On July 20, 2013, at the Awards Ceremony of the 33rd annual conference of the Romance Writers of America, Mary Jo Putney will receive the Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of a career that spans more than twenty-five years and includes some of the genre’s classic romances.
A perennial bestselling author and ten-time RITA finalist, Putney has won the prestigious award twice: Best Regency Romance in 1990 for The Rake and the Reformer and Best Long Historical Romance in 1995 for Dancing on the Wind (Book 3 in her Fallen Angels series). Five of her books have been named among the year’s top five romances by The Library Journal, and three were listed in the Top Ten Romances of the year by Booklist. Four of her books (The Rake, Thunder and Roses, Shattered Rainbows, and One Perfect Rose) have appeared on All about Romance’s reader-voted Top 100 Romances polls in 1998, 2000, 2004, and 2007.
Romance readers owe a debt to word processing because it wasn’t until she mastered word processing that Putney, a graphic designer at the time, wrote her first book. Three months later, she had a contract with Signet not only for that first novel, but also for two other traditional Regencies. The Diabolical Baron was published in November 1987, followed by The Would-Be Widow in July 1988 (expanded as The Bargain in 1999) and The Lady of Fortune in September of the same year. Collectors are now paying as much as $174 for a copy of the latter.
Beginning with her first book, Putney made some unconventional choices. The heroine of The Diabolical Baron is a shy, reserved miss who is passionate only about music until she meets the hero, who is not the baron of the title but an earl who is ambivalent about his title, and the villain, one Reginald Davenport, almost steals the story. Reggie, in the process of reform, became the hero of Putney’s fifth novel, The Rake and the Reformer (a 1989 publication expanded as The Rake, a Regency-set historical, in 1998). It is one of the earliest and most beloved examples of the villain redeemed as hero in a subsequent book.
In 1991, Putney temporarily abandoned the Regency period to produce her only medieval romance, Uncommon Vows. Still a favorite with many Putney fans, this novel showcases Putney’s impressive command of historical detail and her skillful use of spiritual themes. Later in 1991, Silk and Shadows, the first book in Putney’s Victorian-set Silk trilogy, was published. The trilogy demonstrates Putney’s rare skill in creating character-driven stories that are also fast-paced and action-filled. Sara St. James, the heroine of Silk and Shadows, is a genuinely good woman whose faith is an integral part of her character. Putney pairs her with a dark, morally ambiguous, tortured hero. Mikhal Khanauri, also known as Peregrine, is, as his alternate name suggests, a wanderer and predator, one who is willing to use what and whom he must to destroy his prey. Putney takes a common romance trope, consuming revenge, and does something extraordinarily different with it. She repeats this pattern in the second book in the series, Silk and Secrets (1992). It is both a tale of reunited lovers and a road book, but in this case, the lovers have been separated for twelve years. Juliet Cameron and Ross Carlisle meet after a twelve-year separation. The reunion takes place in Persia when warriors who owe allegiance to Juliet rescue Ross, an Indiana Jones type, from Turkoman raiders. The road trip is a journey to Bukhara, an ancient city on the Silk Road (in present-day Uzbekistan). The third book, Veils of Silk (1992), is no less exotic. The hero of the marriage of convenience story is a Scotsman, an army officer horrifically imprisoned in Central Asia; the heroine is the daughter of Russian aristocrats. The story is set in India where political intrigue ensures external conflict; the hero’s impotency and the heroine’s fear of intimacy provide conflict on a more personal level. The first two books were finalists for the RWA Golden Choice Book of the Year Award; Veils of Silk was a RITA finalist.
Putney returned to the Regency in 1993 when she introduced her Fallen Angels. One of the earliest bromance series, the four core books feature four men: Nicholas Davies, Earl of Aberdare; Rafe Whitbourne, Duke of Candover; Lucien Fairchild, Earl of Strathmore; and Lord Michael Kenyon, younger son of the Duke of Ashburton. These four bonded as schoolboys at Eton and remained close friends, offering mutual support as adults. In Thunder and Roses, Nicholas, a half-gypsy rake so wild and wicked that he is known as the Demon Earl, agrees to do what he can to save the village if Clare Morgan, daughter of a minister, a schoolteacher, and a devout churchgoer, destroys her reputation by living with him for three months. This story twists together Methodism, Welsh mining, a duel in which Nicholas wields a whip, and love scene that forever changed the way I view billiard tables. The second book in the series, Petals in the Storm (1993), is a revised and expanded version of The Controversial Countess. Rafe is an arrogant ass for much of the book and a couple of Big Misunderstandings always make me cringe. But despite these imperfections, the book is saved by Margot Ashton/Countess Magda Janos, Rafe’s resurrected once and future love, an early and convincing spy heroine and some extraordinary secondary characters. RITA winner Dancing on the Wind, the book of spymaster Lucien, followed the next year. This was before every third Regency-set novel featured a spy as hero, and Lucien’s search for a French spy with connections to the Hellions (based on the Hellfire Club) captivates in a way that is nearly impossible for such a story to do two decades later. The same holds true of the heroine, a journalist on a mission named Kit Travers. The paranormal element that is added by Kit’s nightmarish visions of her twin sister was also uncommon in 1993.
Putney delayed Michael’s story and revised and expanded 1990’s The Rogue and the Runaway into Angel Rogue (1995) featuring Lord Robin Andreville, the spy who almost stole Petals in the Storm from the hero and Maxima Collins, a half-Mohawk American. This one has a rich vein of humor, much of it supplied by a secondary romance between Robin’s brother and Maxie’s aunt. Finally, in 1996, Michael, who figured prominently in the first Fallen Angels book, gets his story. The first part of Shattered Rainbows is set in Brussels during the period after Napoleon’s escape from Elba. Michael, who rejoins the army, finds quarters in a house rented by two cavalry officers and their families. Putney gives her readers a vivid picture of what life was like on and off the battlefield, the ordinary and the extraordinary. Michael, still tortured by the guilt he bears for his first disastrous love affair, falls in love with Catherine Melbourne, the wife of one of the cavalry officers. But this love is the opposite of the earlier affair. Michael holds his honor dear, and Catherine, named Saint Catherine by the wounded soldiers for her kindness to them, is a good and faithful wife, despite her husband’s numerous infidelities. After Waterloo and Michael’s recovery, with Catherine’s help, from life-threatening injuries, the two are reunited in a fake marriage plot that takes them to Skoal, an island where Catherine’s grandfather is the feudal lord. Filled with lies, attempted murder, and kidnapping, the second half never quite measures up to the first. But an unforgettable love scene and a much anticipated HEA added to the nearly perfect earlier chapters to make this my favorite MJP book.
Two more connected books, River of Fire (1996) and One Perfect Rose (1997) complete the series. River of Fire is the story of Kenneth Wilding, Michael’s friend and another member of the Brussels household in Shattered Rainbows. Kenneth—soldier, artist, and the new Viscount Kimball—arrives home to discover the estate he has inherited heavily in debt. He is offered a way to cancel his debts; he is to infiltrate the household of Lord Anthony Seaton, a celebrated artist, and investigate the death of Seaton’s wife. The love story of Kenneth and Rebecca Seaton, Lord Seaton’s unconventional daughter and an artist in her own right, is interwoven with the mystery. Putney’s meticulous research is displayed in the details about the Regency art world with its different schools, its prejudice against women artists, and the fierce competition for pride of place. One Perfect Rose is the story of Stephen Kenyon, Duke of Ashburton, and brother to Michael, who is told he has from three to six months to live. Stephen decides to spend the time that remains to him enjoying anonymity and freedom. Leaving behind his responsibilities and all the trappings of dukedom, he sets off on a journey in which he saves a life, joins a theatrical troupe, and acquires a wife. Despite Stephen’s death sentence, there is humor in One Perfect Rose as well as a delightful love story and a near-death experience. The unusual combination makes this book another reader favorite.
Putney chose another twin story in 1999 when she began her Brides trilogy with The Wild Child. Again, Putney takes a Heyeresque plot—the younger twin agrees to stand in for his brother with the older twin’s prospective bride and ends up falling in love with her—and gives it a twist that makes the story uniquely hers. In this case, Dominic Renbourne agrees to court Lady Meriel Grahame, a beautiful, orphaned heiress who is thought to be mad. The end is predictable, but delightful nonetheless, and the journey to the HEA is rendered even more engaging by a superb cast of secondary characters. The China Bride (2000), set in England, China, and Scotland, is the second part of the twins’ story, pairs Dominic’s adventurer brother Kyle Renbourne, Viscount of Maxwell, with Troth Mei-Lian Montgomery, the daughter of a Chinese woman and a Scottish merchant. Troth has spent fifteen years as Jin Kang, a male translator for her maternal uncle. The book begins with Troth’s arrival in England with news of Kyle’s death. Of course, he turns up alive, but it is Troth’s journey to self-acceptance that makes this an amazing book. The Bartered Bride (2002), which takes place partly in Indonesia and features a merchant hero reared in America and a truly tortured heroine (the daughter of Catherine, Shattered Rainbows), completes the trilogy.
To the surprise of Putney’s fans, the same year The China Bride was published, she published the first book in a trio of contemporary romances. On one level, The Burning Point is a straightforward reunion story, but the book stirred significant controversy because as a young husband, the hero was guilty of domestic violence. Putney shows his remorse and guilt, describes the help he sought, and presents him as a redeemed character who is forgiven by the heroine. Many readers believed his behavior beyond redemption and accused Putney of betraying the victims of spousal abuse. Library Journal named it one of the five best romances of the year. Book 2 in the series, The Spiral Path (2002), one of my favorite contemporaries ever, is even darker. The heroine, actress Raine Marlowe and her husband, actor Kenzie Scott, make a brief appearance in the first book. In The Spiral Path, Putney weaves Raine’s trust issues, Kenzie’s apparent infidelity, the intrusiveness of celebrity-hounding media, and Kenzie’s twisted, painful past together to create a story almost unbearable in its intensity. I stayed up all night reading this book the first time. Twist of Fate (2003) features another of the Circle of Friends, Val Covington, a character in both of the previous books. Unsatisfied with her career in corporate law, Val sets up her own practice and becomes involved with her landlord, brother to a Unabomber type whom he reported, and her secretary, whose boyfriend is a wrongfully accused man on death row. The death penalty issue overpowers the fiction at times. Putney has said that while she wanted to tell these stories, she found writing in a contemporary voice difficult and is unlikely to do so again.
In 2004, Putney combined historical romance with fantasy in a new series. Beginning with the novella “The Alchemical Marriage” and continuing through A Kiss of Fate (2004), Stolen Magic (2005), and A Distant Magic (2007), she gives readers a world in which the Guardians are powerful and benevolent (with few exceptions) mages who control even the forces of nature. The first book is essentially historical romance with touches of fantasy, but the fantasy is stronger in subsequent books. Stolen Magic is a memorable unicorn/virgin tale, and A Distant Magic has the hero and heroine time traveling as they fight against slavery and interact with such noted abolitionists as Thomas Clarkson, Olaudah Equiano, and William Wilberforce.
Putney planned The Marriage Spell (2006) as the introductory book to the Stone Saints series set in a world where magic was common but its powers an embarrassment to the aristocracy. Aristocrats sent any sons who demonstrate magical gifts to Stonebridge Academy where magical powers are eliminated through harsh discipline. The Marriage Spell is a wonderful blend of romance and fantasy that is enhanced by Putney’s easy-to-love characters. But despite the enthusiasm of fans and Library Journal’s selection of The Marriage Spell as one of the top five romances of the year, publishers were not interested in seeing the series continue. Instead, Putney began the Lost Lords series, stripping Ashby and Ransom from The Marriage Spell of their magic and recasting them as heroes of the first two books of the new series. Many of the fantasy elements were incorporated into a new YA series Putney wrote as M. J. Putney. The first in the series, Dark Mirror (2011) was nominated as a top YA novel of the year by the Young Adult Library Services Association. Dark Passages was also published in 2011, and Dark Destiny followed the next year.
The Lost Lords series now includes four books: Loving a Lost Lord (2009), Never Less Than a Lady (2010), Nowhere Near Respectable (2011), and No Longer a Gentleman (2011). The latter two received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly whose praise of Putney’s characterization and use of historical details reiterate the acclaim of critics throughout her distinguished career. No Longer a Gentleman, which features a spy heroine rescuing the hero who has been in solitary confinement for ten years, is the equal of the Fallen Angels books. Cheryl Sneed called it “romance writing at its best” in her First Look, and RT Reviews recently named it their Historical Romantic Adventure Book of the Year. The fifth book in the series, Sometimes a Rogue, which will be released on August 27, 2013, is an RT top pick. It is another twin story, and Rob Carmichael, the hero, is a Bow Street runner whom I already find fascinating based on the earlier books.Kirkland’s book is coming next year. Putney calls her heroes “warrior poets” who are “brave and protective, vulnerable and kind. . . . wounded by life, but not broken.” Small wonder that I’ve fallen in love with so many of her heroes.
In the meantime, I have been downloading digital copies of some of my favorite Putney books and rereading them. I discovered The Spiral Path is just as complex and compelling under its new title Phoenix Falling and Carousel of Hearts just as much fun as it was more than twenty years ago. That’s the thing about the best in romance—it never gets old.
Have you tried Mary Jo Putney? Which of her books are your favorites?
Janga spent decades teaching literature and writing to groups ranging from twelve-year-olds to college students. She is currently a freelance writer, who sometimes writes about romance fiction, and an aspiring writer of contemporary romance, who sometimes thinks of writing an American historical romance. She can be found at her blog Just Janga and tweeting obscure bits about writers as @Janga724.