Tyburn (Southwark Saga #1) by Jessica Cale

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Sally Green is about to die.

She sees Death in the streets. She can taste it in her gin. She can feel it in the very walls of the ramshackle brothel where she is kept to satisfy the perversions of the wealthy. She had come to London as a runaway in search of her Cavalier father. Instead, she found Wrath, a sadistic nobleman determined to use her to fulfill a sinister ambition. As the last of her friends are murdered one by one, survival hinges on escape.

Nick Virtue is a tutor with a secret. By night he operates as a highwayman, relieving nobles of their riches to further his brother’s criminal enterprise. It’s a difficult balance at the best of times, and any day that doesn’t end in a noose is a good one. Saving Sally means risking his reputation, and may end up costing him his life.

As a brutal attack throws them together, Sally finds she has been given a second chance. She is torn between the tutor and the highwayman, but she knows she can have neither. Love is an unwanted complication while Wrath haunts the streets. Nick holds the key to Wrath’s identity, and Sally will risk everything to bring him to justice.

Unless the gallows take her first.

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Publisher and Release Date: Liquid Silver Books, December 2014

Time and Setting: London, 1671
Heat Level: 1.5
Genre: Romantic Historical Fiction
Reviewer Rating: 3.5 stars

Review by Caz

Set in the poorest areas of post-Restoration London, Jessica Cale’s Tyburn is a dark, gritty story that’s well written and very readable, but which unfortunately loses its edge around the half-way point.

Sally Green is a whore, one of many owned by the brutal and mysterious Wrath, a pimp to the higher classes. Passed from lord to lord, Sally longs to escape, but her few attempts to do so have resulted in re-capture and brutal beatings. Even so, such treatment has not quelled her spirit, but now she turns more and more frequently to the gin bottle for solace, her friendship with the “molly” (male prostitute), Bettie being the true constant in her life.

Nick Virtue was well educated and had hoped to become a physician, but was forced to truncate his studies when his patron died. He now tries to eke out a living as a tutor to the two sons of Lord Hereford, but when his employer neglects to pay him, he is forced to resort to highway robbery in order to feed himself. He meets Sally late one night after he holds up Hereford’s coach, and the two of them fall into easy conversation. There is an undeniable attraction between them which blossoms when Nick tends to Sally following an attack which left her for dead.

For almost half the story, I felt I was reading a strong 4-star book. The tale, while grim, is compelling, and Ms Cale confidently sets out the groundwork for the mystery elements of the story, which will ultimately reveal Nick’s true identity and lead to Wrath’s downfall. Her descriptions of the dark underbelly of the city and its denizens – both rich and poor – are vivid and really put the reader in their midst; whether it be with Sally and Bettie or the roistering, debauched young aristocrats on weeks-long binges of whoring and drinking. I admit, though, that Ms Cale’s ability to so thoroughly bring her characters and situations to life sometimes makes for uncomfortable reading, and there are a few scenes which are not for the faint-hearted.

But while the story being told is fascinating, for a book that is described as an historical romance, there is not much romance in it until almost half-way through, which I found rather frustrating. Equally as frustrating is the fact that at around the time the romance finally kicks in, the story loses its edge and strays into more conventional historical romance territory. The attraction between Nick and Sally takes centre stage and they both start treading warily around each other when she believes he is courting another woman and he wonders if Sally is attracted to his handsome rogue of a brother, Mark. I didn’t mind that so much – the tonal shift from dark to light (or at least, lighter) is necessary given what has gone before, but the contrast is so large that I started to feel as though I was reading a completely different book. And while I was relieved when Nick and Sally finally started to interact more, the romance isn’t all that well developed. Nick has been sweet on Sally since first seeing her and she’s certainly attracted to his handsome face and body, but I never felt a strong emotional connection or sensual spark between them.

And once the story became less absorbing, I started to notice modernisms in the dialogue and other inconsistencies. For instance, Nick’s brother refers to him as a good-looking “guy” and later talks about something not being “a total bust”. While I wouldn’t expect the characters to speak as though they have stepped from the pages of a Restoration Comedy, I certainly don’t expect them to speak as though they are from the 21st century. Then there’s the fact that Nick, Mark and their friends have been living hand to mouth for ages, and yet are suddenly able to afford expensive foodstuffs like spices, sugar and almonds for Sally to use in her baking.

Tyburn, then, is a book of two halves that don’t quite mesh together. The first part is a dark, gritty story that doesn’t sugar-coat the conditions under which Sally and her ilk are forced to work, and in which the author’s descriptive prose is very evocative without being overly detailed: the book is worth reading for that part alone. Unfortunately, however, the second part doesn’t live up to the promise of the first, which leads to the book ultimately feeling unbalanced. Based on a 4 star rating for the first half and 3 stars for the second, I’m going to give Tyburn a qualified recommendation to anyone looking for something different in an historical romance.

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