This is one of Heyer’s earlier novels and it reflects the author’s limited experience and still developing skills. The writing is a bit stilted, the dialogs formal, without the verbal panache that defined her more mature works, but all the distinctive marks of Heyer’s later stories are already there. The plot is inventive, the heroes charming and original, and the humor of the situations inescapable.
The action takes place before Regency, before the Napoleonic wars, soon after Culloden. I didn’t plan to read this novel (a re-read, actually) in the footsteps of the Scottish referendum. I didn’t remember the book’s timing, it just happened, but the echoes between that tragic battle, Heyer’s opinions, and the current events were strange.
There are three leading characters in this novel: a father and his two adult children, the daughter Prudence and the son Robin, all three adventurers of the first order. Their ethnic origins are murky, and the story mentions them living all over Europe before they set their first steps into the pages of this novel. The father and the son participated in the battle of Culloden, not because they cared for Scottish independence but for some other, rather unclear but definitely unromantic, reasons. Money probably – why else would reckless adventurers put their necks into such a dangerous bind. Afterwards, they fled.
A few months later, as the novel starts, the brother and sister reappear in London, masquerading as someone else and waiting for their father and his next con. They don’t care about Scotland anymore: not about the plight of their former comrades, nor about the king’s brutal politics there. The heroes’ only concern is to keep safe and escape recognition. And most of the British aristocracy doesn’t care either, at least according to Heyer. Culloden for her characters seems as far as the moon. Only occasional mentioning of the executions reminds the readers of the era and its vagaries.
At first, the protagonists rejoice in their masquerade. Their dashing escapades in London are imaginative and funny, but soon their disguises start interfering with their love affairs. Both Prue and Robin chafe under their masks. They long to take them off but they’re afraid that if they do, someone might recognize Robin and haul him off to jail or worse. Of course, along the way, Robin saves a young and naïve but pretty heiress, while Prue falls for a big gentleman with sleepy eyes and keen mind.
There is also their father to consider, the master masquerader with delusions of grandeur. His scam is so outrageous it brings to mind Napoleon himself. The father is as convinced of his own genius and invincibility as the French emperor was later on, but unlike Napoleon, the father seems to deceive everyone among the London ton and triumph over all his adversaries.
The pace is fast, the villains sufficiently evil if not very clever, and love wins the day in the end. A satisfying conclusion for any romance lover. I enjoyed this novel despite its flaws and tried not to think about Culloden and all its victims.