Notorious by Mae Thorn

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published debut books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday, or whenever I feel like it. This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

Historical novels set during the American Revolution are apparently still a thing. But instead of having a cover that evokes Mel Gibson’s The Patriot, this book promises a peek at garters, hidden daggers, and intrigue against the British. Normally you undermine the British by leaving them to their own devices, or minding your own business while being trans, but sometimes you have to use sex appeal and stabbing instead. Notorious by Mae Thorn is a thriller-romance from the perspective of a young Rebel woman active in New York high society.

The action begins with Foxglove, petticoats clenched, trying to lose a British officer down the back alleys of revolutionary New York City. She’s a secret rebel badass, fleeing the scene of another presumably righteous crime in the name of freedom, cold beer, and spelling the word “plow” in a way that makes sense. She has a chance to evade him before he sees her, but he catches up when she is delayed by a gaggle of drunk British soldiers. The officer gives them a jolly good speaking to about being rude to a lady, apparently unaware that said lady is the rebel spy he is chasing. While this is going on, Foxy G gets a long, hard, stiff look at the man. He has to snap her out of the mental image of listening to the handsome officer advertise fresh creamery butter and send her on her way. She continues to her secret rendezvous and retires for the night, wondering if she will ever run into the mysterious stranger again. Any guesses?

Cut to a fancy high society ball for New York’s loyal colonial elite, and Delia tries to make the most of her role as a debutante in a setting where no one knows she is actually Foxglove. Being paraded in front of a bunch of men like a prize hog has its advantages when you’re gathering intel, trying to ascertain how much the British know about your nightly sabotage. Then her mother, obligated by the rules of narrative fiction, introduces Delia to the latest addition to the New York bachelor crowd, Captain Lord Carrington. When she sees his face, Delia realizes she is standing inches away from none other than Fresh Creamery Butter! He shows no sign of recognizing her as the woman from the night before, but how can she know for sure? Through the usual small talk, Delia learns two things. First, that her actions last night led to the unintended deaths of three guards, and second, that she is extremely horny for FCB. She invites him to an innocent stroll through the gardens, and a full little game of cat and mouse ensues.

I’m surprised the parlor-and-ballroom setting hasn’t had more pushback in recent years. The people who complain that dark academia is cringy because it makes you look like if David Cameron worked at Hogwarts would probably not approve of elite escapism. “What if I went back in time, and had even more privilege” is not usually a good look. Bridgerton got around it by having a multiracial cast (and then ruined it by feeling the need to explain it—you’re putting your actors in whalebone corsets in 1813, Bridgerton, you don’t have to explain that it’s a fantasy!). Another trick is to have the protagonist feel vaguely uncomfortable with the trappings of wealth and power (though low key enjoying not having dropsy and xylophone ribs); it’s all very pink hat and safety pin. Self publishing is a bastion of work you couldn’t get published traditionally, so no doubt books like Notorious aren’t going anywhere, but I can’t help but think while I’m reading these stories that in the near future I’m going to have to pretend I didn’t at social events.

From here, the plot moves at break-neck speed. FCB saves Delia from the tedious advances of Niceguy Millhouse. We learn that her brother Arthur was killed by the British, hence her dedication to the rebel cause. Later, Foxglove and her collaborator lose a chance to save a sympathetic family from violent reprisal from British counter-intelligence. Mostly we learn just how badly Delia needs to bone FCB. Most of this book is our heroine making ah-oo-ga noises anytime this man is around. At one point someone mentions his name, and Delia is so distracted that she loses her hand-eye coordination and stabs herself in the hand. This comes to a head when Delia’s family decides to take FCB on as a lodger. This would put him in Arthur’s old room (also, while the narration doesn’t actually make this comparison, if you’re taking notes Arthur and FCB are the same age, hair color, and eye color, which I’m not sure what to think about), right next to hers. This is bound to cramp her style as someone who sneaks out at night to foil the redcoats, not to mention ruin her plans of ever wearing clean underwear again.

There are a lot of things I like about Notorious. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, I really think you need better hobbies, but you know I will always be ready for an on-the-nose romance story. Give me your “but I can fix him” love interest with a body that looks like something Rocky would use for boxing practice in the freezer. Give me your plot that can be summarized as “it’s Pride and Prejudice, but this time… again!” Bring your reader-insert protagonists who hide knives under their gingham frocks and drop them into my open gullet. No, don’t bother to count how many times you described his breeches in one paragraph. Just back the wheel barrow up to my face and tip it over. Notorious knows what we’ve all come for. The dialogue is sassy, the characters are fun, and the story never gets bogged down in questions like “yeah, but why, though?”

Not that it’s all perfect. For one thing the language can be a little too flowery in places. Delia doesn’t run places, no. Her “legs consume the distance.” I don’t know if this is because Mae Thorn thinks it’s clever, or because she thinks it’s period-appropriate, or because she thinks this sort of purple prose is necessary for old-timey smut books. I’m here to tell you, it’s not any of those things. But this is really a minor point. The speed of the plot means that descriptions or even whole passages simply do not have time to wear out their welcome before it’s off to the next daring predicament for our debilitatingly horny heroine.

The British are coming! And so am I… 😉

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