The Blue Devil
by Melynda Beth Skinner
(Zebra Regency, $4.99, G) ISBN 0-821-77049-7
***
The Blue Devil, Melynda Skinner’s debut Regency, shows a great deal of promise. The prose is clean and flows well, and the hero is a nicely-done mixture of intelligence, frustration, and unwilling stoicism. The heroine, however, stumbles badly at the beginning and struggles to recover.

Kathryn St. David arrives in London to be sponsored for a Season by her great-aunt Ophelia. Kathryn’s parents have raised her in the country, and now she has reached the advanced age of twenty-three without making a match. It doesn’t help that Kathryn is of diminutive stature and looks about fifteen. Unfortunately, for much of the book she acts like it, too.

When Kathryn arrives at her aunt’s house, lights are blazing and there is a party in progress. Kathryn makes her way up the back stairs and decides that the empty room with the glowing fire must be for her. She no sooner sets foot in it than a couple come down the hall and appear to be headed for that very room. Rather than announce her presence, Kathryn hides in the wardrobe and overhears what she assumes is an attempted ravishment. She flees the scene, but not before getting a glimpse of the man’s face and the young woman with a torn bodice. She also stubs her toe on the way out and howls “Oweee-meee! Oweee-mee!”

Kathryn finally locates her bedroom, finds a fairy costume laid out on it, and joins the masquerade ball in progress. She comes to the rescue of the young woman with the torn dress, helping her fabricate a tale to explain it. She also comes face to face with Nigel Moorhaven, Marquis of Blackshire, the man from the bedroom. He is instantly fascinated by the small fairy, and puzzled when she gives him the cut direct. It’s not until a dance partner steps on Kathryn’s foot and she howls “Oweee-meee! Oweeee-mee!” in front of the assembled guests does Nigel realize she’s the woman who was hiding in the bedroom. When he follows her, she insults him and manages to slip away.

Nigel is no seducer. He was lured to the bedroom by the young lady in question. Kathryn doesn’t know that, and it’s much easier to assume the worst. And so our heroine makes several false assumptions, squeals like a toddler, and generally behaves like an arrogant brat for the first chapter. And here the author has created a problem. At age twenty-three, Kathryn is behaving like an adolescent. Her character definitely needs to grow, but readers may not have the patience to stick around and see if she redeems herself.

Great-Aunt Ophelia gets herself into a bind when she realizes she’s left a personal diary at a young ladies’ school run by an old friend. She won’t say what’s in the diary, only that it will ruin them both. Kathryn comes up with the idea of impersonating a new student and trying to locate the diary. Of course, her roommate turns out to be Nigel’s ward, and soon he’s hanging around the school, looking for spies and wondering why he’s attracted to his ward’s fifteen-year-old roommate. Any kind of a relationship is unthinkable, since he’s twenty-nine. Besides, as the famed Blue Devil, master spy, his loyalty is to England and the war with Napoleon.

Mistaken identities abound, as Nigel and Kathryn dance around their attraction to one another. The middle section of the book has Kathryn now having to act fifteen on purpose, and her relationship with Nigel can’t move forward nor can they really get to know one another. This began to drag and there were sections where nothing seemed to be happening.

The final third of the book really picks up steam. Here is where readers will get a glimpse of the talent Ms. Skinner has in store for us, as Kathryn and Nigel are finally free to approach each other as adults. It feels too little, too late, though. The romance definitely feels like it’s been shortchanged.

Consider the structure here. Kathryn looks like a youngster. She makes juvenile assumptions and causes her own problems with her unwillingness to be forthright (hiding in the closet, running away; what on earth would she lose by confronting Nigel with the truth?) She howls a childlike pain cry out of habit, even though I’d expect a young woman in her twenties to have abandoned it. It’s this childish howling that causes the hero to recognize her. Then she must enter a school and play fifteen. When they meet again, she must assume all sorts of adolescent mannerisms in order to ensure he doesn’t recognize her from the ball. Because Kathryn first doesn’t act like an adult, then isn’t allowed to act like an adult, I couldn’t relate to her. Nor did I particularly care; it was easy to lose interest in her altogether.

Nigel, for his part, did keep me reading - if only to find out how he’d reconcile his attraction to the teenage “Kitty” with his determination to be honorable and find a woman closer to his own age. Here the author did an excellent job of detailing his moral dilemma. He was the main reason I'm rating this book three hearts.

The Blue Devil is an interesting debut that feels a bit misguided in its characterization of the heroine, but there’s enough here to make me curious as to the second and third books in this planned trilogy. Melynda Beth Skinner is an author to watch.

--Cathy Sova


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