|If I had to name a subgenre in danger of extinction, one that comes immediately to mind is the American western romance. Western romances used to be so popular that you couldn’t enter a bookstore without tripping over them. These days, they are difficult to find, even when you go out of your way to look for them. To this reviewer, who hasn’t read a western romance in ages, Diane Whiteside’s The River Devil is a breath of fresh air.
Rosalind Schuyler seems to have it all. She is loved by her family, owns stock in a New York railroad company, and is engaged to marry. Then she attends a ball where she meets Commander Hal Lindsay. Rosalind realizes that she is very attracted to Hal. They speak for only a few minutes before Hal gets in a swordfight with Nicholas Lennox after Lennox insults Hal’s sister. The battle ends early when Lennox is asked to leave.
Months later, many things have changed. Hal owns the Cherokee Belle, a riverboat on the Missouri. Rosalind’s father has died, her fiancé broke off their engagement, and she has disappeared.
There’s a good reason for her disappearance. Although her wealth has always made her a target for fortune hunters, one in particular, Nicolas Lennox, resorted to violence to get Rosalind to marry him. Once she is married, she — and her husband — will have access to her inheritance. She agrees to the wedding, then runs. Her plan is to remain free until she turns 25, when she will receive the money outright. She stays hidden by dressing as a man.
One aspect of The River Devil that is especially enjoyable and fascinating is the riverboat setting. Hal sees through Rosalind’s disguise quite quickly, and he brings her aboard the riverboat. Readers who enjoy unique settings will like the fact that much of the story takes place aboard the boat.
The nontraditional Rosalind is another strong part of the book. It’s nothing new for a heroine to decide to make her own way in the world. Unlike many heroines, however, Rosalind doesn’t put herself in dangerous situations that force her to be rescued. She carries guns and is willing to use them to defend herself. She also takes responsibility for and pleasure in her sexuality.
While the book has a number of strengths, the story is not without flaws. At times the description is a bit over the top. Take Rosalind’s initial impression of Hal: “He seemed the embodiment of a barbarian leader . . . [with] a body fit for one of Arthur’s knights.” Either description seems excessive, and “barbarian knight” aren’t words that typically work well together. Thankfully, this type of description decreases as the book continues.
In addition, there is also a fair amount of skanky villain sex. It isn’t any more graphic than the sex between the hero and heroine, but it does shift the focus from the main couple.
In spite of these issues, The River Devil is a breath of fresh air. If Diane Whiteside continues to write, readers of western romances can breathe easy.