From the desk of Katie Patchell:
Thanks to Charles Dickens’ vivid imagination and keen eye for the overlooked, Victorian England’s readers met paupers and rag-sellers, prostitutes, and orphans. Many other authors followed his example in showing the light, the darkness, and everything in between, that are a very real part of our world. John Thornton, Dorothea Brooks, Helen Huntingdon, and more came to life alongside Oliver Twist, each fighting for truth, justice, and hope in a hard world. Sarah M. Eden’s latest in “The Dread Penny Society” series, The Merchant and the Rogue, is set in the city of Dickens: the mad, bustling, glittering, foul, terrible, great streets of 19th century London. Like the Victorian classics, it shines a light on the individuals who are not wealthy or aristocratic, and like the dread-penny novels of the time, it does this with plenty of flair, humor, and mystery.
“If laughter truly were the best medicine, Brogan Donnelly would have been the healthiest Irishman in all of England. Jests came as easy to him as breathing, and that was more-or-less all anyone knew about him. He preferred it that way.” (Loc 59)
Brogan Donnelly and his sister share a dark history from their past in Ireland, one that–hopefully—no one knows in their new city of London. This isn’t the only secret he keeps. Brogan is both an author of penny dreadfuls and a member of an altruistic secret society of fellow authors. When tasked to pretend to leave the society that he loves to take the lead on a dangerous mission, Brogan has no choice but to add this to his bounty of secrets. Alongside the constant risks of an undercover operative, Brogan is surprised to find himself finally feeling at home in his new life as never before. The only problem? He has become drawn to a woman he most definitely shouldn’t: Vera Sorokina, the daughter of the man he suspects of treason.
Vera Sorokina loves books, especially penny dreadfuls. Unfortunately, her father despises them and all authors. For her entire life, Vera has listened to his mutters about a mysterious group of Russian dissidents; because of them and their writings, her family had to flee to England. On meeting the charming Brogan Donnelly (although not under that name), Vera is surprised by the realization that in him, she may have met a true friend…and maybe something more.
Threats to their lives and the lives of their friends arrive in the form of the mysterious Protector; an unknown villain intent on destroying businesses and livelihoods. As Vera and Brogan band together to protect those they love, they must navigate layer upon layer of the secrets they have built their new identities on. With lies all around them, the truths of their past and present are the key to survival; that is, if they reveal everything before the Protector makes his final move.
“There’s strength in numbers,” he added. Strength, yes. But also chaos. Sooner or later the gale force winds would whip into the tempest they’d been warned of. What if they weren’t ready for it?” (Loc 3464)
I read and reviewed each of the earlier titles in “The Dread Penny Society” series for Austenprose.com in 2020. The premise of a justice-oriented secret society formed by penny dreadful authors was always intriguing, but never wholly captured my attention…until this latest addition to the series. The Merchant and the Rogue’s intrigue is satisfyingly complicated in all the right ways and the romance is realistic yet soul-stirringly beautiful. This book is easily in my top five reads of the year.
As for the characters, Brogan and Vera were ones I want to meet with again and again. Not only do they represent countries not often seen in Victorian fiction (Ireland and Russia), but the topic of the immigrant experience in Victorian England, London, was fascinating to read. The details Eden shared about their experiences show that she’s spent time researching this period and what it was like to be an immigrant in that era. Vera—our heroine—is no shrinking violet. Her bravery, passion for those around her, and strength of purpose is inspiring. Brogan’s past in Dublin, relationship with his sister, Moirin, and happiness to play the role of the sidekick in The Dread Penny Society all combine to give him a page-turning arc and the status of a hero in my books (even if he would disagree). Vera and Brogan’s connection cracked and sparked until I could feel it through my Kindle app. What began as shared goals and a mutual understanding of being called “the outsider” grew into a deep respect and love.
The only thing that detracted from my read of The Merchant and the Rogue is one I also experienced in the previous books. For a reason I still cannot fathom, Eden has made the choice in each book to include entire chapters of multiple characters’ penny-dreadful stories. Maybe they exist to foreshadow a future scene or maybe they exist as Eden’s short story-writing outlet. Frankly, I couldn’t care less about these characters’ own works of fiction—I was here to read about their lives, not the lives of their especially fictional characters. As these chapters appeared frequently and distracted me from the plot, I would have taken a star off of my rating for this. However, The Merchant and the Rogue was a phenomenal read otherwise; its plot, writing, and characters deserve every star in this five-star rating.
As a tale of suspense and mystery, The Merchant and the Rogue captured this reader’s attention with every new clue and revelation. As a story of love and hope, this novel is the book equivalent of a warm hug. As a fictional window into the world of Victorian London, Sarah M. Eden’s latest publication is unparalleled. With shadowy villains and a diverse cast of equally shadowy heroes, The Merchant and the Rogue is the perfect tale to make each reader look at the world with more bravery, compassion, and determination to make a difference.
5 out of 5 Stars
READ OUR PREVIOUS REVIEWS IN THE SERIES
- The Lady and the Highwayman: The Dread Penny Society (Book 1)
- The Gentleman and the Thief: The Dread Penny Society (Book 2)
- The Merchant and the Rogue: The Dread Penny Society (Book 3), by Sarah M. Eden
- Shadow Mountain Publishing (August 17, 2021)
- Trade paperback, eBook, & audiobook (368) pages
- ISBN: 978-1629728513
- Genre: Historical Romance, Victorian Romance, Inspirational Fiction
We received a review copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Austenprose is an Amazon affiliate. Cover image courtesy of Shadow Mountain Publishing © 2021; text Katie Patchell © 2021, austenprose.com.