It takes a lot for me to consider something a 5-star read. Since I’m partial to urban fantasy, magic, and stories that don’t focus on romance, I was absolutely shocked that I ended up loving Sarah M. Eden‘s The Lady and the Highwayman so much. I’m not a huge fan of historical fiction, and I tend to avoid heterosexual romance. So how the heck did I end up getting sucked in to a Victorian-era romance novel??
For one thing, the novel is largely character-driven, and these characters have so much personality. The story is told from the alternating perspectives of Fletcher Walker, the street urchin turned successful penny dreadful author who moonlights as a member of a secret society dedicated to helping the poorest of London’s poor, and Elizabeth Black, headmistress of a respectable girls’ school and with a secret of her own; she also writes wildly successful penny dreadfuls, under the pseudonym “Mr. King.” These characters really grew on me because they felt so real. Fletcher is whip-smart and cunning, but he’s also kind and compassionate. Elizabeth is well aware of her place in society as a woman running a girls’ school, but she does everything in her power to fight for what she knows is right, while desperately safeguarding her secret identity that could ruin her should anyone find out.
Now, the romance. The reason I enjoyed it so much is because it’s actually believable and built on something other than “I’m in love with this person because I just am” that I see so often in romance stories. When Elizabeth and Fletcher first meet, they are instantly intrigued by each other because of their wildly witty banter and mutual interest in education for the poor. It’s not instant love, but a slow burn, and watching them both realize their feelings over the course of the novel was a treat. And did I mention the banter? You really can’t ask for better with these two.
As for the plot, it was just as good as the banter! Sometimes it’s hard for historical fiction to hold my attention, but I sped right through this book. The action is fast-paced and there’s a bit of mystery thrown into the mix as well. Fletcher’s side of the story involves rescuing an orphan from an abusive situation and finding out the secret identity of Mr. King, the author who is overtaking him in sales and popularity. Elizabeth’s side involves keeping Fletcher from finding out her secret while trying to figure out if there really is a secret society called the Dread Penny Society. Interspersed between the chapters are chapters from Elizabeth and Fletcher’s penny dreadfuls, which are just as fun to read! Elizabeth’s in particular was interesting because it mirrored what was happening in the novel but in a speculative way. It’s a true testament to Eden’s skill in that she was able to write three compelling novels in one.
If you’re a fan of historical romance novels, this is definitely the book for you. And if you’re not, I recommend giving it a try anyway. I’m glad I did!