In the first novel of the Bareknuckle Bastards series, two outcasts meet at a glittering London ball but fall in love in the city’s darkest corners, beginning a saga that links a family across British society.
Devon “Devil” Culm, a rich crime lord and the oldest of a group of three half brothers born out of wedlock to a duke, is determined to stop one of them from breaking an old oath. When wallflower Lady Felicity Faircloth appears in his path, she seems to be the ideal instrument for his plan—till his attraction to her gets in the way. MacLean introduced Felicity as an aging debutante in The Day of the Duchess (2017) and awards her a cross-class romance in this novel. Though Felicity is the daughter of a marquess, a loss of popularity as she gets older prompts her to rashly tell her former friends at a society event that she's engaged to a reclusive duke. While her new “fiancé” has his own reasons for going along with her lie, she finds it impossible to commit to him after several intimate encounters with Devil in the rougher neighborhoods of London. While an aristocratic heroine who can easily slip away to meet a mystery man in a warehouse, a brothel, or a rooftop is not uncommon in the genre, the electric attraction that can help a reader ignore such implausibilities is not established convincingly enough at the start. This is partly because the backstory that can revitalize the novel's tropes—the hero who decides to use a woman for vengeance but loses his heart, the sheltered virgin who flouts convention and then discovers she’s been a pawn—isn’t fully clarified till the last quarter. As a result, the plot and characters’ motivations feel predictable and yet muddled. The climax and eventual resolution is satisfying but throws the weaknesses of the initial chapters into sharper relief.
Though grittier than the average Regency or Victorian romance, à la TV shows like Peaky Blinders, this is a new bottle with old wine—a Horatio Alger–style hero who pulled himself up by his bootstraps and a poor little rich Englishwoman whose problems amount to choosing between different wealthy suitors.