Subtle, intelligent and elegant, The Conquest is a wonderful example of how satisfying a well-written romance can be.
The Earl of Drummond, introduced in Ms. Laytonís other ďCĒ books (The Cad, The Choice, The Challenge, and The Chance), believes himself incapable of romantic love. Nonetheless, now that the war with Napoleon is over and Drumís undercover skills are no longer required on the Continent, his father is pressuring his 35-year-old son to marry and produce an heir.
Forced to admit his father has a point, Drum decides that if he cannot marry for love he must marry for advantage. On his way back to London, however, he is ambushed and severely wounded. Lying unconscious in the road, Drum is found by Alexandria Gascoyneís three adopted brothers; they take him to the small cottage where Alexandria has struggled to care for her younger siblings in the years since the death of Louis, their schoolteacher father.
The Gascoynes, who donít have much in the way of money, are also socially isolated, partly because Louis educated them far above their station and partly because he alienated almost everyone he knew with his irascible personality and Bonapartist sympathies. Drum must impose on Allyís limited resources, however, because the doctor believes his head injury will prove fatal if heís moved. Heíll likely be immobile for several weeks.
The premise is pretty straightforward, and therein lies much of its beauty. The story is like a graceful dance, with Drum and Ally circling each other (figuratively at first, since Drum is trapped in bed) and resisting a hopeless but intriguing attraction. The more Drum learns about Allyís life the more he admires her - and the more impossible any sort of liaison becomes.
The situation is both idyllic and untenable. For one thing, as more people discover Drumís whereabouts, he realizes that his reputation will create false - and damning for her - assumptions about his relationship with Ally. This is not an appropriate reward for her friendship. He does think that she might find better prospects for herself in London, though, and so the story moves naturally from Allyís turf to Drumís.
The writing is so uncomplicated itís almost easier to tell you what Ms. Layton does not do in The Conquest. She does not rush her characters into intimacy with implausible haste as though she doesnít trust her audienceís attention span. She does not clutter up the plot with strained contrivances or misunderstandings. Instead, building on a deceptively simple structure, she trusts the characters and her own story-telling ability. This is the kind of writing that makes people think writing is easy.
The characters are equally well drawn. Both have intelligence, maturity and a sense of humor. Honor on his part and pride on hers will not permit an illicit affair. I love this stuff; this, to me, is romance.
Drum, who was notable in the previous books for his insouciant arrogance, is dramatically cut down to size by the accident and his dependence on the charity of Allyís humble family. It makes him a much more sympathetic hero than I would have thought possible. Underneath the sophisticated polish and soldierís cynicism he is capable of great kindness and generosity - although, rest assured, we wonít be nominating him for the beta hero Hall of Fame anytime soon. This is a man of confident power.
Ally, who is clearly a jewel in a rough setting at home, truly begins to shine in London. With innate grace she fits into Drumís world far more easily than he was ever able to adjust to hers, and she finds a kindred spirit in Gilly Ryder (of The Choice) who is also a woman of lowly origins. In all of this, Ally has nothing to lose but her self-respect, but itís the one thing she refuses to give up. I liked her.
If I have one quibble, itís that the ending seemed a bit abrupt - the resolution felt rushed and frankly, after the characters worked so hard for it, I would have liked a little more time to savor it.
On the whole, though, I probably havenít done it justice. Happily, Ms. Laytonís book speaks very nicely for itself.