Blog Tour & ARC Review: Siren of Sussex by Mimi Matthews

Publishing Date: January 11, 2022

Welcome to the Siren of Sussex book tour with Berkley Publishing Group. (This blog tour post is also posted on my Tumblr book, art, & fandom blog Whimsical Dragonette.)

Synopsis:

USA Today bestselling historical romance writer Mimi Matthews makes her Berkley debut with a boldly feminist tale about a daring equestrienne in her quest for independence just as the birth of haute couture takes the echelons of Victorian society by storm.
 
Matthews’ novel is inspired by the real-life Pretty Horsebreakers, a scandalous group of equestriennes and infamous courtesans at the forefront of fashion trends in Victorian London who defied the rules of polite society, and Charles Worth, the father of haute couture. THE SIREN OF SUSSEX (Berkley Trade Paperback Original; January 11, 2022) introduces Evelyn Maltravers, an incurable bluestocking determined to make her first and only season in London a roaring success.
 
Evelyn Maltravers is not exactly the woman who comes to mind when picturing a distinguished lady of the ton. More suited to riding than dancing, and much more opinionated than a young lady ought to be, her chances of securing a successful match have always been slim. But after her eldest sister is embroiled in scandal, that is exactly what she must do. Freshly arrived in London, Evelyn has one season to secure a husband and ensure both her own future and that of her four younger sisters. While Evelyn knows she will never dazzle the ton in a ballroom, there is one place where she has the advantage over all the ladies of polite society—on horseback in Rotten Row. But if she is to rival the alluring beauty of the Pretty Horsebreakers, she will need a tailor unafraid to take risks to make her the most fashionable equestrienne of the ton.
 
Evelyn turns to half-Indian dressmaker Ahmad Malik, who has a unique talent for bringing out his clients’ best features. Despite the inherent barriers he faces to becoming part of high society, Ahmad is working toward owning his own shop by designing the eye-catching habits of the Pretty Horsebreakers. Evelyn is convinced that Ahmad is the only person who can make her debut at Rotten Row a success. Ahmad knows that Evelyn, a fierce and confident woman on horseback, is the perfect muse, and an alluring subject to display his designs to the ton, if only he can set aside the intense attraction he feels for her.
 
With both their futures at stake, Ahmad will have to turn the diamond in the rough into the diamond of the season—while they both strive not to lose their hearts in the process.
 
Mimi Matthews delivers an enthralling romance while exploring themes of race, class, and the lingering effects of British colonialism. Drawing from her own Indian heritage and experience as an avid horse rider, Matthews brings to life Ahmad and Evelyn, two outsiders who change the course of Victorian society.

Author Bio:

USA Today bestselling author Mimi Matthews writes both historical nonfiction and award-winning proper Victorian romances. Her novels have received starred reviews in Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Kirkus, and her articles have been featured on the Victorian Web, the Journal of Victorian Culture, and in syndication at BUST Magazine. In her other life, Mimi is an attorney. She resides in California with her family, which includes a retired Andalusian dressage horse, and two Siamese cats. Learn more online at mimimatthews.com.

Author photo by Berkley Jove (TR)

My Review:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Characters: 4 stars
Writing Style: 4 stars
Plot: 3 stars
Cover: 5 stars
Representation: 5 stars
Romance: 5 stars
Enjoyment: 4 stars
Overall: 4 stars

I really, really enjoyed this story. There are moments that absolutely shine — especially when Ahmad is inspired to create a dress- and I really enjoy the characters of Evelyn and Ahmad, as well as their friends. If anything, we get more of Ahmad in this book than we do Evelyn, and he is a truly good character who was a joy to read about. He’s everything a romance hero should be. I loved that it was a “closed-door” romance, which is a term I hadn’t really encountered before but I’ll definitely be looking out for more. There was plenty of passion and emotion but it didn’t hinge on sex, which is a rare find in a romance novel. The discussion of class and privilege was welcome, as was Ahmad’s determination to see the worth in people, not their station in life.

While I quite enjoyed the romance as it developed, Evelyn and Ahmad’s instant attraction was rather too based on insta-lust, however, and for the first quarter of the book I kept thinking of putting it down because I was afraid it wouldn’t deepen into something more substantial. It did deepen, though, and became a romance I could definitely root for. Still, I wish we’d gotten a bit more of Evelyn. She loves her horse, she pretends she’s not a bluestocking, she’s trying to provide for her sisters, but there’s not much beyond that.

While I appreciated the beauty of the dresses and Ahmad’s passion for designing them, I didn’t need the action broken quite so often with a description of what every character was wearing.

Everything also seemed just a tad improbable, even though, again, I quite enjoyed the story. Evelyn is supposedly attempting to launch herself into society to find a wealthy husband… but spends most of the novel alone with Ahmad. We never get a deep sense of who her friends are or who their love interests are, because the focus is so very single-minded. Then, too, all the obstacles and problems are so easily surmounted. Even the villain of the piece seems quite villainous until she melts away to nothing.

…I realize all of that makes my review sound a bit nitpicky or negative but that’s not what I’m going for at all. It’s more like, highlighting areas of an already very good story where it could be developed or polished just a tad more in order to make it really shine. After a few weeks away from it, I can hardly remember Evelyn at all but Ahmad sticks in my mind. He’s an excellent character and needed Evelyn to be a bit more developed to balance him properly.

All in all, it was undoubtedly quite good and I absolutely recommend it, but it could have been something more. Yes, I enjoyed it, yes the romance was swoony, yes the main characters were lovely… but with just a hint more depth and struggle it would have been an instant favorite and would have catapulted the author onto my auto-buy list. I will still look forward to her future books, however.

*Thanks to NetGalley and Berkley Publishing Group for providing an e-arc for review.

Favorite Quotes:

“Love!” Lady Arundell scoffed. “How can that possibly be?”

“He sewed pockets in all of her skirts,” Anne said.

“Pockets.” Julia signed. “Imagine.”

“And she didn’t even have to ask him to do it,” Stella said.

Non-exclusive Excerpt:

A surge of disappointment dimmed Evelyn’s smile. It occurred to her, quite suddenly, how little she knew about him.

Of course, he must have a sweetheart. Heaven’s sake, he was probably married! Just because he didn’t wear a wedding band didn’t mean he didn’t have a wife—and probably several children besides. It was none of her affair.

She turned back to the shelves. “In that case . . . What about a romance?”

“No romances,” he said darkly.

“No?” Was he one of those stuffy men who disapproved of romance novels? Many did. Even so, she’d expected better of him. A man who designed clothing so beautifully shouldn’t be averse to sentiment. “What about this one, then? Silas Marner. It only came out last year.”

Mr. Malik drew it from the shelf. It was bound in brown cloth with gilt lettering on the spine. “What’s it about?”

“An individual and his place in society. The hero of the story is a weaver. A man with no family to speak of, who keeps himself apart from his community.”

“A bit too close to home.” He returned the book to the shelf. “She needs something bright. Something to boost her spirits.”

Evelyn wondered why. Was she ill? Melancholic? Had she had some sort of disappointment? “In that case”—she reached for a Jane Austen novel—“I recommend this one.”

He took it from her, giving the title a dubious glance. “Northanger Abbey.”

“It’s Miss Austen’s satire of a Gothic novel. A vastly entertaining read. It should take her mind off whatever it is that’s troubling her.”

Mr. Malik thumbed through the pages. His expression was doubtful.

“I confess,” she said “there is a romance in the story, but it’s witty rather than mawkish. I can’t imagine she won’t enjoy it.”

“It’s still a romance.”

A cough sounded nearby, along with the thump of books being shoved back on a shelf. It was a reminder that she and Mr. Malik weren’t alone. Far from it. The shop seemed to be growing busier.

Evelyn sunk her voice. “What does she have against romance?”

“Nothing,” he replied, his tone equally low. “I just don’t want her to get any ideas.”

“Ideas about what?”

“About happily-ever-afters.”

The wide swell of Evelyn’s skirts brushed his leg. She belatedly realized that she’d drawn closer to him. That their conversation had taken on an air of intimacy. “You object to them?”

“I don’t believe in fairy tales,” he said.

She gave him an amused look. “Is that what they are?”

“In my experience.”

“How illuminating.”

“Is it?” He turned another page.

“Indeed. You’re a cynic, Mr. Malik. I wouldn’t have thought it.”

“I’m a realist.”

“Happily-ever-afters are real. For some people, at least. And even if they weren’t . . . A little romance never hurt anyone.”

His eyes lifted to hers. There was an expression in them that was hard to read. “You think not?”

Butterflies unfurled their wings in her stomach. The same feeling she’d had when she’d first touched his hand. A fluttering, breathless sensation. As if her corset had been laced too tightly. “No,” she said. And then she thought of Fenny. “Not in a novel, anyway.”

His mouth curled into the barest hint of a smile.

Once again, she had the unsettling sensation that he could read her mind. She took a step back from him. “Forgive me, but I mustn’t linger. My maid is waiting for me.”

He closed the book, clutching it in his hand. “Thank you for your help.”

“It was my pleasure. I hope your . . .” Wife? Sweetheart? “I hope she enjoys the story.”

“My cousin.”

Evelyn nearly stumbled in the process of taking another step backward. “I beg your pardon?”

“The book is for my cousin.”

His words penetrated before she could school her features. She was certain an expression of relief passed over her face.

She was equally certain that he saw it.

Heaven only knew what he must think.

“Your cousin. Well, that’s . . . that’s splendid.” Splendid? Evelyn’s eyes closed against a swell of embarrassment. She was quite ready to disappear into a hole in the earth. She took another step back. “Please convey my regards.”

His smile broadened. “I shall.”

From THE SIREN OF SUSSEX published by arrangement with Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Mimi Matthews.

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