on 15 March 2013
For the Love of a Soldier is that rare thing; a début novel that reads as though the author has a stable of books to her name already.
The plot is a fairly simple one. Lady Alexandra Langton, a young woman, on the verge of destitution decides to risk everything she has left (the sum of one hundred pounds) at the gaming tables in a desperate attempt to increase her funds. But of course, ladies were not allowed to indulge in "deep" play, and so she has to disguise herself as a man in order to gain entry to the sorts of events at which she will be able to gamble large sums of money. I have to say that I dislike stories in which the heroine dresses as a man and manages to pass as one without suspicion, but to the author's credit, she made it work here, by indicating that Alex has done more than simply cut her hair or wear a suit.
Predictably however, her risk doesn't pay off, and she loses at cards, to Captain Garrett Sinclair, Earl of Kendall, a man with a less than savoury reputation. But Garrett, sensing her desperation and believing her to be little more than a boy returns her money to her, telling her that while he will comfortably take money from a man, he will not ruin a boy.
Simultaneously annoyed and relieved, Alex later inadvertently overhears two men plotting to murder the Earl of Kendall, and seeing a way to repay him for his earlier gesture, Alex warns him of the danger.
Believing her to be his only lead - and still thinking she is a boy - Garrett insists that Alex accompany him home, but they are set upon along the way. During the fray, Alex is knocked unconscious, her disguise is dislodged and Garrett discovers that she's not what she seems.
The assassination plot drives the story forward, but this is no adventure romp, because the real heart of the novel is the growing friendship and romance between Garrett and Alex.
Victoria Morgan has chosen to set her story in the 1850s, in the aftermath of the Crimean War, which is not often referenced in historical romance, so it's a refreshing change. Through the eyes of Captain Garrett Sinclair, we get a glimpse of the true horror of war. He's a war hero, a survivor of the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade, that act of glorious, against-all-odds bravery that was immortalised by Tennyson in his famous poem. But glory and honour is not what we are shown. Garrett has been traumatised by his war-time experiences and is suffering from what we would today recognise as PTSD, and he also carries around a huge chunk of survivor's guilt.
Like many veterans - then and now - he does not talk about the war; he wants to bury everything deep inside so that he never has to go through it and re-live it. All he wants to do is to forget, and we learn that in a vain attempt to do so, he spent much of his time after leaving the army gaming, wenching and drinking, rattling around Europe in aimless depravity. Fortunately for him, however, he realised that wasn't helping, he needed to be in control; and so he sobered up and eschewed the wenching, concentrating instead on the gambling.
He's wealthy, has many estates and a good eye for business; he's also utterly gorgeous with a quick wit, a gift for innuendo and a strong sense of honour. Alex is the perfect foil for him. She gives as good as she gets in their verbal sparring, she's loyal and strong (without being stubborn for the sake of it!) and, sensing the darkness buried deep down, wants to help Garrett any way she can.
She's had some experience of working with soldiers and veterans, having spent time working at the Chelsea Hospital, and although she knows she can do little more than listen, she also knows that `just' listening seemed to have helped many of the men she knew. I'm pleased to say that the author hasn't chosen to present Alex as Garrett's "cure", because as anyone who knows anything about PTSD will know, that just doesn't happen. Rather, she presents Alex as someone who works out when to push and when to leave him alone; she knows he needs to talk, but that he needs to do it in his own time, and the scene where he finally unburdens himself packs a real emotional punch.
Amid all this talk of war and horror however, the reader will also find some of the funniest dialogue it's ever been my privilege to read in a romantic novel. The exchanges between Garrett, his sister and brother-in-law are frequently hilarious as they tease each other constantly - and it's clear that there's an incredibly deep affection between them. Garrett enjoys getting a rise out of Alexandra, too, and comes to realise that for the first time in years, he's starting to feel something like happiness and attraction.
If I have one quibble with the story, it's that Alex's backstory is rather flimsy, as are her reasons for rejecting Garrett towards the end of the book. On the positive side, I suppose it means that the solution is simple, and Garrett does indeed get things sorted out quite quickly.
I really can't recommend this book highly enough. The writing is intelligent, the characterisation is excellent and the dialogue just sparkles. Garrett is one of the best flawed heroes I've come across in the genre, and the romance between him and Alex is warm and tender as well as being enough to get any reader a bit hot under the collar - the scene where they finally make love is one of the sexiest and most sensual I've ever read.
Coming from an established writer, For the Love of a Soldier would have been quite something. As a début, it's an incredible achievement, and I'm eagerly waiting Victoria Morgan's next project, which I believe is scheduled for this Autumn.