It's been a while since I've read a truly "fluffy" piece of romantic literature. And that is undoubtedly what Anya Wylde is shooting for in her debut novel The Wicked Wager, with a storyline that is very lighthearted, very silly, and that borrows more than a few pages from regency farces. She succeeds at this goal in many respects. The book is not devoid of flaws - there were parts of the writing that were disappointingly stilted, I felt more than a couple of the scenes were overblown, and I wasn't that crazy about the last part of the novel. But the story was also infused with a wide variety of comedy, squeezing witty, satirical, earthy, and farcical humor into a single novel. I was inwardly chuckling more often than not as I read through the book, and the "mouse scene" had me bursting out laughing. I also found the characters - in both the primary and secondary love stories - to develop a surprising amount of depth as the plot moved forward, to the point that I was quite eager for all of them to achieve their HEAs. There was no romance conflict to speak of, with the book relying on the plot action and amusing events to move things forward.
The primary hero and heroine are engaged by the end of the prologue. With a vocabulary inclusive of phrases such as "bloody blooming roses" and "bollocks", the heroine gives new meaning to the description "outspoken" - especially when she doesn't think anyone is listening. For the most part, she's a good-hearted and sensible young lady... with a secret mischievous side that complements the primary hero's personality nicely. We are told that the hero was formerly a rake, and his general devil-may-care attitude certainly fits the part. He was always up to mischief as a young man, and is more than happy to continue in that role - provided that it now revolves around his newly-discovered love of his life. And the opportunity comes up almost immediately. The heroine's uncle - a duke who is expected to pass the title on to the heroine's father - tells her to postpone her marriage for a year. The heroine is upset about this, but she (quite sensibly) thinks that the best thing to do would be to work the duke around to her way of thinking. The hero, meanwhile, is aghast at the idea of staying celibate for an entire year... and his "manly" sensibilities are offended by the idea of the duke calling the shots. So he comes up with a silly wager with the heroine, dons a silly disguise as an older gardener, and hatches a silly scheme designed to get the duke to approve of the marriage more quickly... with - you guessed it - rather silly results. The reader is amusedly strung along as a masquerade element is added to the plot, followed by a mystery plot that is increasingly brought towards to the forefront of the story. In the interim, the hero and heroine have (mostly) chaste secret meetings and bicker like a married couple. The secondary couple involves the heroine's cousin and the hero's friend who is masquerading as the heroine's fiance. Despite the predictable confusion with the masquerade, the secondary romance eventually comes together almost as effortlessly as the first.
As with most debut novels - and most books in general, for that matter - there were a few elements of The Wicked Wager that irked me. The uneven writing style, particularly towards the beginning of the book, made me uncertain if it was a story I was going to be able to delve into. Happily, my uncertainty was gradually proven to be unfounded. I also found a bit of the humor to be off-color, particular the parts that related to public nudity. And then there was the last twenty percent or so of the book - I was completely unprepared for the book to transition from romance to a extensive "whodunnit" mystery. In retrospect, maybe I should have been a little more prepared with a tagline of "A Regency Murder Mystery & Romance".... but I didn't really expect a Westing Game level of analysis. On the plus side, the mystery element was well-written, gave insight into the duke's character, and served as a solid way to wrap each of the book's elements up. On the negative side, it felt dragged out and rather incongruous with the rest of the story.
I think the best way to describe Anya Wylde's The Wicked Wager is to say it's a novel that's overwhelmingly fun. Wylde takes a swing at humor on pretty much every page of her book, in pretty much every style possible, and hits quite a few home runs. The storyline had its moments of cleverness, the characters were well developed, and the result is a story I would definitely recommend giving a look.
A couple of final notes:
- I'm tagging the novel as "clean", as the only implied sex scene happens off-screen.
- I received a review copy of this book from the author, Anya Wylde. It is, of course, still an unbiased opinion.