by Anna Campbell
THE SLIGHTEST PROVOCATION has to be one of the most unusual historical romances I've ever read.
It's great, but it's...unusual!
Let's start with the tone - not at all the intensely emotional, close focus, sensual approach you get with the majority of historical romances.
Please don't imagine that makes for a cold read. Anything but! The love scenes are deliciously hot.
But somehow Pam Rosenthal adds this edge of Regency detachment to proceedings, a bit like Jane Austen suddenly decided to venture into telling a naughty story. It's utterly compelling! Kind of like Lizzie Bennet is talking dirty (can you imagine that? If you can, you're getting an idea of what this story feels like).
There's a hint of the omniscient narrator and we certainly enter more heads than we do in most historical romances. It's not something everyone could carry off, but the writing here is superb and strides through the tale with impressive confidence. That difficult balancing act between a modern, sexy romance and a suitably 19th-century tone turns into a dazzling display of wordsmithery (I'm sure that's a word!).
What else is unusual? Definitely the hero and heroine who are seriously flawed and have made terrible mistakes in their past. Real life mistakes of vanity and spite and foolishness. These two people are disarmingly human and because of that, the reader tends to forgive their faults. There's a warmth and a fascination about both the hero and heroine in this story that will keep you enthralled as they find their happy ending.
Lord Christopher (Kit) Stansell and Mary Penley have a Romeo and Juliet past. The two of them are childhood sweethearts who meet secretly to avoid the anger of parents feuding over land claims. Not only that, but the match is unequal. Kit isn't his father's natural child, but he's still officially the third son of a marquess while Mary is the daughter of a politically radical brewer rich enough to purchase a small estate next to the Stansells.
In their early 20s, Kit and Mary elope. Just as their parents warned, everything goes wrong and ends in separation. Kit joins the army (the story takes place in 1817 but as you can imagine, back story is hugely important) and Mary pursues her progressive political interests. Both Kit and Mary take lovers in the ten years they're apart although it's pretty clear right from the start that neither has ever stopped loving the other, no matter the seemingly unforgivable sins that divide them.
When these two difficult but extremely charming and likable people are flung together in the Derbyshire countryside, long-restrained passions are unleashed. But the issue between Kit and Mary isn't what they do in bed but the fact that politically they're on opposite sides.
Another unusual element of this story.
The Regency was a hotbed of political unrest and after Waterloo, the lower orders suffered serious deprivation. Not something that turns up in your average romance! THE SLIGHTEST PROVOCATION is actually a pun. Mary and Kit are so hungry for each other that it doesn't take much to have them flinging propriety aside. But it's also a play on the fact that the story revolves around the government's use of agents provocateurs to flush out working men agitating for political reform. Christine Wells used this historical background for her wonderful THE DANGEROUS DUKE too.
Not your average read, then, but definitely a great story. I'm not surprised this book was nominated for a RITA Award in 2007 (Pam's THE EDGE OF IMPROPRIETY won the RITA for Best Regency in 2009). Sometimes it's fun to walk along a more exotic path and the views on this particular ramble are definitely worth your attention.