A Desperate Game

A Ladyís Mischief by Barbara Pierce
(Zebra, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-821-77089-6
A Ladyís Mischief is mis-named in spectacular fashion. The title suggests a lighthearted romance, but this is a dark, brooding, sometimes graphically violent book strewn with a cast of very unhappy characters. In a word, itís depressing.

The story opens with a confusing prologue in which the hero, Rayne Wyman, is being buried alive by his own family on his fifteenth birthday. Yes, you read that right. Rayne has a fever and is only saved from death by grave robbers, who inadvertently rescue him. His mother is not pleased that he survived while her adored eldest son did not. And so the title passes to Rayne, and he eventually becomes Viscount Tipton.

Fast-forward some years. Miss Devona Bedegrayne has been trying to gain an audience with Tipton, and he has consistently refused to see her. So she gains entrance to his home by pretending to be a lady in a swoon. Her servants distract the butler while she searches for Rayne. When she finally comes across the man known as The Refined Corpse, she spends precious time poking him in the chest and haranguing him for not seeing her earlier, while Rayne focuses on her pouting lips. The butler arrives to throw her out, and Rayne is left wondering what she really wanted.

After this tiresome beginning, Devona and Rayne eventually meet again in Vauxhall Gardens, where she explains why she needs his services as a surgeon. Seems that her childhood companion, desperate to prove he was man enough to marry her, has fallen in with a criminal gang and is sentenced to death by hanging. Devona wants Rayne to resurrect him from the dead after heís been hanged. After all, heís the Surgeon of Death.

Rayne, astonished, points out that her idea is, well, idiotic. Then, for reasons he doesnít quite understand, he agrees to try and help Devona, but only if sheíll agree to marry him and help him re-restablish his place in Society. Devona has no choice to agree. Since Rayne has already displayed his utter contempt for Society and its trappings, this reasoning doesnít really hold up.

Rayne is surrounded by the most miserable lot of secondary characters imaginable. He has spent the last fifteen years doling out a mediocre upkeep to his mother, who keeps to the family estate and nurses her hatred for him. There is a fourteen-year-old sister heís never met. His best friend, a fellow surgeon, is an opium addict. And letís not even go into the psychological damage done to an adolescent whose own family tried to kill him.

Even the motivations are dark, dark, dark. Devona doesnít love her imprisoned friend, but feels guilty that he got himself into trouble trying to win her hand in marriage. The idea that he might be responsible for his own stupidity rarely crosses her mind. Rayne doesnít love Devona, but he lusts after her, and marriage will really rub his mother the wrong way while deposing her as Lady Tipton, and thatís too good an opportunity to pass up. Even when Rayne agrees to bring his younger sister to London to acquire some polish, there is an ugly side to it:

The girl cast a wary glance in Tiptonís direction. He stared back, his eyelids narrowing slightly, not even trying to allay her fears about him. Something akin to amusement stirred him as he watched her eyes widen and her forehead smacking the glass when she turned back to the window. Perhaps having a little sister underfoot to torment would bring its own gratification.

Face it, this guy is damaged goods, and there just isnít enough light and warmth in this story to make his supposed redemption feel credible.

There is a subplot involving attempts on Tiptonís and Devonaís lives that leads to a particularly graphic and bloody conclusion. Not for the squeamish. Be warned.

While Barbara Pierce has a good grasp on clean prose, and while Tipton and Devona show some flashes of humor and humanity, A Ladyís Mischief is not a novel that necessarily leaves the reader with a good feeling at the end. Readers who enjoy dark, angst-ridden tales with brooding heroes may find this much more to their liking than I did.

--Cathy Sova

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