Book Review: Millstone of Doubt

Millstone of Doubt
Thorndike & Swann Regency Mysteries #2
by Erica Vetsch

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Christian historical mystery

Both fledgling agents for the crown, Lady Juliette Thorndike and Bow Street runner Daniel Swann individually need to figure out their roles and places in the spy network as well as their “normal” lives. When Juliette’s best friend’s father is killed, Juliette is told to stay out of the investigation, but Daniel plunges headlong into it. Meanwhile, Juliette is still in the middle of her debut season, and Daniel’s lifelong patronage by a mysterious benefactor will soon be coming to an end, leaving him in an unknown position. How will they navigate these difficult situations and deal with their growing feelings for each other?

I may have rated this book a star less than the previous book in the series, but I still really enjoyed it. The overall world that Vetsch has set up in this series and the one it’s connected to, Serendipity & Secrets, is one I really hope I don’t have to leave any time soon. Juliette learning to become a spy, using her training in real-world settings while trying to get over her weaknesses, but still having to act the role of a debutante, is a fun mixture. Daniel’s combining of his police work with spycraft isn’t as much of a stretch, but it still allows for some panic moments as he tries to keep his secret. There was also a great moment when Daniel’s friend and co-worker Ed gives him a little speech about the goodness of God, even when we don’t see it in our lives, that I really liked.

The mystery was overall good. I liked the different paths they went down trying to solve it; mystery is a favorite genre of mine, and this one was enjoyable. I did guess who the killer was pretty early on, but wasn’t 100% sure I was right until a while later (but before it was revealed). There was another mysterious aspect unrelated to the murder that I also figured out early on, but I still liked the way it played out. The story slowed down enough in the middle that I detracted a star, but overall, I really liked this book. I highly recommend it for fans of this genre and time period, whether you like romance or not, though that aspect is more in focus in this book than the previous.

I received a free review copy from the publisher in exchange for my honest unedited feedback.

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Book Review: The Debutante’s Code

The Debutante’s Code
Thorndike & Swann Regency Mysteries #1
by Erica Vetsch

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Christian historical mystery

Returning to London after years away for school and just in time for her debut season, the last thing Lady Juliette Thorndike expected was to learn that her parents had been called away and that she’d have to face her debutante ball alone. On second thought, the absolute last thing she expected was to discover that her parents are spies for the British government, as is her uncle, and all of her family before them. But as she’s thrust right into the middle of a dangerous game of espionage, Bow Street runner Daniel Swann is put on the case of a stolen painting that soon becomes a murder investigation. And the supposedly untouchable aristocracy of England, especially Juliette and her family, are right at the center of it.

Oh, goodness. Coming off a month of mediocre reads, this book really had my heart soaring, and not just because of the connection to Vetsch’s previous series (more on that later). There’s so much I loved about it, like the relationship Juliette had with parents she hadn’t seen in 7 years. Through their letters, she still felt connected to them, and was receiving early spycraft instruction unawares. The way Juliette discovered the big family secret was perfect, especially since I was expecting a simple eavesdrop for her to hear the truth (it’s so much better than that!). The more she gets into the family business, the more she questions the ethics and morals of lying for a “good cause,” echoing my own thoughts exactly. And I appreciate that there are no easy answers, either for her or for the male MC, Daniel Swann.

He doesn’t get much of a mention in the synopsis, but he’s an equal part in this story, and I really enjoyed his character and backstory, his drive to figure out the truth and tenacity despite some fairly crappy odds. His personal life is a bit too much to into in the synopsis and is clearly going to stretch on to the next book in the series, and I’m really glad for that. While most books of this type, even those in a series, tend to be more stand-alone, I’m looking forward to a continuing series with the same characters, diving into the spy world of Regency England, and seeing what develops between Thorndike and Swann.

Now let me talk about how excited I was to realize that this series is taking place in the same world as Vetsch’s previous series, Serendipity & Secrets. I loved that series, and one character in particular was my favorite. Now to find him in this book as well? I can’t even express my joy! I don’t want to say too much, though if you know the other series, you can probably guess what the connection here would be. To be honest, I do believe I should have anticipated this, given the similarity of a certain aspect of both series. But I didn’t, and that made it all the more exciting when he appeared here.

Though the mystery in this book was not super hard to crack (for the reader), that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t completely off in some of my theories. I did guess some things right, but also had a few surprises near the end, one of which actually made me a little giddy (and I’m not normally a particularly emotional reader; me using that word is a testament to how much I loved this book). I confess I was pretty confused about the actual events that led to the spy work Juliette and her uncle were doing, I think due to the way certain terms were used during the explanation, but I had it (mostly) all sorted by the end. And I find myself frustrated by the official synopsis for this book (not the first time this has happened with one of this author’s works), considering that Swann’s suspicion of Juliette doesn’t actually come until more than 3/4 of the way through the book. Still, I highly recommend this book for fans of this genre and time period, whether you like romance or not, because there is some, but it’s not the focus of the book. But I would also really recommend checking out Serendipity & Secrets, and maybe even consider reading that trilogy first. You won’t be sorry.

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Book Review: The Indebted Earl

The Indebted Earl
Serendipity & Secrets #3
by Erica Vetsch

My rating: 4.5 / 5
Genre: Christian historical romance

When her fiance Rich succumbed to injuries sustained near the end of the war between France and her home country of England, Lady Sophia Haverly did not not expect to ever fall in love and marry someone else. Instead, she would continue to care for her elderly almost-mother-in-law, who developed a strong desire to return to the seaside, where she’d grown up. She finds assistance in this endeavor in the form of Captain Charles Wyvern, close friend of her late fiance, who tells her that Rich died saving his life, leaving him indebted to helping Sophia however he can. The captain, while desperate to head back out to sea, has his own reason for going to the coast–his uncle has just died, and he’s inherited the estate and title of earl. When he finds that the estate is in bad shape, not to mention the three young girls he’s inherited as wards, he seeks help from the young woman to whom he owes a great debt.

The third book in the series stands as tall as the first two. I loved how the captain was so out of his element on land, while Sophia equally did not take to the sea very well. The three girls, aged between 5 and 16, added a layer of life to the story that all worked together so well. Sophia, not much older than the eldest girl herself, found herself in the role of mothering the kids simply because she fell in love with them so quickly. And her relationship with her late fiance’s mother-in-law, Mamie, as well as Mamie’s relationship with the three wards, made this book about so much more than the main romance.

In fact, my biggest frustration with the book was the repetitiveness that came with Sophia starting to let herself move on from her loss. She kept sort of chastising herself for holding another man in high esteem and possibly wanting more from that, always ending with a question of whether that was how it should be or not. This may be completely realistic, but the repetition wore on me just a bit. That’s pretty much where the half point rating detraction came from. On the other hand, 5-year-old Betsy’s attachment to the captain’s hat is wonderful!

Here at the end of the series, my favorite character overall has been Marcus Haverly. He also played the most significant role throughout, being the male lead in the 2nd book, while also having decent roles in the first and third. I love that his alter ego gets to play a role in all three books, too, and wish Erica Vetsch would somehow write a little more about him (maybe a short story in which Sophia and Charles learn of his former occupation?).

While I found parts of this story predictable, and one particular part far too convenient, I loved it overall. It’s a great ending to a great series, which I highly recommend to fans of Christian romance, historical or otherwise, and fans of Regency romance. And if you do plan to read these books, or already have, make sure you also look into the book Joy to the World, a collection of 3 novella-length Christmas stories. Vetsch’s contribution to that book takes place directly after this third book in the series and ties up the story of a character that has been involved in the series.

I received a free review copy from the publisher in exchange for my honest unedited feedback.

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Book Review: Joy to the World

Joy to the World
by Carolyn Miller, Amanda Barratt, & Erica Vetsch

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Christmas-themed short stories, Christian historical romance

Joy to the World contains three novellas from three different authors, each in the genre of Regency romance, perfect for the Christmas season. My overall rating for the book is an average of my ratings for each story, shown below. Below the ratings are brief (as much as possible) reviews for each story.

“Heaven and Nature Sing” by Carolyn Miller2 / 5
“Far as the Curse Is Found” by Amanda Barratt5 / 5
“Wonders of His Love” by Erica Vetsch5 / 5

“Heaven and Nature Sing” is the tale of 2 people who were close to engagement a year past, but are now estranged and are thrust together during the holidays, which certainly allows for a romance to develop in a short time period. There’s history there. But strangely, the only way the author seemed to be able to inject romance was related to kissing. Everything was about finding ways to put them under a kissing ball (mistletoe) or thrust them into some other awkward situation with physical closeness, before they’d even had a chance to try to work out their issues from the past.

Other things happened that made me dislike the characters or made me scratch my head, like Edith (female lead) allowing the other young adults to set George (male lead) up to mock propose to her, and then Edith actually blaming George for the situation! She also spends at least half of the story thinking about George and then mentally berating herself for doing that…and then she gets angry at him for saving her from a falling tree branch. I also noted a bit of dialog in which George asks Edith if she wants him to “kiss it better” in a story filled with flowery, old-fashioned language both in the dialog and surrounding it. Sadly, this story did not go over well with me. 

“Far as the Curse is Found” is the tale of two very broken people, albeit in different ways, who help each other out of the darkness. The connection between them is fast, but not in an unbelievable way. I think that Jenny’s background and brokenness are dealt with less than Dwight’s, and if the story had been longer, I would have liked to see more of how she had to overcome the trauma she’d gone through. It’s not treated frivolously, though, and she’s shown to be a strong character throughout.

Dwight undergoes the largest transformation, and I really like him every step of the way. Again, things may be a bit too quick, but it was explored well in the space the author had. The curse angle is a really nice glue for the story and ties into the story’s title and the book’s theme very well. Other reviewers have compared this story to Beauty and the Beast, which I can’t comment on, never having seen any version of it, but I can see some possible allusions. That aside, in case it’s not obvious, I loved this story! 

“Wonders of His Love” is the tale of a Scottish portrait painter trying to make a name for himself in England and the picture-perfect young widow that feels as displaced as he does. Cilla had married the future Duke of Haverly, who then died before he inherited the title. She’s left in limbo, having practically become a servant to her very demanding and prissy mother-in-law. She reminds me a lot of me–defaulting to a spot in the background, wondering if this will be her entire life. Even when she starts to make strides forward, she still falls back on old, “easy” habits. If the story had been novel-length, there would have been a lot more room to explore that, I think, but on the other hand, it might have started to get tiring, too.

Hamish is a different kind of character than I’ve read in this genre in the past (not that I have a very long history reading Regency romance), and I really liked that. I liked him in a lot of different ways, including the fact that the author didn’t dwell so much on him being tall and ridiculously handsome as every romantic hero seems to be. His talent and compulsion for sketching scenes, coupled with his ability to bring out the truth of  a subject, were all really interesting facets to his character. That’s a lot of why I would have loved to see a particular sketch Hamish had made come to fruition, and I’m not sure if the author simply ran out of space or forgot about it.

This third story was my favorite of the three by a very slim margin. I’ll admit right now, though, that what pushed it over the top was most likely the inclusion of characters from two of Erica Vetsch’s other novels. As soon as I realized who the female lead in this story was, I was so excited. And sure enough, both the Haverlys from The Gentleman Spy and the Whitelocks from The Lost Lieutenant were in the story (the Haverlys moreso, which makes sense, given that Cilla is the duke’s sister-in-law). Both of these books I read just recently and loved, but if you haven’t read them, don’t let that put you off from reading this story. You don’t need to know their stories to still follow and enjoy this novella.

Final thoughts on the whole book: Overall, it’s a wonderful collection of Christmas-related Regency romance stories. I do think plenty of others will like the first story, based on large differences in personal preferences, and I recommend the entire book to fans of the genres mentioned above, or even those looking for good Christian romance in general. I have a feeling I’ll re-read this during a future Christmas season and will even give the first story another chance.

Thank you to Netgalley and Kregel Publications for providing me a copy of this book to review.

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Book Review: The Gentleman Spy

The Gentleman Spy
Serendipity & Secrets #2
by Erica Vetsch

My rating: 4.5 / 5
Genre: Christian historical romance

Spoiler notice: The following review may contain spoilers for the first book in the series, The Lost Lieutenant.

Marcus Haverly much preferred his life as a “spare,” the second son of the Duke of Haverly, which allowed him to stay in the background of society and do his work as a secret agent for the Crown without fear of discovery. But when his father and older brother both die, the mantle of duke is thrust upon him, bringing many duties that clash with his clandestine work. One of those duties is to marry an eligible young woman, and he’ll be under much scrutiny by the rest of society until he does so. When he meets Lady Charlotte, who has been chastised by her parents for not conforming to society standards, thus leaving her in danger of becoming a spinster, Marcus makes a snap decision to marry her, expecting to use her as a cover for his secret life. But Charlotte has other ideas of what she wants out of a marriage, throwing a wrench in his plans.

I enjoyed the 2nd book in this series as much as I enjoyed the first. I already liked Marcus going into this book, since he was my favorite side character in the previous book. And while I wanted to throttle him a few times during the story, I still loved the book. Charlotte was a much bigger part of the story than the synopsis–both the official one and the one I wrote above–make her seem. Her arc was definitely a captivating part of the story.

This series so far has been all about my favorite type of romance–a marriage thrown together hastily between two people who don’t really know each other, and the development of the relationship between husband and wife. The only thing that really bothered me in this story is that Marcus, an otherwise intelligent and capable man, was so stupid when it came to his marriage, even after getting brilliant advice from a very wise woman. I’m not saying it’s completely unrealistic, but he got right up to that point of starting to annoy me. Thankfully, the rest of the book was so good, my frustrations with Marcus were overall very minor.

Charlotte’s plight to help the working girls of London really endeared her to me. It was also reminiscent of the first book, and I love that connection between the two. I also loved seeing the Whitelocks so much, which makes even more sense than it might in other series of “stand-alones,” because Marcus and Evan were such close friends in the previous book. Reading the previous book isn’t really necessary before reading this one, but I’d still recommend starting there, because it will make the experience of the 2nd book richer. I’m also very excited about the next book in the series, which won’t release until next March, especially since one of the main characters is Marcus’s sister. We meet her in this book, and though her time in the story was brief, I really liked her!

As with the previous book (though for a different reason), I don’t think the official synopsis for this book is good, especially since it depicts Marcus as unhappy with some of Charlotte’s endeavors. So take it with a grain of salt. But the book itself is great, and I definitely recommend it to fans of Christian romance, historical or otherwise, and fans of Regency romance.

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Book Review: The Lost Lieutenant

The Lost Lieutenant
Serendipity & Secrets #1
by Erica Vetsch

My rating: 4.5 / 5
Genre: Christian historical romance

As Evan Eldridge recovers from an injury sustained in the war against Napoleon, he wants nothing more than to get back to the fighting. Instead, the Prince Regent (who later became King George IV) makes him an earl, due to Evan saving the life of the prince’s godson in the same event where Evan was injured, not that Evan can remember much of anything about that day. The Prince Regent then insists that Evan marry his goddaughter Diana, whose father is looking forward to marrying her off to someone of his choosing, for his own gain. Diana and Evan both bring secrets into this marriage, and real lives are at stake.

This book hit so many right buttons with me. The characters are well-crafted, historical details are immersive, and the stakes are high in so many ways. I really liked the story that unfolded regarding Evan’s trauma and forgotten memory–his PTSD was real, and the mystery and intrigue culminated in an exciting climax.

Evan and Diana were both characters that I really connected with in some way, and together, they had a beautiful romance that was one of my favorite kinds in fiction. I wouldn’t classify it as actual “marriage of convenience,” but it’s similar, and I love that trope, especially in Christian fiction. Diana has some trauma of her own, in the form of an abusive father and brother. Together, they have a lot to overcome as husband and wife. I loved several of the supporting characters in this book as well and am especially excited to read the second book in this series, which focuses on one of those side characters.

There was one thing that happened, which I won’t explain in detail, that I felt was more of an obvious contrivance–something to keep the couple from being too happy too soon in the book. It bothered me, especially, when there was a clear opportunity for this thing to be addressed later, but it wasn’t, and I think that was a further contrivance for the plot. I only wish the author had chosen something less important, something the climax wouldn’t have hinged upon, if she wanted to throw a new wedge between the married couple.

One other thing, and this isn’t a fault with the book, is that the synopsis, in my opinion, gives away too much. I won’t say more, though, because it might be subtle enough if I don’t point out details. Small gripes aside, I loved this book and definitely recommend it to fans of Christian romance, historical or otherwise, and fans of Regency romance.

I received a free review copy from the publisher in exchange for my honest unedited feedback.

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