With "Strictly Forbidden," Shelley Bradley has written an early Victorian romance novel that is truly captivating. From the very first page, I was hooked -- but not because "Strictly Forbidden" boasts of possessing a sizzling and romantic love story, but because this was one of the most angst-driven plots I've ever come across, and because "Strictly Forbidden" possesses one of the most courageous and engaging heroines I've ever come across.
The previous reviewer has done a really good job of encapsulating the basic plot premise, so I won't bore you with another recap. But basically the story revolves around the engagement of an unfortunately notorious young lady (Kira Melbourne) of mixed parentage to a young clergymen of a noble family (James Howland) , and his family's efforts (his mother and his cousin, Gavin Daggett, the Duke of Cropthorne) to separate the two. From the very first moment Kira appeared on the scene, she engaged both my interest and sympathies -- Shelley Bradley did a fantastic job of 'fleshing out' this character, showing us all facets of her character and personality. Ms Bradley also did a really good job in depicting the kinds of difficulties a person of mixed parentage would face -- the easy manner in which people are quick to assume the worse and to condemn just because someone is slightly different.
However, on the negative side, I have to admit that I really hated the duke for much of the novel. Much of his behaviour was deplorable and (at times) really appalling. But I will own that Ms Bradley did a really good job of depicting the conflict that he feels about his attraction for Kira and his determination to end Kira's engagement to James, no matter the pain he may cause; and the confusion he feels as he tries to make his mind if Kira is a heartless wanton or a severely wronged young lady.
Ultimately however, what I really liked about this novel was not the 'romance' that develops between the duke and Kira (the duke tends to rhapsodize too much about Kira's body and mouth and not enough on her character and personality for me to believe that he was truly in love with her and not in 'lust' with her), but the fact that this was the story of a young woman who had the courage and heart to face down her detractors, who armed with only prejudice, rumour and innuendo thought nothing to destroying her reputation and making her life quite hellish. Kira behaves throughout the novel with a kind of grace and dignity that is completely admirable -- rooting for Kira to attain all that she desired was not a problem at all! At the same time she is no doormat -- I really enjoyed the scenes where she tells the duke off! Another aspect of the novel that I rather liked was that Ms Bradley provided Kira with a younger brother (probably the hero of the next 'Strictly' installation, though I wouldn't at all mind reading a future 'Strictly' book that featured James as the romantic hero) who cared enough to fight for her honour and to clear her name. The last couple of chapters when the duke finally comes to his senses made for satisfying reading as well, though I would have preferred it if there had been a lot more groveling on his part. Kira was too softhearted! But than she was a woman in love, who had finally attained her heart's desire.
All in all, in spite of my frustration at the duke's shoddy behaviour, I have to admit that "Strictly Forbidden" was an enthralling and captivating read, not to be missed.