To celebrate the release of Daring and the Duke, I wanted to reread the entire Bareknuckle Bastards Series. Luckily I found the amazing #SeasonallyBookedUp reading group on Instagram. Together we are celebrating the #SummerofSarahMacLean!
Wicked and the Wallflower by Sarah MacLean balances a satisfying romance while establishing the larger universe of the Bareknuckle Bastards trilogy. It’s deliciously soapy with larger than life, genre savvy characters. MacLean creates a historical romance universe that is bold, bright, and fabulously feminist.
From the publisher:
When Wicked Comes Calling…
When a mysterious stranger finds his way into her bedchamber and offers his help in landing a duke, Lady Felicity Faircloth agrees—on one condition. She’s seen enough of the world to believe in passion, and won’t accept a marriage without it.
The Wallflower Makes a Dangerous Bargain…
Bastard son of a duke and king of London’s dark streets, Devil has spent a lifetime wielding power and seizing opportunity, and the spinster wallflower is everything he needs to exact a revenge years in the making. All he must do is turn the plain little mouse into an irresistible temptress, set his trap, and destroy his enemy.
For the Promise of Passion…
But there’s nothing plain about Felicity Faircloth, who quickly decides she’d rather have Devil than another. Soon, Devil’s carefully laid plans are in chaos, and he must choose between everything he’s ever wanted…and the only thing he’s ever desired.
It’s not easy to balance a first book. I feel Devil and Felicity’s story serves as a stepping stone to the vastly superior Brazen and the Beast. But the first book of MacLean’s feminist historical romance world is a delight.
This whole world feels like it’s adjacent to the Robert Downy Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes movie universe. It’s historical but it’s got a modern edge that’s tongue-in-cheek and stylized. It’s all the familiar things you love, but fresh and brighter.
There is a unique love triangle used in this novel that I will dub the Revenge Triangle. Devon and Felicity are a no question “One True Paring”. Nary a hint of chemistry is spared for The Duke. But both Felicity and Devil need the Duke to achieve their goals. Devil needs his vengeance and Felicity needs a fortune. And the Duke is clever enough to play them both. It’s delicious.
Let’s Talk About the Romance
For me, the revenge plot may have been more interesting than the romance plot. I deeply enjoyed the world building behind the Bareknuckle Bastards, the family drama, and the start of the slow build towards an epic showdown.
Felicity just sort of drifts into the story as an easily manipulated bit of pink taffeta. But she’s got her cool lock picking trick that alludes to a deeper character within. It’s very cute and quite funny in contract with Devon’s Batman / Henry Higgins / fairy godmother mash up. But Felicity manages to prove that she’s more than fluff and a trick as the novel progresses.
They were a fine, fun paring. Everyone loves when the grouch becomes soft for the sunshine one.
Quite steamy, especially for a historical romance. There was a particularly intense under the skirts moment on a bench in a garden that was very memorable.
I really appreciate the use of consent and communication displayed in MacLean’s intimate scenes. Felicity is, of course, a virginal wallflower. At one point Devil provides Felicity the vocabulary she needs to be able to fully express her desires. She is empowered and encouraged to give direct instruction and express her preferences. I appreciated the scene. It made me smile knowing that the young girls who steal this romance from their moms and aunties are going to acquire their own vocabulary that comes from a place of empowerment.
What Left Me Cold
There’s a sequence in the dead center of the book where Devil gives Felicity a tour and a “How to be an Ice Smuggler” primer. For the historical romance readers who love the well-researched world building, this would probably be great content.
I was quite bored.
I felt it dragged and fell prey to a case of the muddy middle. I appreciated that Felicity was enchanted by the danger and adventure of the new world she discovered. But the sequence Lacked a sense of wonder that would evoke the same sense of enchantment within me.
Romance novels love a theme by way of a metaphor. This book juggled several of them and MacLean leaned heavily into the melodrama of repetition. You could make an intense drinking game using Felicity’s full name, “moth to flame” and “you are the light, I am the darkness”.
At best, this gives the book an otherworldly fairy tale quality that can be fun, but it can get old quickly for some. I found it more amusing than annoying.
Wicked and the Wallflower captures the bright comedy and sass of a Tessa Dare with the world building of a Lisa Kleypas novel. There is modern appeal, and comfort for the old school romance readers alike. There’s an alpha spark with a strong feminist foundation. MacLean is a perfect entry level recommendation for new romance readers, and can give some fresh zing to those of us who have been reading for a couple of decades.
The darkened balcony meet cute was really lovely. Devon (doing a Batman impression) lurks in the darkness and banters So charming and sweet. I also was enchanted by the description of the gold dress Felicity wears to meet the duke for the first time.
A fun kick off to a great series. Follow The Novel Cauldron to get updates about The Bareknuckle Bastards series and other fantastic romance reads.