From the BLURB:
For generations, the Bradford family has worn the mantle of kings of the bourbon capital of the world. Their sustained wealth has afforded them prestige and privilege - as well as a hard-won division of class on their sprawling estate, Easterly. Upstairs, a dynasty that by all appearances plays by the rules of good fortune and good taste. Downstairs, the staff who work tirelessly to maintain the impeccable Bradford façade. And never the twain shall meet.
For Lizzie King, Easterly's head gardener, crossing that divide nearly ruined her life. Falling in love with Tulane, the prodigal son of the bourbon dynasty, was nothing that she intended or wanted - and their bitter breakup only served to prove her instincts were right. Now, after two years of staying away, Tulane is finally coming home again, and he is bringing the past with him. No one will be left unmarked: not Tulane's beautiful and ruthless wife; not his older brother, whose bitterness and bad blood know no bounds; and especially not the iron-fisted Bradford patriarch, a man with few morals, fewer scruples, and many, many terrible secrets. As family tensions - professional and intimately private - ignite, Easterly and all its inhabitants are thrown into the grips of an irrevocable transformation, and only the cunning will survive.
‘The Bourbon Kings’ is the first instalment in a new contemporary series by J.R. Ward, author of the popular paranormal ‘Black Dagger Brotherhood’ series’.
So this book came out in July and I was intrigued. Having enjoyed her previous Jessica Bird pseudonymous contemporary romance series, and firmly believing for the last two or three books now that the ‘Black Dagger Brotherhood’ series needs to wrap up, I was excited to see Ward venture into new writing territory … there was also the fact that a wealthy family saga set in the south just tickles me pink. But as soon as the book came out in July, I started seeing many of my book review friends posting negative reviews, sharing their disappointment in the Warden’s new venture.
From glancing at those less-than-stellar reviews, I knew going into ‘The Bourbon Kings’ not to expect a romance (as many others mistakenly had, and were subsequently frustrated with the book). I had been adequately fore-warned that this new series was more women’s fiction, family saga, verging on soap-opera and seriously light on the romance … and thanks to those forewarnings, I actually found myself enjoying this book, somewhat.
It is definitely not romance, and absolutely more of a fictional soap-opera. This first book is setting up the harrowing and complicated lives of a Kentucky bourbon dynasty called Bradford … think ‘Bold and the Beautiful’ minus L.A. fashion scene, ‘Dallas’ but a bourbon empire instead of an oil one.
This book is very loosely following the story of middle-child Tulane ‘Lane’ Bradford who has been sequestering himself on his friend’s couch in New York for the past two years … avoiding a wife he didn’t want to marry, and trying to forget about the woman he had to give up as a consequence. Lane is called home when his adopted mother, and family cook, Aurora is reportedly on her death-bed and requesting seeing him. His return home throws him back in Lizzie King’s path – the Bradford family head horticulturist and the love of Lane’s life whom he betrayed two years ago. But his return home also reveals many skeletons lurking in the Bradford family closet, ready to creep out …
I will admit that a lot of this book is set-up and information-dump. Lane and Lizzie can only very loosely be called the HEA – they’re sharing page-time with just about every other Bradford sibling and a few background co-workers … Lane and Lizzie also feel less like the HEA because they’re so bad and boring. A lot of their relationship is tell not show, Ward relies heavily on them having had true love chemistry two years ago that’s barely recognisable in their current predicament. And further proof that this isn’t a romance is how lacklustre a heroine Lizzie is – she’s a complete Mary Sue and bland to boot. It doesn’t help that there’s only one sex scene between them (a shame, when the Warden excels in this area) and the fact that Lizzie and Lane’s entire relationship feels constructed so as to best set the scene and players around them … all of whom are infinitely more interesting.
He let his voice deepen. “I’m prepared to be a very patient man when it comes to you. I will seduce you for however long it takes — give you space if you need it or follow you tight as sunshine on your shoulder if you’ll let me.” His eyes locked on hers. “I lost my chance with you once, Lizzie King — that is not going to happen again.”
There’s eldest brother Edward, who is still recovering from a South American kidnapping plight that’s left his mind and body broken … coupled with the fact that he’s pining for the daughter of the Bradford family’s rival distillery. Youngest sibling Virginia ‘Gin’ has a preference for married men and an illegitimate daughter she had as a teenager, all of which has garnered her quite reputation. But Gin is pining for Samuel T. – long time family friend and lawyer, and the only man to capture her heart but whom she has been in a nasty back-and-forth battle with since they were teenagers, using sex like warfare.
Max is the one Bradford sibling we don’t meet in this book, though some of his more unusual and gossiped-about proclivities are mentioned …
And arching over all this is William, the family patriarch and total villain to rival J.R. Ewing.
Edward and Gin’s set-up storylines saved this book for me, and ensured I’d be coming back for more instalments. And yet it was also Edward and Gin’s storylines that put this book firmly in the ‘not romance’ territory – particularly Gin’s which, fair warning, includes a pretty horrific rape scene that’s all the worse for the fall-out hinting at prolonged misery in store for Gin …
Look, this book has its faults – chief amongst them is how dull Lizzie and Lane are, that basically means the one sliver of true romance is eaten up by a lacklustre pairing. But like a good soap-opera, the satellite stories sucked me into this series and the Bradford family saga … it is so much like a soap that the Warden even includes a sneak-peak three-pages at what’s in store for the Bourbon Kings, that really did feel like a “in next week’s instalment …” ad. I really can’t think of anyone else writing a soap-opera family saga like this one, except perhaps Lisa Kleypas’s ‘Travis’ series (which is most definitely romance – so if the Bradford’s left you cold, maybe go knocking on the Travis family door?)
I can see a lot of people hating this book, particularly if they’re not aware of the whole ‘definitely not a romance!’ thing. But if people are coming into this hoping for the Warden’s Black Dagger magic being transferred into a contemporary setting, they won’t be far off! The Black Dagger series can be pretty darn bleak, and in particular Ward has often written disturbing storylines for the female characters of that series, and it’s certainly hinted that similar is in store for the women of ‘Bourbon Kings’ … so in that sense, she’s definitely following through with her bleak saga series, mixed with (hopefully!) some glimmers of HEA hope.