This guest review comes from Claudia. Thanks, Claudia!
At sixteen, Claudia found her older cousin’s stash of Barbara Cartlands and assorted Harlequin-type romance housed in an old sewing cabinet and life was never the same! She loves history, so she mostly reads historical romance. Favorite authors include Meredith Duran, Mary Balogh, Miranda Neville, Elizabeth Kingston, and Rose Lerner.
CW/TW for attempted rape
First off, the cover!
To me, it pays homage to some of the “old school” romance covers, and offers a fresh take. A lot of its elements work for me: The woman’s gorgeous dress, her tight bun, the dreamy live oak and the moss in the background…. I want to learn more about those two people, who are obviously drawn to each other but not quite surrendering to a full embrace. Who are they, and where exactly are they? That to me is what a good cover does — it draws you in and makes you want to know more. I was definitely hooked.
The other big draw was that the book unfolds in place and time settings that were completely new to me, New Orleans in the early days of the Reconstruction.
The heroine of Rebel is Valinda Lacy, or Val. Idealistic Val moved at age 28 from her hometown of New York City to New Orleans to teach formerly enslaved adults and children for a few months before she marries a longtime friend. Her students are eager. She’s eager. They make do with what little they have.
The hero is Drake LeVeq, an architect and builder, who is a member of a large, old-time New Orleans family. The LeVeqs are landed and well known and respected in town. Drake is the middle brother, a physically imposing man who is described as all heart.
His great-grandfather and great-grandmother are Dominic and Clare, the main characters in Captured, published a decade ago and part of the author’s LeVeq Family series. Drake’s brother and sister-in-law’s romance is featured in Through the Storm, another LeVeq family book. Fans of the series will enjoy checking in on Rai and Sable, the hero and heroine of Through the Storm, and relish the knowledge that Dominic and Clare are the patriarch and the matriarch of a big and happy family settled comfortably in New Orleans. (A third book in the LeVeq Family series features Archer LeVeq, one of Drake’s brothers, seen a couple of times in Rebel.) Rebel is thus an offshoot of The LeVeq Family series, and also the first book in the author’s Women Who Dare series. It stands well on its own.
It’s good that the cover had a dreamy quality to it because Rebel’s first few chapters are a punch in the gut.
The war may be over, but unrest and violence abound. In the first few chapters, we are shown:
- Families torn apart during slavery and now seeking to find and reconnect with lost relatives.
- Val finding out that her makeshift schoolroom was vandalized and taken over by squatters.
- Attempted rape (Val’s, by Union soldiers.)
- The murder of a former enslaved man by a former slave master following a labor dispute, witnessed by the family of the dead man.
Those were difficult things to read about, but they move the story forward. Val meets Drake and his sister in law when they put a stop to her attack. When Val in short order finds herself without a place to teach and without a roof over her head, she turns to the LeVeqs, knowing no one else in town.
The LeVeqs are a passionate lot, and lucky in love. Drake more than believes that true love is out there, he knows it is as he has seen several examples of it in his own family. Val’s family, on the other hand, is all about duty and convenience. Val’s domineering father married off Val’s sister to a much older man, and the sister is now stuck in a loveless, joyless marriage. Val knows she could be next, so to get her father off her case, Val agrees to an engagement to her friend, but has no romantic feelings toward the fiance.
Val has an independent streak, but over the years that part of her personality was systematically tamped down first by her father and then by her years in school. Her father is depicted as such an overbearing, controlling character that it made me wonder how Val was allowed to travel to New Orleans in the first place. We are told early on that many other schools for formerly enslaved people had been burned to the ground and their teachers murdered, so it was definitely a risky move for her. I wasn’t sure her family would be totally on board, at least not her father.
Part of the answer is her engagement of convenience. The friend, a journalist, is abroad with his business partner trying to garner support for his future newspaper. While he’s away, Val has her teaching interlude, but she knows she’s to return north and marry the guy.
Val’s grandmother is a shining beacon of light in Val’s life. A former slave, she escaped and made a life for herself in New York City as a seamstress. Paradoxically, the grandmother is also part of the reason why Val is slow to own up to her feelings for Drake, since the grandmother has instilled in Val a certain mistrust of men in general.
So, unlike the passionate LeVeqs, all that Val has seen around her are unions that are, at best, convenient, totally devoid of passion of any kind, and often harmful.
One of the greatest joys of reading this book was seeing Val reconnecting with her inner hellion, and starting to believe she too could experience a great love. Drake and Val are immediately attracted to each other, but he knows from the start that Val has an “intended” so he can’t court her officially. It doesn’t mean that he stays away, though, and he wins his place in Val’s heart (and mine) by showing respect for her choices, helping the school get back on track, and supporting Val at key moments.
Drake himself is not exactly free, at least by my standards: He has a mistress, and is open about it. Later on, I was disappointed that the mistress issue was dealt with a bit too easily for me…
The weaving of history and love story is masterfully done here. I don’t like infodumps in my historical romances, but I do enjoy a book with a solid sense of time and place. It’s a fine line, though, so I’m happy that Rebel, with the exception of one or two instances, was far from feeling like a lecture. It’s more a vivid portrayal of history.
We are shown some pretty sad, low moments, such as those I’ve already discussed earlier in this review and another very serious one, the full involvement of an Army officer in a White supremacist group. But we are also shown a few of the successes of the period, such as the advances in the political arena for formerly enslaved people and the establishment of the first historically Black colleges.
The last quarter or so of the book moves relatively fast, so when Val and Drake finally surrender to that embrace portrayed on the cover, the other obstacles in their path also go away.
I enjoyed Rebel’s rich setting, and feel that I’ve learned a lot, which is one of my favorite things in reading romance. Val’s growth was very interesting to witness. She’s a courageous woman in dangerous times breaking free of all the preconceived notions others had for her, and that’s a delight to see. The issues I had with lack of agency in a few instances do not detract from my overall enjoyment of this book. It gets a B+ from me.