-a-rake governess finds love with tormented-by-guilt earl.
  • Quick review: Everything I expected from Julia Quinn – in a good way.
  • Grade: B
  • Title: A Gentleman Undone
  • Author: Cecilia Grant
  • Series: Blackshear Family, Book 2
  • Genre(s): Historical
  • Publisher: Bantam, May 2012
  • Source: Amazon, $7.99
  • Trope(s): Regency, Virgin, Beta Hero, Angst, Redemption
  • Quick blurb: Ruined-by-a-rake courtesan finds love with tormented-by-guilt soldier.
  • Quick review: Everything I expected from Cecilia Grant – and more.
  • Grade: A

I’m terrible at reviewing the books I love, which is why I cheat with my One-Quote Reviews. But with these two books, there’s no way I could have chosen just one quote – or even 10 or 20.

After several futile attempts to tone down the squee, I decided to take a more analytical approach to figure out precisely why I love these two very different authors. So I made a spreadsheet. Yes, I’m a nerd. I thought everyone knew that by now.

Why compare these two books? Both titles were released on the same day (May 29, 2012). Both are Regency-era historicals of similar length (approx. 370 pages) and both were published by imprints of Random House (Avon, Bantam). And, oddly enough, the basic plots are very similar, with ruined-by-a-rake heroines and tormented-by-guilt heroes finding love and redemption amidst secrecy and revenge.

Also, comparing them means I have one less positive review to write. I’m sneaky that way.

What sets each book apart – from each other and from other formulaic romances – is the author’s voice. While Quinn offers buoyant optimism with her trademark witty, lighthearted tone, Grant creates a much darker atmosphere of intensity and poetic despair.

Now I’m going to cheat again. Instead of trying to define or describe what “authorial voice” means, I’ll just let these two writers do the talking for me.

NOTE: The tables (color-coded! to match the book covers!!!) below will probably look like crap in an email or RSS reader, but hopefully I’ve enticed you enough to click through to the real thing.

The opening lines…

A Night Like This A Gentleman Undone
“Winstead, you bloody cheat!” “What the devil were you thinking, to move him?”

The plots…

A Night Like This A Gentleman Undone
Well, the thing is, I’m not a virgin.

And my name is not really Anne Wynter.

Oh, and I stabbed a man and now he’s madly hunting me until I’m dead.

And night by night, through means fair or otherwise, with the help of Lieutenant Coxcomb and other men who made the mistake of estimating her lightly, she would tuck bills into her corset, and hide them away at home, and draw ever closer to the day she could buy her independence.
“I spent the last three years running from his men in Europe,” he finally said. “Did you know that? No? Well, I did. And I’m sick of it. If he wanted revenge on me, he has surely wrought it. Three years of my life, stolen. Do you have any idea what that’s like? To have three years of your life ripped from you?” A man found himself in the right campaign and his life thereafter was one long parade all embellished with fireworks and illuminations, regardless how he actually performed on the day. A man found himself in the wrong one and he perished of the ague, with no one but a desolate sister to remember that he ever lived at all.

The heroines:

A Night Like This A Gentleman Undone
But she didn’t have a Yes sort of life. He’d come to ask her about cards. No one ever asked her about cards.
She should not wish for things that were out of her reach. She could not. She’d tried that once, and she’d been paying for it ever since. She could probably fix the beginning of her fall to that exact occasion, if she cared to squander one minute contemplating the trajectory of her fall, and if she cared to spare a single thought for Arthur.
Because when he called her Anne, it was the first time she felt as if the name was truly hers. This was who she was, quick and gleaming and intricate. She’d known that already. Now someone else knew.
Now that she had done it, had actually asked him to kiss her, she wanted it all. She wanted to take control of her life, or at least of this moment. How unearthly she’d looked, kneeling before him. Her posture submissive, but her eyes the eyes of a creature who would eat you alive and spit out your bones.
…then Anne said one word. Just one. “Please.” She didn’t know why she said it; it certainly wasn’t the result of rational thought. It was just that she had spent the last five years of her life reminding people that it never hurt to use good manners and say please for the things one wanted. And she wanted this very badly. Even last night she’d managed him like any other man, taking what she wanted while holding him an arm’s length away. But she’d woken in his embrace, tired and warm and wide open to him. She’d misplaced her armor in the night and it might be too late to retrieve it now.
She’d been cornered before, by overconfident young men who viewed the governess as fair game, by a master of a house who figured he was paying her salary, anyway. Even by George Chervil, who had set her life down this road in the first place. But she had always been able to defend herself. She’d had her strength, and her wits, and with George even a weapon. She’d set out to destroy herself layer by layer, but at her core she’d found an unexpected will to survive, and with it, the ruthlessness that had powered her through life ever since. Out of the ashes of catastrophic misfortune she’d reinvented herself as something formidable, honed and tempered by each disaster she weathered.

The heroes….

A Night Like This A Gentleman Undone
If he had sounded overconfident, she would have found the strength to pull away. If his posture had held swagger, or if there had been anything in his voice that spoke of seduction, it would have been different. But he wasn’t making threats. He wasn’t even making promises. He was simply telling her the truth. And giving her a choice. “But I won’t.” He raised his eyes again. The wind was blowing full into his face but he didn’t turn aside. “I want to be something different to you. I want to be someone …” His eyes cut past her to some horizon where the rest of his thought must lie. “Someone you can trust. Not only at cards.”
As far as he knew, every tale that had been spread about him had been true. He had dueled with Hugh Prentice, and he had shot him in the leg. As for his fleeing the country, Daniel didn’t know what sort of embellishment that story might have acquired; he rather thought that Lord Ramsgate’s ranting vows of revenge would have been titillating enough…. The Sad, Strange Tale of Lord Winstead. That’s what it would be. He knew everything about how another person’s weight took your balance off center. A person carried on your back required you to cant your posture forward. A person carried in your arms meant you must sink your center of gravity down into the pelvis. A person at your side would no doubt leave you with an aching spine and shoulders.
Was this what it meant to have inherited an ancient title, to have been entrusted with the lives and livelihoods of all who resided on his land? … This was what it meant, he finally realized. This was what it all about. And what could he do—what could he, or any man on this earth, ever do when trust came, but strive to be worthy?
He could make her writhe and squirm with pleasure until she couldn’t remember her own name. He knew how to do it. And yet he didn’t move. He wanted nothing in the world but this: to be someone’s balm, to have the power of comforting, to know he kept her safe from whatever terrors haunted her sleep.
He could not sit still, he could not even seem to sit straight. He even had to change chairs in the south salon because he was facing a mirror, and when he spied his reflection, he looked so hangdog and pathetic he could not tolerate it. And once again she’d found his weak spot; she’d gone to the word—need—that could make him crawl a mile on his belly over jagged rocks.
Something had rushed through his body, some kind of terror in the blood, and it had taken him hours to feel normal again. But this was worse. His stomach churned, and his lungs felt tight, and more than anything, he wanted to throw up. He knew fear. This went beyond fear. …and of a sudden he was tired of fighting. Let them come, the sorrow and anger and bleakness and oh, the tireless self-recrimination that swirled up from the pit of his stomach like plumes of coal dust. He was nothing if not accustomed to their company.
…he was good man, an honorable man who knew right from wrong, and no matter how naughty his grins . . . She knew he would not hurt her. …he’d gone with her into those depths, absorbing every bit of her fury because he was a man of limitless strength, limitless patience, limitless understanding for the frailties of others.

The meet-cute….

A Night Like This A Gentleman Undone
He’d seen beautiful women before. He’d slept with plenty of them, even. But this . . . Her . . . She . . . Even his thoughts were tongue-tied. He stood, frozen, as she regained her composure and her face hardened into the unmistakable lines of defiance: Judge me if you dare. Then that expression too subsided and only her falcon-like blankness remained. She looked through him, and past him, and altogether away.

The lust…

A Night Like This A Gentleman Undone
“Can you kiss me once, and then never do so again?” His eyes clouded, and for a moment she thought he might not speak. He was holding himself so tightly that his jaw trembled, and the only noise was the labored sound of his breath….“I don’t think once will be enough,” he said. “If my purpose were to distract you, I should have commenced my erotic spectacle.”Oh, he did like that. His eyes narrowed again, or rather, the lids dropped halfway and his lopsided smile took a turn for the wicked. “It’s a solo act, then. I’m intrigued.”
“Oh, my God,” she whispered. She did not think she’d ever said those words so many times as she had in the last few minutes, but if there had ever been a time to praise the Lord’s creation, this had to be it. He replied with the edges of his teeth, unleashing a riptide of pleasure that nearly buckled her knees. Good. She knew how to have this conversation. She slipped one hand back round to the front of him, down and down between their bodies, and, oh, good Lord. He’d told the truth.
“You’re going to do that again,” he growled. “Every night. And I’m going to watch you . . .” He shuddered with pleasure as he moved within her. “I’m going to watch you every night.” “Sixty seconds.” She flicked one wrist and her reticule hit the floor. “Make them count.”
He wanted to wrap himself around, bury himself within her, and stay there for all of his days. He hadn’t had a drop to drink in three years, but he was intoxicated now, bubbling with a lightness he’d never thought to feel again. Confound her. A thousand times. Confound her boldness and her incandescence and the crafty skills that made him feel giddy and lighthearted as a boy watching a juggler at the fair, when he had abundant reasons to never feel lighthearted again.
His words were coarse, but he liked them that way. This wasn’t romance, this was pure need. …her finger no longer teased but tortured, boldly stroking where it had no business to be.
“That’s not what I wanted to say,” he said, each word requiring its own ragged breath. “Lydia, open your eyes,” he whispered on what breath he could spare. “Look at me.”

The romance….

A Night Like This A Gentleman Undone
“This has been a perfect day,” Anne said quietly. “Almost,” Daniel whispered, and then she was in his arms again. He kissed her, but it was different this time. Less urgent. Less fiery… And then he broke the kiss, pulling back just far enough to rest his forehead against hers. “There,” he said, cradling her face in his hands. “Now it’s a perfect day.” …and drove himself into her, into her truth and her terrible strength and the pitiless love that was his only redemption in this world. And came, claiming her, giving himself up to her, a woman so beautifully broken she could love a soulless man.
He did not need to be her first, he realized. He simply needed to be her last. Her only. I love you for your quickness and your brokenness and your sharp edges too.
Right then, in the midst of the most carnal, erotic coupling she could imagine, he kissed her knuckles, as gently and honorably as an ancient knight. You’re three years too late to do business with my heart, she’d said, or some such flippant remark, and he’d plucked it out of air and put it in a pocket and kept it ever since.
“I just need to remind myself . . .” She was silent, and then, as if she could not help herself, she asked, “Of what?” He smiled. He liked her voice. It was comforting and round, like a good brandy. Or a summer’s day. “Of goodness,” he said… …as the powder flashed and the pistol kicked he was conscious of nothing but her smile, spilling out across her face with such warm incandescence as put the sunrise to shame.
“When you walk into a room,” he said softly, “the air changes.” He angled his face for a sight of Lydia again, for one more draught of that fierce, irregular beauty.
“I can take care of the George Chervils of the world,” he assured her, “as long as you can take care of me.” Seven or eight thoughts and feelings were running riot all through him. Chief among them: this is what she looks like, sounds like, when she loves someone.
“I won’t be satisfied with anything less than everything,” he whispered. “I love you,” she breathed, just loud enough for him to hear. He gasped, one great rush of sustaining air.
Time stopped. It simply stopped. It was the most maudlin and clichéd way of describing it, but those few seconds when her face was lifted toward his . . . they stretched and pulled, melting into eternity. A man could savor that sampling, a sweet small dose like a cordial in a dainty glass. A man could very well get drunk on a larger amount, and bathe in an abundance.

The angst…

A Night Like This A Gentleman Undone
Every morning before she opened her eyes, there was nothing but the black of the night. A perfectly empty space, filled with absolute emptiness. No hopes. No dreams. But also no nightmares. It was the prettiest, grandest, best-argued marriage proposal a lady could ever hope to hear. Her heart bobbed in its wake like an empty cask tossed into choppy seas.
“I don’t want your protection,” she cried. “Don’t you understand? I have learned how to care for myself, to keep myself—” She stopped, then finished with: “I can’t be responsible for you, too.” Her heart—her stupid poisoned heart that had lurked for years beneath the rubbish-heap of anger, just waiting for the worst possible moment to reemerge—her heart would surely break if she had to see the look in his eyes for a single second more.
All the things she had learned, she had learned too late. Ruin tasted like this. Like a mouthful of ashes, or the sweepings from a carpenter’s floor.
All he knew was that something furious was building within him, and every time he thought it was done, that his rage could not possibly expand further, something inside seemed to pop and crackle. His skin grew too tight, and the anger, the fury—it fought to break free. Hotter. Blacker. A candle-flame of sympathy flickered, but she would give it no air. She wasn’t that sort. Corruption crawled in her veins, heedless lust fired her every nerve, and countless wadded-up scraps of anger filled the cavity where a woman’s warm heart ought to be.
…in a voice so quiet and halting it nearly broke his heart, she said, “There is someone . . . I don’t wish to see.” Nothing more. No explanation, no elaboration, nothing but an eight-word sentence that brought forth a thousand new questions. The panic in her voice was like a bayonet plunged straight into his conscience.
The fury that had been building within began to crackle. He had never, not once in his life, felt such anger on behalf of another person. Was this what love meant? That another person’s pain cut more deeply than one’s own? And maybe this was what he’d needed all along. Not a pure-hearted woman who could lift him out of darkness, but one who dwelt there herself. Already corrupted to such a degree that nothing remained to ruin.

The humor…

A Night Like This A Gentleman Undone
She was never going to get out of here. They’d find her dried-up and lifeless body years later, flung over a tuba, two flutes making the sign of the cross. What can I possibly have to say to a man who would split a pair of fives? Be quiet. Go to sleep. Go away. Come back when you have another erection.

The happy endings…

A Night Like This A Gentleman Undone
She had Daniel, and she was holding his hand. That was really all that mattered. Happiness still felt, at odd moments, like something with which she oughtn’t to be trusted. A delicate and costly music box put into the hands of a maladroit child. Yet happiness felt, too, like a prize she and Will had fought for and seized. An edifice they’d built with their own bare hands out of the scrap heap of mistake and misadventure.

And more goodness to wallow in….

A Night Like This A Gentleman Undone
It was a symphony of apologies, uncomfortable and utterly discordant. The word barged into her sweet symphony of thought like a screech from one of the reed instruments.
…his thoughts were a jumble, tossing and turning and writing over each other like an endlessly edited story. She sent the opinion straight out before her, words marching in single file toward the opposite wall.
It was a sigh. A plea. A benediction. Yes. It was prayer and exultation. Yes yes yes yes yes.
“Oh, tell me you kneed him in the balls,” he begged. “Please please please tell me that.” Prince Square-jaw was but a minor pestilence in a life of relentless calamity.
Her hand flew up to cover her mouth, and she had no idea if it was from shock or because her fingertips had more sense than the rest of her and were trying to prevent her from making a huge, huge mistake. A woman might destroy her soul by whoring, but for all her most ferocious efforts her body still lingered, with its appetites and its aches and its power to drive her into jaw-dropping folly.

Now let me tell you what I REALLY think….

I love Julia Quinn. I know her latest releases haven’t been as good as the early Bridgertons, but I don’t care. Her books make me happy because I know exactly what to expect: a fluffy, comforting story filled with beta heroes and intelligent heroines and amusing anecdotes and sappy love scenes. Is A Night Like This my favorite Quinn? No. But it was good – and that’s enough to make me happy-sigh and someday read it again.

I love Cecilia Grant. After just two novels, she’s already an auto-buy for me because I don’t know what to expect. Snarky humor and bad sex like in A Lady Awakened, or angsty passion like in A Gentleman Undone? I don’t care. Just keep them coming. Erotic spectacle indeed.

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5 thoughts on “Side by Side: Julia Quinn and Cecilia Grant

  1. Pingback: A Book Unreviewed: On Cecilia Grant’s A Gentleman Undone | Something More

  2. This is really cool! I love the concept, and how it revealed all sorts of things about the two books.

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