James Fletcher is man who has learned the fine art of contentedness. As curate of a small village, he happily provides succor to his country parishioners. He has made peace with the fact that he will never marry and that his secret desires are a sin. When the son of a wealthy landowner, Kip Darnley, announces his intention to marry, he insists that James perform the ceremony. As a result, James finds himself drawn into the path of Kip’s visiting cousin, Declan Shaw.
Declan never had much use for Kip’s side of the family, but he finds himself increasingly worried about his aunt, Kip’s mother. He seeks out the help of the local curate to find out what he can about his aunt and the state of her health. He finds himself captivated by the quiet and wonderfully kind Fletcher. The two men grow closer as they unearth a disturbing truth about Declan’s family and struggle to prove it. But saving Declan’s aunt may prove easier than convincing James they have a chance at love.
I’m normally a fan of the books and novellas by Bonnie Dee and Summer Devon, but The Merchant and the Clergyman missed the mark for me. It is fairy well written and moves at a decent pace. There is a very light BDSM theme throughout the book, but it is extremely minimal. The plot is limited and serves as little more than a backdrop to the romance between James and Declan. Though in some situations this might serve as a negative, the reader doesn’t really miss it here. This book is first and foremost a romance and as long as you accept that, the rest is just gravy. But where The Merchant and the Clergyman falls down for me is in character development. And this was a bit unexpected from these veteran authors.
James and Declan suffer equally from a lack of depth. We learn that James has been used cruelly both as a boy and as a man by Kip and, as a result, has come to view his sexual attraction towards men as a sin. He believes his desire for submission and surrender render him something less than other men. When he meets Declan, all of this changes and while he never seems completely at home in his own skin, he is certainly happier. James felt like something of a shell with so much more hidden inside that readers never got to see. Coupled with the fact that his self-loathing is never really addressed, but rather brushed aside upon meeting Declan, his journey is somewhat unfulfilling.
Declan is more of a character sketch than a fully realized creation. At times he feels tenacious and charming, but all of that comes off as surface fluff. By the end, I didn’t feel as though I knew anything more important about his character than when the book began. His love of cooking even felt forced and at odds with what little structure his character possessed. As neither of these characters worked, nor did their romance. It came off as rather wooden most of the time and while the passion between them did seem more realistic than other parts of their relationship, it never made up for the overall lack of connection between them. As a reader I definitely wanted more from both characters and from their shared and individual journeys.
Perhaps the other frustrating part of The Merchant and the Clergyman stems from how disjointed the plot, characterizations, and other narrative aspects felt from one another. Normally books by Dee and Devon have a natural flow to them that works on multiple levels. But here it seemed as though readers were dropped into a story already in progress and left to play catch up. Very little about the book seemed to mesh together and as a result I felt as though I was being left out of something vital.
Overall, The Merchant and the Clergyman failed to do much for me. Though it is technically well written and paced well enough, the lack of an established story arc and the poor character structures really left this work lacking as a whole. This one is really only for devoted fans of Dee and Devon and for those wanting to try these authors for the first time, I’d steer them elsewhere.