I have been eagerly anticipating the publication of Manda Collins's How to Romance a Rake for quite some time. In addition to having enjoyed her debut novel How to Dance with a Duke, I was very much looking forward to a wallflower-themed plot. Alas, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry... so, naturally, I completely forgot the book for about a month past its release. The final result turned out to be well worth the wait, though - because How to Romance a Rake is an amazing regency romance. I loved the skillful writing, almost traditional in style with its descriptive narrative and dialogue. Everything felt ridiculously authentic. I loved the gentle thread of wry humor, along with moments that were laugh-out-loud funny. I loved that the romance was intertwined with a substantial mystery plot, allowing for significant romance development without adding angst as a space-filler. And - most of all - I loved the characters. How to Romance a Rake contains one of the few heroes over the years that has fully won my admiration, along with a heroine it would be hard not to fall in love with. In short, I loved the entire novel.
The heroine is one of three cousins collectively nicknamed "The Ugly Ducklings". The heroine is actually quite beautiful (as the hero is quick to admit), but her damaged leg lessens her social standing in the eyes of the shallow ton. Both of her parents are very self-centered in their own way, and she has had very little support from them as she has tried to navigate the waters of society. Her mother has recently started helping the heroine with her public image, but only because she is arranging a marriage between the heroine and a creepy, lecherous older man. That's one of the major conflicts as the plot moves forward. The other major external conflict is a mystery plot. The heroine's friend and music teacher has vanished under mysterious circumstances, and the heroine is desperate to find her. The hero, meanwhile, has made vague plans to court the heroine's cousin... but then proceeds to insert himself into the heroine's life with increasing regularity. He comes to the heroine's defense when some spiteful debutantes are gossiping about her, and then challenges her to try dancing - even with her leg. He attends the dancing lesson, and then proceeds to assist the heroine with solving her mystery as she slowly fills him in on the details. And he does all of this without any apparent ulterior motive. Instead, his actions consistently show him to be a good and noble man. He's the type of guy that considers heavy kissing to be borderline "compromising", and - for all of his sophistication - manages to get tongue-tied several times in conversations with the heroine. In fact, the hero really isn't a rake in the typical sense - he is handsome, popular, and prone to the vices of many regency men, but has never gone beyond discreet affairs with widows and mistresses. He admits his attraction to the heroine early on in the novel, but continually denies developing a tendre for the heroine... despite all of his actions to the contrary. All of the other characters notice the progressing romance, and it makes for some delightfully hilarious conversations. The heroine is a mix of humility, inner strength, and sweetness that makes me want all of her dreams to come true. The romance and mystery subplots are given equal attention, and both progress at a steady pace. There are the occasional bumps in the hero's and heroine's relationship, as they gradually figure each other out and help the other overcome past scars. But the conflicts never become overwhelming, and I was impressed by how all of the resolutions are handled.
Manda Collins's How to Romance a Rake is one of those rare books I enjoyed in pretty much every respect. There were too many exceptional elements to mention everything, but I was particularly blown away by the quality of the writing, the excellent humor, the integration of subplots, and the characters. I would not hesitate to recommend How to Romance a Rake to any reader of historical romance.