CW: death, alcoholism, addiction, stillbirth, abuse, wrongful imprisonment, loss of innocence
Scarlett Peckham burst onto the romance scene with her The Duke I Tempted. She followed that success up with another success in The Earl I Ruined. As a result, I was highly anticipating reading The Rakess, the first book in her Society of Sirens series, and it is superb.
Inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft, Seraphina “Sera” Arden is a passionate liberalist and feminist whose core values are helping other women, who’ve run afoul men and have their lives ruined, and championing rights for women. Despite her beliefs coming under fire from all directions, she stands steadfast by them. Privately, she lives a hedonistic life of drinking and casual sex. She is answerable to no one and responsible to no one. She is a rakess in the true sense of how historical romances view rakes.
Adam Anderson, on the other hand, is abstemious and fastidious. He has a large capacity for empathy, thoughtfulness and caring and generously shares of himself with others. He is a widower whose wife died in childbirth, and he is raising their children on his own. He is an architect who sees politics in his future. Thus, if he were to marry again, he needs someone of exemplary character.
Sera and Adam meet on a Cornish cliffside where he is engaged in assessing the architecture of a structure and she mistakes him for her erstwhile lover.
What I liked about this book is how Peckham has her protagonists tackle their trauma. The heart of the story is how they process it internally and with each other and how they grow as a result of this work. The growth requires deep self-compassion for Sera that allows her to appreciate not just herself but also Adam. The more she gets to know herself and like herself, the better she is able to contribute to their relationship. Adam also has trauma to deal with, and yet, he has the capacity to offer empathy to others even as he is suffering. As Confucius has said, “A good man is kind, has integrity, doesn’t need much, and is willing to put himself at the disposal of other people.” Adam is a good man.
Many romance novels have damaged heroes who are healed by heroines. It is a rare novel that features a truly flawed heroine who has agency to heal herself and is helped along the healing process by the hero. Peckham unflinchingly allows Seraphina to be deeply flawed and still deserving of love and capable of loving. This book is a triumph of the human spirit and draws a bold line under “there is someone special for everyone.”
One of the joys of reading this book — it is interesting to use the word “joy” for such an atmospherically dark book but joy it is — is Peckham’s prose and the talent with which she uses words. You can feel the rain on the cliffside, the sensuality of fine cloth against Sera’s skin, every throb of emotion Sera feels. In every which way, the readers’ senses are engaged as they read.
Just like the rest of the book, the ending is no less compelling and unusual as far as historical romances go. It takes you by surprise and takes you by the throat. If there is one word to capture this book, it is: raw. You feel like you’re emotionally exposed just as the protagonists in the story are. They are not making this journey alone, while you sit as an uninvolved observer; you are right there with them.
This book has divided readers with strong opinions for and against the book. That to me is the hallmark of a great book. When a book engenders strong emotions in its readers leading to passionate discussions, a book rises from the ordinary to memorable.