Review: Thief of Shadows, by Elizabeth Hoyt

Thief of Shadows (Grand Central, June 2012) is the fourth book in Hoyt’s Maiden Lane series, set in 1730s London. It opens with a body in the middle of the road in the dirty streets of St. Giles which prevents Lady Isabel Beckinhall’s carriage from passing on its way to a foundling home of which she is a patroness. Taking a closer look at his harlequin costume and mask, she realizes the man is the infamous Ghost of St. Giles. Instead of fainting, screaming, or fleeing, Isabel instructs her footmen to collect him, and nurses him for a night, engaging in a little sexually suggestive banter when he awakens, only to have him escape, undetected, when she falls asleep.

The next day, Isabel meets with the severe, plain-clothed Winter Makepeace, mild-mannered manager for the Home for Unfortunate Infants and Foundling Children. In a plot point that didn’t make a huge amount of sense to me, the patronesses of the home (the “Ladies Syndicate”) decide that the withdrawn and “uncouth” Mr. Makepeace will now be an “important figure in London society.” Isabel draws the short straw and has to tutor him on social niceties.


Winter is, of course, the Ghost of St. Giles, haunting the streets of London’s worst neighborhood each night to save innocents. He tries and fails to refuse Isabel’s offer, and they begin a series of lessons, as well as attending a ball and the opera together. Winter is quiet and serious, while Isabel, a widow, is gay, forthright and confident. They begin a serious flirtation immediately, which, after Isabel breaks down Winter’s defenses, develops into a full blown affair.

Both Isabel and Winter are straightforward characters who are yet more than they appear at first. Isabel is a confident woman who declares, “I may not meet your monkish standards of conduct, but that in no way makes me a loose woman. Do you understand that, Winter Makepeace? I enjoy the company of men and I enjoy bedsport. If you are made uncomfortable by that, then perhaps it is your standards that you should look to.” But as comfortable as she is with a sexual affair, Isabel has some past pain and loss with which she has not come to terms, preventing her from committing fully to a love match.

Winter is torn between his desire and growing affection for Isabel and his monkish dedication to the children of St. Giles. Winter’s attitude towards his own sexuality is so hostile, and his evening activities so unorthodox, that I (wrongly) predicted some sexual abuse in his past. In a refreshing change of genre pace, he’s motivated by pure altruism, and he’s a virgin but not ashamed of it. He feels that sex should be an expression of love, and if he is in love, then he can’t dedicate himself to his life’s mission. Although I thought Winter’s tortured references to his own sexual desire and desire for vengeance as the Ghost as “animalistic” were a bit overdone, it was very enjoyable to read a romance in which the sexual roles were more or less reversed (less, because once he takes the plunge, so to speak, he turns out to be a naturally gifted lover).

I’ve read and enjoyed several of Hoyt’s other books, and in all of them, I’ve been impressed with the way she writes action scenes. She has me holding my breath and on the edge of my seat whenever the Ghost is on one of his missions. In Thief of Shadows, the Ghost is attempting to discover who is kidnapping the young girls of St. Giles and why. I thought this subplot was interesting and appropriate for the setting. The secret-identity hero always strains reader credulity, but, since it was abandoned halfway through, in the midst of a harrowing duel and near unmasking, I didn’t mind it too much here.

Isabel and Winter’s interactions were also terrific. Winter is forthright, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a way with words, especially when prompted:

“But you must be awash in a sea of compliments, my lady,” Winter said. “every gentleman you meet must voice his admiration, his wish to make love to you. And those are only the ones who can voice such thoughts. All about you are men who cannot speak their admiration, who must remain mute from lack of social standing or fear of offending you. Only their thoughts light the air about you, following you like a trail of perfume, heady but invisible.”

The scenes between Isabel and Winter shined with desire, affection, intelligence, and even humor (as when Winter chides, “And mind, precious Isabel, not to insult me too badly when we argue, hmm?”). Oddly, Winter seemed to have an easier time falling in love with Isabel, despite all his baggage, than she with him. Isabel was a fine heroine, but I didn’t feel I got as much inside Isabel’s head as I might have liked.

SPOILER:
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At the end, another lord, a secondary character named D’Arque, (also implausibly, in my opinion) takes a significant interest in the foundling home, and Winter agrees to let him have it. I had a hard time believing Winter would give up his life’s work for the promise D’Arque offered. At the beginning of the novel, Winter has several thoughts along the lines of, “Without it — without them — he was less than nothing.” and while I appreciate that he needed to make room in his life for personal affection, abandoning the home and its children just seemed a bit hard to reconcile.

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END SPOILER

I really enjoyed Thief of Shadows, and am as impressed as ever with the way Hoyt’s writing is both lovely and genre-bending. Although the emotional impact of certain scenes, like the violent opening, would undoubtedly have been magnified had I read the previous books, I felt it stood on its own as a very enjoyable historical romance.

Note: This book was sent to me by the publisher.

4 responses

  1. This one sounds pretty good! I didn’t finish the second one in that series…not sure if it was the book itself, or just that I’ve been feeling more in the mood for reading speculative fiction than romance for the last few months.

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  2. This series really hasn’t worked for me (but I kept going because my library has limited romance audio selections). I swore I was going to quit it, but your review and a couple of others are tempting me back. I got tired of the good girl/bad boy dynamic of the three earlier books, so maybe a book that changes that up will work better.

    I confess I have a weak spot for the virgin hero (maybe also because it’s unusual in romance) but I do wish they didn’t always turn out to be instant magical great lovers. Am I the only one who thinks a little fumbling and need for instruction could be endearingly romantic and rather sexy? Maybe so…. But if it’s OK for virgin heroines, why not heroes?

    Like

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