Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Inconvenient Companion - Expanded Review with SPOILERS

The Inconvenient Companion is the third book in the Inconvenient Trilogy by Audrey Harrison.  It is a stand alone book with references to previous books explained so you do not have to read them first.  However, you'll probably enjoy it more if you do.

If you've NOT read The Inconvenient Companion and do NOT want to be spoiled, read my non-spoiler review of The Inconvenient Companion & my very general quibble over epilogues at Page Traveler E-Book Reviews.

If you've read The Inconvenient Companion or aren't afraid of spoilers, read my expanded review, fuss about epilogues, below the cut.  Please, share your thoughts if so inclined.
You've been warned!

Laura and Alfred touched me in the second book, right from the moment they met.  I was eager for their story, so hopeful for them despite the odds.  She was so much more than a victim of birth and Baron Kersal.  Her spirit was battered but her outlook realistic.  She was not bitter or falsely optimistic.  She was a genuine heroine IMHO.

Alfred was a complex character, worthy of brooding hero award, and yet, he had this quirky sense of humor and a desire to be everything he could be.  He had a traumatic past, that he spent years atoning for and like Laura, a realistic outlook.  In his case it had become just a bit too rigid to allow for the possibility the world was not the dark place he knew.  Laura shined light and warmth on that place.  He wanted to embrace that and yet ... he was so afraid....

In The Inconvenient Companion, Bow Street Officer Alfred Peters is still on the job, close to netting Evil Baron Kersal, weary of the part he's been forced to play.  He returns to Kersal's Den of Inequity one final time, not for information but for himself.  Like a haunting refrain, we're reminded of Alfred and Laura's first encounter. “In another life I would have taken care of you.” Laura whispered the words, as if reading his thoughts. “In another life I would have let you.” Alfred responded as he had on that first day. That he was willing to pay for and indulge in a few hours of tenderness; that she welcomed both him and the hours says a great deal about these characters.  He wasn't a man that indulged in anything.  She wasn't a woman that enjoyed her work.  Sharing what words could not say, Laura snuggled with Alfred in the afterglow.  Alfred relaxed and joked with Laura. Their parting is brutal, though gently done, because "life was what it was."

It's months later when we find Laura again. The trial of Evil Baron Kersal has collapsed due to the support of the Duke of Lingston.  Though the Evil Baron was out of business, someone was eliminating those with any knowledge of his methods for obtaining innocent girls for his more ... selective customers.  Laura is frightened, moreso when her friend is fished out of the Thames, making Laura the last one that knows anything that might cause Evil Baron inconvenience.

I'll pause a moment, and admit the concept of stealing girls to marry them to off to perverts was a bit of a stretch to me.  What Lord or Nabob would marry a girl without family, background or dowry when he could keep her all the same?  I supposed it was plausible the marriage was a guarantee of silence by Lords of Perversion about just where those brides were obtained.  I was willing to handwave this because the "facts" of it all might have been presented to the women as one thing when another was actually going on.  It's not like Kersal was going to take either his victims or the women ordered to take care of them in to his confidence.  It was a weak plausibility, but I've accepted weaker ones without complaint or regret.

Laura's means of eluding the Villain watching her as she identifies her friend's body was inspired.  She wasn't willing to accept the facts of fate without a struggle.  I admired her before, I admired her more.  There's only one person she trusts but she's not sure of his willingness to help her.  Her bravery sputtered out at the thought of approaching him at Bow Street.  Remaining in the shadows,  she waits all day and in to the evening before she sees him.  She follows him, hoping he'll help her, afraid he won't.  Alfred ducks in to an alley knowing he's being followed and yanks her off the street before he realizes who it is.  Barely able to take in her presence, the fact she's pregnant and his own confusion, he's further alarmed when she nearly faints from hunger, fear and relief dying before it can fully take hold. He takes her to his lodgings.  She's grateful for the sanctuary and food.

He asks her what's happened.  She tells him.  Everything.  But he doesn't truly hear.
“What about the father?” Alfred asked, unable to stop himself.
“Would you be happy if a woman of ill-repute came knocking on your door, saying that you were the father of her child?” Laura asked defiantly, but watching closely at the response to her words.
“I probably wouldn’t believe her.

Alfred listens more attentively to the rest of the story, offers what comfort he can and then asks what she plans to do.  With no where to go, her plan is to put distance between Evil Baron and herself.  Alfred concludes they will have to seek out Lord Halkyn for assistance since he knows no one outside of London.  That Laura helped Lady Halkyn escape the Evil Baron (in the second book of this trilogy) guarantees Lord Halkyn's willingness. In the meantime, she'll stays there, with him.  They managed to endure the confinement in two small rooms and a closet without squabbling or days of tantric sex [sorry, there are other books out there if that's your mood this week].

Alfred spends many hours wishing he was not longing for a life he couldn't have with Laura.  The thought of her with other men literally makes him ill. It doesn't matter why, only that it happened. He cannot get past it, doesn't believe it would be possible to even if he tried - which he doesn't really.  There is a sad historical reality here, compounded by the fact she is obviously pregnant.  Perhaps he could pretend if not for the life bulging before him, but frankly, I don't think that would've worked for Alfred.  Not without a 2x4 upside the head.  I don't hate characters with hang ups, but I do feel sorry for them.  Alfred wasted every opportunity fate, god, life, whatever label works for you, gave him.

Laura kept trying to reach deeper, to remain before him as honestly as she could, aching for him to reach back, accepting every crumb as a double loaf.  She could see his yearning beneath the surface but she was doomed to failure by the memory of their meeting and the life she carried.  That she purposely conceived is a debatable issue except that she Believes This with all her heart.  One precious moment in her life that she had control over and it only served to alienate the one she loved, the reason she took control in the first place.  It wasn't the wisest thing she ever did, and it cost her everything, but then being a woman really sucks sometimes.  For all her frustration with her friend for believing one of her clients would come to her rescue; Laura wasn't that different.  She didn't expect Alfred Peters to come to her, but having his child was like having a piece of him.  How many young women have comforted themselves this way is probably beyond counting.

Because Lord and Lady Halkyn are still on their wedding trip, Alfred is forced to seek out Lord Dunham's assistance instead.  Lord Dunham has just the place for Laura to hide out and just the people to assist her until Halkyn returns.  Charles Anderton and Martha Fairfield - the other half of this story. [You can read more about them HERE] Off to Yorkshire and Home Farm they all go; it is a bumpy ride in more ways than one. Arriving as a guest, Laura is humbled and bemused by the world she's entered.  She is also fascinated by the wilderness surrounding them.  Everything from rabbits to weeds was new and interesting and the two of them spent hours walking and just being outside.  Their cautious friendship grew, as did Laura's child.  They wanted to spend time together, to get to know one another, to indulge in the connection they felt without hurting anyone or providing opportunity for gossip among the servants. They usually ended their walk near a stream they found on their first outing, Laura's head on Alfred's lap.  It was easier to speak this way, without eye contact.

Laura reveals her past when Alfred asks.  From foundling hospital to work in the Baron's house as a scullery maid at eight.  Evil Baron took her out of the scullery.  For this, she viewed him as a guardian angel rescuing her from drudgery.  Two years later, Evil Baron lost his angel wings by putting her too work, certain the coins was compensation enough for her innocence.  Alfred is repulsed by Evil Baron's villainy against a child; horrified by the thoughts of what she endured. Laura is more prosaic. "I've had a long time to realise there was nothing to be gained in regretting what happened.  I survived, I was fed and got paid, I may have hated it, but I didn't have many choices did I?" He agrees she had no choice, but still ... even so, it doesn't change what she was, is, always will be.

Alfred is deft at avoiding her questions, but Laura isn't willing to give up.  Eventually, he gives in and tells her that he didn't chose to be a Bow Street Officer, it chose him.  Brought up in an orphanage, he was apprenticed as a clerk and continued on until he was nineteen.  His employer, Mr. King, facing hard times, became a forger of documents.  One of the fakes were discovered and cost others involved a lot of money.  These men burned the King household to the ground, killing them all. "It wasn't an accident, the windows had been nailed down and a barricade put across the door.... I heard their screams and then the quiet."

He spent time tracing and paying back those involved, one by one.  He burnt down houses, offices and factories - making sure no one was inside - he became a criminal, just as they were.  And it only delayed their business.  Reaching the top dog, Alfred beat the stuffing out of him.  If he hadn't been stopped, he probably would have killed the man.  Bow Street Officers were also on the trail of the forgers; they'd been following Alfred for weeks.  His soon-to-be-boss, Mr. Frost, intervened and told him: "We can only make choices about the future, we cannot influence the past." Mr. Frost said he needed men like Alfred, ones that won't give up when the job is difficult.  Using skills he learned as a methodical clerk, he became an exemplary Officer, the one useful on cases that others wouldn't take on.  But Alfred didn't heed the wise words regarding choices about the future, or maybe he thought they only applied to that One Incident.

Laura takes in what he says, the things he doesn't and declares: "I'm not saying that you are an angel, but you are a decent human being with principles and I for one am glad to know you."
Unfortunately, later on, when confronted with the same opportunity to affirm Laura, he lands on his arse.  She presses him for a promise to come and see her, just to visit, just to know he is well, to see she is well.... She's asking for a grain of hope and he knows this.  Afraid to give this to either of them, he freaks out.
"What do you think I felt when I saw you were with child?"
Laura's anger was reduced slightly at the look of pain in Alfred's eyes.  "I would have expected you to have asked me civil questions instead of jumping to your conclusions and condemning me."
Alfred sighed.  "I know your background, I don't think my conclusions were unreasonable, were they?"
"All the signs have been there before your bloody eyes and you've ignored every one of them!  You're the father of this child and you damn well know it!  Add up the dates Alfred!"
"I would have thought better of you Laura, than trying to blame your folly on a decent man, and yes, even after all that has happened, I class myself as a decent man.  Don't ever mention this to me in the future, or you will never see me again, I promise you that."
After a long walk and Deep Thots, he concludes Laura inadvertently hit on his deepest desire for a family.  Calming, he became magnanimous, forgiving really, since Laura was in an uncertain position, of course she would try and secure her future and that of her baby.

This is where I confess I felt the lack of a tangible paper book in my hands for the first time in years.  Folly!  FOLLY?!  I would have slapped the poor book around, kicked at it and possibly smacked it against the wall.  Doing this to my reader would not be a good idea.  I truly thought after all the time they spent together, after hearing her story, Alfred, who had more reason to understand than any other, would acknowledge the only not-decent person was the Evil Baron.  It's what happens in romance novels.  We've grown used to this, the melting of hearts, the generosity of spirit.  What the heck was this?! Yes, yes, we can piss and moan about Historical Accuracy and then, guess what, Bitch when we get it.  Readers are Rotten, Inconsistent Troublemakers, and that's an understatement I'm sure!
[mutter, stomp, whine ... deep breath, moving on]
As I did my own deep breathing and re-read, I realized Alfred was afraid to believe Laura.  He wanted a family so very desperately that like some self-fulfilling prophecy of failure, he was afraid to have even the possibility before him.  It might be snatched away and leave him alone, again, with just his methodical, relentless work.  I could understand that, but it still didn't take away that desire to smack him once or seven times!

Though the word was never used, Laura was a whore.  Even relegated to tending the girls because at 24 she was too old to be appealing to the customers, she still worked in a Den of Inequity.  The only reason she was no longer there was the fact the business was shut down in a raid. [though I did wonder if she planned to leave since she was with child but this was never stated].  Black and white, cut and dried, in 1816, she wasn't even a person most would acknowledge as being alive.

Alfred's kindness, his concern for her, the emotional bond they shared could never surmount the facts of life.  There wasn't anywhere they could go and leave it behind because Alfred would know.  The baby-to-be would be evidence condemning her forever.  She dared dream a little, dared chastise Alfred for not looking beyond the facts to her heart.  There was a relentless hopefulness in Laura that Alfred was drawn to, whether he saw it or not.  And though she tried to be practical and realistic, dreams were still nourished, perhaps unwillingly, inside of her.

It wasn't right, it wasn't fair, but "life was what it was."  Ms. Harrison was so very gentle with her readers, but she did not give us false hopes.  THAT's part of why this book is my favorite of the three.

Laura's baby is born, and they return to cautious friendship.  Alfred does try and talk about it but Laura stops him.  "I would want to spend time with you where I am afraid to say anything for fear you will walk away again.  We have time in the future to talk about what I said."  She could not risk him withdrawing from her again, he meant too much.  She had pushed him too quickly, too far, and now she must take things slowly and tell him the truth a little at a time.

As she recovers her equilibrium, practicality returns.  Laura is resigned to the fact Alfred will soon leave.  They were not destined to be together but at least she would have Frederica, a small cottage and treasured memories.  She didn't really believe Alfred would ever believe her but once the words were said, there would be no going back, no hope of the grudging respect she still hoped for.  So she never spoke the words.  Never had the chance....

Truly, there was enough foreshadowing and subtle warnings to choke a horse and still, still, I couldn't quite believe what happened.  Even as I was wailing and flailing, I was grateful that Ms. Harrison had the courage to create a villain that was actually a Villain, not just a caricature. And I confess, I expected to lose Alfred - in some knock down, drag out with the villain - how wrong I was!

Villain was waiting for Laura and Martha as they left the cottage they'd been preparing for Laura and the baby. He regrets she got away before, it would have been over and done with in a second.  But she calmly tells him, "I could not let you kill my child."
There was no running, there was no escape.  She had achieved what she set out to do, Frederica was safe and would be well cared for, she had done her duty.  Yes, she wanted to live, wanted to with every fiber of her being, but she was not about to sacrifice Martha for an attempt at escape.  It was not as if she had anywhere to go.  She had no other connections than the ones who offered support now, if they could not protect her, no one could.

Villain didn't waste time on threats or monologues about his rights or other foolish nonsense, he stabbed her and ran off.  Just that fast - just that completely.  Leaving the women on the side of the road, expecting Laura to bleed out before help could be summoned.  It almost happened that way but Martha Fairfield was made of amazing stuff.  She wrestled Laura in to the cart and raced for help.  She also identified the Villain as a man with a scar.  Alfred knew immediately who it was and how the Villain found Laura.... Corless, his Bow Street counterpart working on the outside following Evil Baron and monitoring activities while Alfred worked on the inside.  He had surely gone in to Mr. Frost's office and found the letter Alfred wrote informing him of Laura's location, the baby's birth and a half-hearted request for further instructions.

The doctor tells them there is no hope, it's only a matter of time. Alfred goes to her.  He promises that Frederica will be well looked after, cared for, loved as she deserves and that HE will do so.
She took another breath and with a wistful smile said, "In another life..." before the effort became too much.
Alfred's eyes filled with tears that this time spilled down his cheeks, but he smiled at the woman on the bed.  "In another life...." He said and kissed her cheek.
Laura closed her eyes with a sigh and her breathing stopped.
[I blubbered, so what!  It happened too fast, there was barely time to take it in!]
The men gather in the study, making plans to alert Bow Street to Corless' betrayal and crimes, everyone assumes Alfred will lead the charge.  Alfred sets them straight.  "I won't be returning to London.  I promised Laura that I would look after her child and that is what I am going to do.  I am no coward, but I have lost too many people to the likes of him.  From now on, I am going to look after myself and the baby, away from the hell-hole that is London."  He had made mistakes in his life, some of which he would pay for the rest of his days, but he was determined to do the right thing by Frederica.

I am sure Laura would understand, would be grateful, would even forgive him for never giving her the acceptance she craved.  After all, Laura knew, "People like her did not get happy endings."   I did comprehend her viewpoint, mostly.  Alfred was twenty-three, which is still very young even in the Regency error.  He was raised in an orphanage, lost his entire adopted family in a brutal fashion and barely survived his aborted attempt at revenge.  He'd never even thought of living in the country, of the wonders of grass and stream and silence until Laura required his help.  For the most part, I could see his fears might have let go of him without such a loss, but it might have taken more, or half his life.

When Mr. Frost appears to warn Alfred, it is too late, Laura is already buried. Corless is out there, the murderer of four women that had no choices but to survive until someone took even that choice away.  Frost is certain he'll be found.  I wasn't.  Having accomplished his mission for the Evil Baron, who is the only one left to be an inconvenience but Corless?  Why he would expect more mercy than the women he killed, is typical but not bloody likely.  There's no way Evil Baron is going to leave that loose end about.

Charles is inspired to hire Alfred as the new estate manager, ensuring the former one will stay on until he is properly trained.  This is a win-win for everyone, since he couldn't imagine a job where he could keep a motherless child.  Alfred bonds with his daughter - finally accepting she IS his after Martha shares Laura's confidences with him.  As I said, perhaps in time, Laura's word would have been enough, math would have prevailed, or it simply wouldn't have mattered.  As the story ends, though he regrets many things, though he still wishes for what could never be, seeing Laura separate from her past is something Alfred will never have to face....

And this brings us to the epilogue ::sigh::
I know, I know, everyone else but me loves, needs, demands, must have "the rest of the story."

For myself, I didn't want to know Alfred did all the things Laura had begun to dream of, without her, without more than hard work.  It rams down my broken heart that it was Laura and her past he couldn't get beyond.  She had to die for him to see there was always a way, if you truly wanted one.  She might have felt that was worth her life - I didn't.  Of course, I know fellow readers would be screaming and hollering about the historical reality of an ex-whore living on the estate of a Lord, married to the estate manager and what their children would endure. Poor Ms. Harrison would be mercilessly hounded by the rabid, drowning in a sea of negative reviews and harsh reprimands and possibly a vicious discussion topic on message boards.  I ::shudder:: at the thought.

And, reluctantly, I even admit they're right, it probably never would have happened.  Doesn't stop my heart from wanting Laura to have that peaceful life in her cottage, with her child.  Even if Alfred never returned she would have had joy and laughter, memories to treasure, and life as full as she could make it.  So, it is quite contrary, if not downright mean of me to resent Alfred having it instead.  I'm not sure what I might have envisioned for Alfred - that choice was taken from me by the epilogue.  I think I resent that bitterly, with apologies to Ms. Harrison and my fellow readers that needed to know Alfred carried on quite well.  Maybe it was just too fast, a mere couple chapters after her death so I hadn't time to wrestle with my grief and accept "life was what it was."

EVEN SO, with my quibbles and sniveling ... this is  one of the best Traditional Regency stories I've read in a long while.  The elements I've come to expect were turned end over and still worked very well indeed.  The dilemmas and conflicts were realistic, the characters strong enough to carry through two books and beyond to imagination. [eventually I'll purge the epilogue from my memory and Alfred will still carry on, but perhaps he won't wait his daughter's life to marry, perhaps Laura's hopefulness will have touched him enough to take a chance that he can love more than one person at a time and without fear]  The writing, even with conversion messing with it, was excellently paced and the two stories twined together perfectly.  I do have a soft spot for novels that aren't about Dukes and Glitter. I will always pick the ordinary miss over the incomparable beauty and the hero can be troubled or carefree, so long as he can use both his heart and head at the end.  This book filled up all my favorite longings and then some - even the parts that made me snivel and growl were worth reading and taking time to ponder.  Stars are nice but since I don't dare post something this long or full of spoilers anywhere but here, I hope knowing someone was invested enough in plot, dialog and characters to remember them a week later and spend hours on sharing that makes a bold and emphasized Yippee just as good.

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