Plot/Storyline: 5 Stars ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Feels: 4 stars ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Sensuality: 5 stars ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
This book is spectacular. It is everything I’ve ever wanted in a romance novel.
I don’t want to spend too much time describing the book’s plot or the character backgrounds since there are many other reviews that focus on those aspects. Instead, I’d like to focus on what makes this book so incredibly special, and that is not necessarily the plot. But I do want to say that the plot is new and fresh and completely believable that a heroine living during this time might feel exactly the way Lady Calpurnia feels. Whether or not the actual tasks she sets out to complete would have been realistically accomplished is beside the point for me. The novel is so heavily based around Gabriel and Calpurnia’s interactions that the logistics of her activities in the book are hardly a concern.
And that is precisely what I love so much about this book. While reading you feel like you are catapulted into the very room as the two main characters. They are the only two people in the world. They have eyes for no one else. Thoughts of others are distant and secondary. And anyone who has ever fallen in love can easily understand how two characters falling for each other might find themselves with a very narrow world view that includes only themselves and barely any others for most of their blossoming relationship. That’s how it feels to read the story of Calpurnia and Gabriel. And that is how a romance novel should be…entirely about their romance.
These two characters truly grow and change throughout the book. How they grow and change is almost entirely based on how their relationship with one another impacts them. Their changes happen gradually. Slowly, from interaction to interaction, with only hints of understanding and realizations coming at them as time progresses, just as people grow and change in real life. They do not suddenly find themselves in love. They do not act the same the whole book until a breaking point and suddenly change. That happens in so many other romance novels that it’s tired, boring, and frankly, weak writing. The character development here is strong. You truly feel that you get to know these characters at the same time they are getting to know themselves. It’s wonderful.
And the way they fall in love is sweet and delicate, while at the same time passionate and breath taking. Another reviewer complained that Gabriel is constantly touching Calpurnia. Yes. He is. It is near constant. I loved that. Calpurnia burned for his touch and he gave it to her. But unlike so many romance novels, their intimacy built up over time. It wasn’t a kiss in one scene and into the bedroom in the next. Or worse, a kiss and then they don’t touch again (or aren’t even in the same room!) for the next 72 pages. I was enthralled with every single interaction these two had together. On the edge of my seat, feeling like Calpurnia must have felt, waiting…. dying for him to touch her. And when he did, more often than not, it was tender and slow and all about her pleasure. The sensuality in this book is a slow burn. It’s like a spark, not an explosion, but a little spark, is lit at the beginning, and it burns slowly and steadily throughout the book, never extinguishing. There are moments where it burns brighter and moments when it dulls, but in the end it’s strong and full and will never burn out. It’s the kind of heat that gives you chills. It’s beautiful.
I particularly adore the way Gabriel interacts with Callie. His character, unlike so many romance heroes, is not angry or cruel. Yes, he is prolific in the bedroom, but he is a good man. He cares about people. And while his behavior isn’t always beyond reproach (why bother reading an historical romance with a hero who is always the perfect gentleman?), his actions were nearly always in response to what he witnessed Callie wanting. Whether intimately or conversationally, he gauged her and responded in a way befitting of her personality. He thought about her and tried to please her in the most charming (and seductive) of ways.
You can feel the moment Gabriel falls in love with his Empress. It is somehow both subtle and clear as day to the reader, even if it is not clear as day to himself. The way he sees Callie throughout the book changes incrementally and masterfully. It is like he is looking at a black and white image that slowly comes to life in all of its brilliant color. That is how Gabriel’s love for Callie grows and it is a delight to read.
Callie’s progression is different, however. She has always been infatuated with Gabriel. He has always been brilliant and colorful to her. But as she gets to know him she learns to decipher her fantasies from reality and ultimately falls in love with the man he truly is, imperfections and all. It came more easily to her than for Gabriel. But her love is wrapped up in her story of self-awakening, which Gabriel ends up being inextricably tied to.
I loved this book so much that I re-read multiple parts of it over and over again during my first read. Then I put it down for a couple days and read the whole thing through again. And I will certainly read it again in the future. I highly, highly recommend this book. One thing though, you cannot be squeamish about sex scenes. There are a lot of them. But they are not vulgar. They are tasteful and romantic and heart pounding, and in my opinion, the best part of a love story like this.
I do have one complaint about this book, which concerns the ending. I really wanted one more love scene at the end, after Gabriel fully realized he had fallen in love with Callie. I wanted to read the full force of their love for one another after they both finally acknowledged it and were ready to give everything to each other. After waiting all that time for them to be together and in love, I was extremely sad to let them go without that reward. It is the only misstep in this book, in my opinion. Perhaps one day the author can add another chapter (I know that rarely happens, but one can dream).
The best thing about reading a book for the third time is that you can skip all the stuff having to do with other characters and just focus on the romance. And this book in particular has such an amazing romance that you want to dive into them over and over again. This book was still amazing the third time around. My original review still stands, with one exception.
After my first read I was wishing for…more at the end. I wanted another love scene, some more feels at the end, and a longer epilogue. I didn’t feel that way this time. Not sure if it’s because I knew what to expect or that I’ve simply read so many more books since then, but it just felt perfect this time.
My only criticism of this book is that I wish we got more POV from Ralston, especially in the beginning.
This was the first Sarah MacLean I read and since then I’ve read The Rogue Not Taken and A Scot in the Dark. Both of them had an emotional quality I preferred to this book. This book has more regular paced steam and is just delightful.