Why I read it: I had just listened to Devil’s Daughter and I wanted to understand what all the fuss was about.
What it’s about: (from Goodreads) “I’m Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent. I can’t be celibate. Everyone knows that.”
Desperate to escape her scheming relatives, Evangeline Jenner has sought the help of the most infamous scoundrel in London.
A marriage of convenience is the only solution.
No one would have ever paired the shy, stammering wallflower with the sinfully handsome viscount. It quickly becomes clear, however, that Evie is a woman of hidden strength—and Sebastian desires her more than any woman he’s ever known.
Determined to win her husband’s elusive heart, Evie dares to strike a bargain with the devil: If Sebastian can stay celibate for three months, she will allow him into her bed.
When Evie is threatened by a vengeful enemy from the past, Sebastian vows to do whatever it takes to protect his wife… even at the expense of his own life.
Together they will defy their perilous fate, for the sake of all-consuming love.
What worked for me (and what didn’t): When I listened to Devil in Spring last year I had no idea who Sebastian Challon was. I gathered he was one of the author’s most popular heroes however and that he was a reformed rake. I like reformed rakes well enough but usually their behaviour (at least in romance) extends to heavy drinking, womanising and gambling. So I kind of expected Sebastian would be like that. I decided to see for myself. I started off with It Happened One Autumn because Sebastian’s behaviour in the latter part of the book is the big issue and I needed to understand it before I could go ahead and read Devil in Winter. (As it happened I read It Happened One Autumn last year but got distracted by the shiny and have only just gotten around to reading Devil in Winter.)
Spoiler alert (the books are pretty old now but still): At the end of It Happened One Autumn, Sebastian drugs Lillian with ether, kidnaps her and threatens her with rape. He intends to forcibly marry her at Gretna Green because he needs the money and she’s there. She’s in love with his best friend the Earl of Westcliff but all’s fair in love and sexual assault apparently so Sebastian takes his chance. While he says things that indicate he will be able to make Lillian willing so “it won’t be rape” the fact is, she doesn’t want to be there and she doesn’t want to marry him and she doesn’t want to have sex with him. Also, he has a bit of a grope at one point (he thumbs her nipple – and not over her gown) so it seemed to me that he was serious and intended to rape her. Whether she “enjoyed it” is of course not to the point. Consent is the most important thing and she did not and would not have given it. Fortunately Westcliff rides to the rescue (well, Lillian partially rescues herself because yay) before any further damage is down and then he beats Sebastian up. It was well deserved.
Then right at the end of the book, Evie comes to Sebastian with a proposition: she will marry him to get away from her odious family and so she can spend time with her dying father before he passes on and as she is wealthy, his financial problems will thus be solved. Evie, remember is one of Lillian’s particular friends. So that’s a bit of a turn up for the books.
Suffice it to say that Sebastian had a LOT of work to do to worm his way into my good graces. He had walked boldly over the edge of “rake” and staked his claim firmly in villain territory. And Evie, while desperate still broke the girl code.
I’ll say that I mostly enjoyed Devil in Winter in spite of everything. The banter between Evie and Sebastian was lovely and I enjoyed them together. The story tailed off a little at the end and the melodrama ramped up just a little too much in the final few pages but I did enjoy the book very much.
My problem with it is that the Sebastian of Devil in Winter was so severely retconned from the Sebastian of It Happened One Autumn it felt like they were different characters. I had no trouble liking the Sebastian of Devil in Winter. But I kept having a kind of cognitive dissonance when I remembered what he’d done. He felt bad about it but not as fast and not as much as I’d have liked him too. And, of course, I’d have vastly preferred if he hadn’t done those things at all. Maybe if he’d just seriously considered it I’d have been okay. But he did act and those actions were reprehensible. Even with his “character change” I struggled to believe that Westcliff, Lillian, Daisy, Annabelle and Simon could ever forgive him and welcome him back into their circle. I also struggled with the easy forgiveness of Daisy, Annabelle and Lillian to Evie because hello, what?? Frankly, the only way I could believe it was by some magical hand-waving to the extent that what Sebastian did in It Happened One Autumn was “all a dream” (a la Dallas).
The book was first published in 2006 so it’s not an 80s old skool romance but it’s also fair to say that back in the early 2000s my reading sensibilities were different than they are now. I imagine I could easily have accepted these things then. But not now.
What helped me (if that’s the right word) with my magical hand-waving was that I first “met” Sebastian in Devil in Spring where, clearly he was a devoted husband and father and a good friend and not a dick – and this had been happening for more than 25 years so the reformation of his character was well embedded to say the least. But had I met him in It Happened One Autumn first? I don’t know if I’d feel the same way now.
What else? The sections when Sebastian was looking after Evie on their trip to Gretna Green and his baffled outrage when she refuses him, as well as his endearingly confused reaction to falling in love were the highlights of the book for me. The writing is solid, entertaining and there was plenty of charm in the story to enjoy.
However, there was also some terrible fat-shaming (cousin Eustace) and some very questionable cultural representation of the Rom – neither of those things hold up very well today either.
I choose to basically pretend that Sebastian didn’t do what he clearly did in It Happened One Autumn in order to enjoy the character after – something that can be done with fiction but it’s not without some misgivings even so. And for that reason, as much as I did actually enjoy Devil in Winter, it will never be my favourite Kleypas and Sebastian will never by my favourite hero – that distinction is shared between Hardy Cates (contemporary) and West Ravenel (historical). (I can have two because they don’t live in the same century. It’s in the rules.You can check.)
I’ve always said it’s okay to like problematic things but that we should also talk about them. I know Sebastian is, to some Kleypas fans, every swoony good thing in a hero. Maybe if I’d have read the book when it was first released I’d have felt the same so I’m not judging. But in 2019 Sebastian is problematic and the hand-waving I’ll do for him is only for when I read the books.
Grade: B (with caveats)
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