Mary Kingsley





Zebra, June 2003
Reviewed by Joy Calderwood

Charles Kirk returns from the Peninsular War with permanent scars to body and soul. Once an indulged junior member of the aristocracy, Charles became a well-trained army officer, and then rear guard to a long, casualty-filled retreat. Haunted by memories, he longs for the peace of not feeling.

Charles accepts the suggestion of his brother Geoffrey, Viscount Sherbourne, to manage Geoffrey’s country estate of Oakhurst. Instead, he rescues society’s reigning debutante, Lady Serena Fairchild, who has been missing for several days. Serena has been abducted and held captive – at Oakhurst, of all places. Her captors are pursuing her, and one of them turns out to be Quigley Garnett, an old enemy of Charles. With Serena and Charles both now in deadly danger, they dash from place to place looking for a way around the obstacles Garnett has placed between them and Serena’s father in London.

Whenever they have time to breathe, Charles offers Serena the protection of his hand in marriage. To his surprise, this is not just because she has been compromised beyond repair. Without her courage and spirit, they could not be making this escape; without the sense of comradeship they have built, the adventure wouldn’t be so stimulating. While not physically hurt, Serena’s experiences with brutality and terror give her a rare understanding of Charles’s state of mind. Because of this closeness, it is even more surprising that she keeps refusing him.

In THE RELUCTANT HERO, traditional Regency meets the contemporary chase movie. Garnett and his mysterious employer seem to be extraordinarily lucky at predicting what Charles and Serena will do next, and our heroes must continually elude, in the nick of time, the traps that are cleverly set for them. For me it happened a few too many times – it felt repetitive, as if the author were using these adventures to fill out a required word count. What did work for me, and work well, is the nicely paced exploration of each other’s characters, as Charles and Serena learn why their experiences are affecting each of them so deeply.

As in so many Regency stories, history is not the primary objective. Author Mary Kingsley only wants to borrow the Regency atmosphere. She soon departs from the traditional setting, and here is where her research comes into play. She tells in her Note about the many hours she spent on maps of the period. We can be sure that when her characters go from one small town to the next, they are moving in the right direction, and not tripping over another small town that should have been a hundred miles away.

I read Regency for the comedy of manners: THE RELUCTANT HERO has no comedy and precious little room for manners. Charles and Serena are cast into a situation where social behavior would endanger them further. Indeed, the rules of society will now make them outcasts for life no matter how innocently and honorably they have behaved. Mary Kingsley is to be praised for her attempt to adapt the Regency form to psychological drama, though I am doubtful how well it works in combination with the chase adventure. I think it would be worth the effort to try again, this time discarding the light Regency style.

July 2003 Review Originally Published by WOR


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