Carols and Chaos by Cindy Anstey

Carols and Chaos is a slow-paced, gentle romance set in 1817 during Yuletide. Kate Darby is a lady’s maid at Shackleford Park. Matt Harlow is the valet of Kate’s employer’s fiancée. When Matt’s employer comes to Shackleford Park for Christmas, Matt and Kate meet and begin a cautious flirtation. Their relationship is complicated by their different career goals and by Matt’s friend Johnny, a footman who tries to discover the source of a counterfeit coin with disastrous results.

I love that this romance takes place between two servants. The lives of the “below stairs” members of Regency England are under-represented in romance, at least partly because historically their lives were often difficult. However, they did manage to fall in love and marry, and it’s always lovely to see a romance that reflects that reality. As servants who have worked their way up to positions of prestige, Matt and Kate don’t face as much drudgery. They have a little bit of time to flirt, and their work often brings them together. In fact, the hectic nature of the season works in their favor. After all, there are so many errands to be run, and Matt is an extra hand during a busy season, and who knows the village better than Kate? Matt and Kate also benefit from having Downton Abbey-style benevolent employers who clearly take an interest in the growing romance.

There’s no sex in this book, only some passionate kissing. There’s also a minimum of Christmas elements, as is historically appropriate (at that time, Christmas was basically an excuse to visit people and eat a lot). Mistletoe shows up often, and the climax of the book involves mummers. It’s a subtle holiday read, not one that throws holly at you every other page (metaphorically).

The problem with the book is that it’s simply too slow. There’s no plot to speak of until half way through the book. I’m fine with a slow burn romance, but after a few chapters I was bored out of my mind. If it were full of competence porn (i.e., how a big house gets ready for Yuletide), that would have helped, but it’s pretty sparse on the details. About halfway through the book we get a counterfeit coin conspiracy thread to follow, but it requires the reader to care about an unsympathetic, one-note character. No reader investment means no suspense, and even when Matt and Kate are in peril there’s no sense of real impending doom.

Meanwhile, the romance is pretty dull. Matt and Kate seem like nice, practical people and the romance is…nice. It’s not especially compelling. They don’t seem to have an amazingly strong connection, and they don’t know each other well, but Kate’s impulsiveness and Mat’s sense of caution nicely balance each other. I’ve no doubt they will be very happy together, but the lack of spark, stakes, or urgency makes for a rather bland story.

I admire this book for its depiction of a Regency Christmas. I also admire it for being about two servants as opposed to yet another set of gentry or aristocrats. However, the story is too bland. I didn’t care about the plot and I was only slightly invested in the romance.

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