Note: This is actually my second review, as the original got lost somewhere on the Island of**spoiler alert** 4 ½ stars – Romantic Historical Fiction
Note: This is actually my second review, as the original got lost somewhere on the Island of Server Timeouts and Misfit Reviews.
At this stage in my life, I read exclusively romance (of various subgenres) because it’s what interests and entertains me, and life is too short to read books that I don’t want to. I used to read historical fiction and non-fiction because I enjoy learning about people and places in various times and seeing the ways society has changed, progressed, and sometimes digressed. That probably explains why I love historical romance so much, since it satisfies my historical and cultural curiosity while still giving me my much needed romance fix.
I’m not an equine expert by any means, but I enjoy equestrian sports and events, like horseracing, as a spectator and respect the awe-inspiring power, majestic beauty, and historical significance of horses. I love books and movies that feature horses prominently, like Riding Lessons by Sara Gruen, The Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans and its film version, Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry and the TV mini-series, one of my all time favorite movies The Man From Snowy River, and Hidalgo, Seabiscuit, and Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken to name a few others.
So a book that combines 18th century English history with strong equine elements, like breeding and horseracing, and yet is at its heart an epic account of star-crossed lovers? That sounded intriguing indeed, and I’m grateful to new author Emery Lee for giving me the chance to read her romantic historical fiction debut, The Highest Stakes.
The attention grabbing prologue sets the stage for a riveting tale of retribution, but it’s so much more than that. Set mostly in Georgian England and mainly spanning a period of nine years, between 1742 and 1751, this is a powerful, evocative, and complex tale of true love, social class differences, friendship, adventure, war, greed, betrayal, and revenge, all centered on and around the high stakes world of horseracing.
Let me just say upfront that although the racing serves as an important expression of characters and events, there are a lot of complicated details on horse breeding, bloodlines, lineages, and training that some readers might find a bit cumbersome, especially in the first part of the book, but I think you can skim through those passages (if it’s not of great interest to you) and still highly enjoy all of the other elements. I know I did! There are several intriguing characters worth mentioning, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll focus on the three key players: Charlotte, Robert, and Philip.
Orphaned Charlotte Wallace is a lonely, adventurous girl who’s only freedom from her aristocratic uncle’s cruelty, emotional neglect, and oppression is training and riding horses unimpeded across the heath of the family estate. Then she meets a kindred spirit and genuine friend in poor, hardworking stable groom Robert Devington, who shares her intense passion for horses, and their kinship soon evolves into deep love. Charlotte makes it clear that Robert’s lack of social and financial status mean nothing to her and that all she desires is for them to be together. But Robert knows that her uncle and other members of the elitist ton will never accept him without wealth and standing, so he leaves to join the military in order to prove himself worthy of earning Charlotte’s hand.
Robert becomes a trooper in the King’s Horse Guard and develops a close friendship with his Troop’s leader, Major Philip Drake. Philip is the second born son of an aristocratic family and an affable, notorious rake and spendthrift of often dubious morals, whereas Robert is serious, honorable, steadfast, loyal, and celibate in his faithfulness to Charlotte but of low class birth. Although Philip and Robert are complete opposites in social station and personality, theirs is a brotherhood forged in blood and battle. Their friendship is an integral part of the story and ultimately has far-reaching, irrevocable ramifications.
After distinguishing himself nobly in various military campaigns and earning a title and prestige in the King’s Horse, Robert returns to claim his true love. However, Charlotte’s villainous, elitist uncle refuses to see him as anything but a lowly stable hand, and he conspires with other forces to thwart their love and to keep Robert and Charlotte forever apart. This is where the “highest stakes” part of the plot comes into play, with an ultimate wager on a horserace with honor and a betrothal, not just money, as the prize that becomes a life-altering catalyst for the characters.
I was so infuriated at Robert for not trusting in Charlotte’s commitment and willingness to endure any obstacle to be with him, regardless of his social position and lack of wealth, and for doubting her loyalty. But I think his motivations, decisions, and reactions were totally realistic because a man’s identity and pride are often tied with his being able to provide for and support his woman and family.
Philip Drake is a charismatic, complex, hard to define character whose selfish actions resulted in devastating consequences for several characters. There are multi-faceted layers to Philip’s personality that have yet to be completely revealed, so I’m looking forward to finding out more about him and hopefully having some questions answered in Lee’s next book.
It’s an epic, against all odds love story that will twist your emotions and have you cheering, cursing in anger and frustration, and possibly screaming noooo! at times (like I did). But I have to give author Emery Lee kudos for its authenticity and for not taking the easy road with the characters, even though it was really trying to witness their pain, injustices, and hardships. One thing to keep in mind (for romance readers like me) is that although it’s a passionate love story, the actual physical intimacies besides kissing and some mild petting happen off the page, but the relationships were so emotionally intense and well developed that I didn’t miss the sex.
Two things kept me from rating it five stars: 1) The excessive equine breeding details that sometimes overwhelmed the story’s flow and characters and 2) the abrupt, rather anticlimactic ending. After enduring so much emotional agony, tumult, heartbreak, and drama between Robert and Charlotte, I wanted a little more closure and gratification in the end. Yes, there is a satisfying HEA, but it’s over with much too quickly. I wanted another chapter and/or more of an epilogue...darn you, Ms. Lee! :)
The Highest Stakes is an original, well researched, intelligently written, poignant, and sweeping saga that should appeal to horse enthusiasts, historical fiction readers, and fans of unique, complex, Georgian historical romance with star-crossed love theme. 4 ½ stars!
“Try as you may, you can never defy love.”
Finally, mutually, and completely, they released all doubts, abandoned all fears, unwilling and unable to deny this overpowering love.
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