Tessa Dare is one of my favorite newer romance authors, even though I had some problems with her first book, Goddess of the Hunt. The way it starts is enough to turn me off continuing: the heroine barges into the hero’s room at night demanding he help her practice kissing. Lucy Waltham wants to learn how to entice Toby, her brother’s friend whom she’s loved for years although he’s never shown any signs of reciprocating. She thinks that Jeremy Trescott, another friend of her brother’s whom she’s always felt antagonistic towards, will be a safe learning experience because no feelings will be involved. Based on this start, I found Lucy to be annoying and shallow, seeming more like an immature teenager than a woman of supposedly 20 years, and the age gap of 9 years between her and Jeremy felt distasteful in light of this. But something kept me reading, and by the second chapter the author’s fun tone and distinct voice had won me over, and as the book progressed I even became quite fond of Lucy as we learn more about her and watch her character grow. The interactions between her and Jeremy have a layer of familiarity because the two have known each other for years, and it gave depth to their relationship as they started to see something more in the person they thought they knew.
One refreshing detail that struck me right off was that among the cast of four male friends—including Jeremy, Toby, and Lucy’s brother Henry—two of the characters are already married. And while their marriages are presumably happy, they are also presented with several flaws that stop them from being the stuff of romantic legend. Felix might be able to maintain his natural good cheer even while being married to a shrew, and Henry’s wife might not mind his oafish obliviousness, but those very flaws are what makes them so realistic, and so true to the time period. I would probably not ask the author to write Felix’s and Henry’s love stories, but I appreciate that they are there and add to the feel of the book’s extended family. It might not seem very remarkable to have several married characters in a romance, but let me assure you that in the era of series-itis, every character that gets the effort of an introduction is dangled out as potential future hero or heroine material. In fact, even this book is the start of its own trilogy of interconnected love stories. (This is actually a device of the genre I generally like, because it plays to the urge to pair everyone up nicely and continue enjoyable series. But sometimes it can be overplayed and become too obvious that everyone has the stamp of a future lead on their forehead. Having a quartet of friends is another cliché especially rife in romance, so to take two potential heroes out of the running from the get-go is something you don’t usually see and shows guts.)
The characters all develop into something more than they seem at first, and I particularly liked the friendship that grows between Lucy and Sophia, her rival for Toby’s affections. Unfortunately it can sometimes be rare to see female friendships in romance books, and often the “other woman” is painted as an unlikeable or villainous caricature. The two women’s interaction sets up the plot of the next book in the series, with Sophia as the heroine. And Sir Toby, who starts out stubborn and careless, takes a long hard look at himself and what he wants in the last book of the trilogy and turns into a very fine hero indeed. All in all, Goddess of the Hunt is funny and sweet, and sets up a group of characters you want to keep following.