Alphonse Hollyhock is perfectly content with his life. He is handsome and wealthy and lives a life of leisure, with his incredibly competent and unflappable valet, Jacobi, by his side. If Alphonse is not particularly smart, nor possessing of any magic at all, well, that is ok. He is still happy. That is until his mother insists that Alphonse get married, or else she will cut off his funds. Until that point, Alphonse had never even considered he would take a wife. He has no interest in women beyond friendship and he has no desire for anything about his life to change. But it is soon becoming clear that he has no choice but to go along, lest he lose all his financial support.
Fortunately for Alphonse, the woman his mother selects for him is Aaliyah Kaddour, a beautiful, clever, and determined young woman who shares Alphonse’s lack of interest in marrying. Or at least, marrying someone of the opposite sex. Aaliyah has her own plans and desires, and she has figured out a way to make this marriage one that will work for both of them.
As things progress with getting to know Aaliyah better, Alphonse begins sharing some of his confusing feelings and dreams with her. She helps him realize that while he has no interest in women, he actually is attracted to men. And that those dreams he keeps having about Jacobi may be a sign of something more to his feelings. But with Jacobi in his employ, not to mention Alphonse having no idea how to go about expressing his feelings, things are complicated. Now Alphonse has to figure out if he is brave enough to open up to Jacobi and take a chance on love between them.
I picked up The Bachelor’s Valet for Judge a Book by It’s Cover Week for our Reading Challenge Month, as I find the cover artwork compelling. I like the graphic style and the use of color, with the darker background and the lighter flowers and silhouette. I also was drawn to the font style, which evokes the 1920s, when the story is set. Having read the book, I find the art even more appealing, as the scene depicts a lovely moment in the book between the men.
This story is a sweet, slow burn romance as Alphonse begins to open his eyes not just to his interest in men, but to his feelings about his valet in particular. I enjoyed the set up here and the way things all come together for Alphonse and Jacobi, as well as for Aaliyah. I particularly appreciated that Aaliyah is not the antagonist here, as often happens in this type of story. She is a lovely, determined woman who is clever enough to turn the fact that both she and Alphonse are being forced to marry into a solution that benefits both of them and gives them the happy endings they both deserve. Alphonse comes to rely on her as a friend and a confidant, and I enjoyed the dynamic of their relationship a lot. Jacobi is nearly frighteningly competent, a master of a thousand words with one raised eyebrow, and possessing the patience of a saint. I felt like he and Aaliyah could take on the world if they tried. I found it rewarding the way the group of them was essentially able to manipulate this situation to give both Alphonse and Aaliyah happy endings with their chosen partners. While they still are forced to put on a public show of being in love with one another, things come together quite nicely in the end for all involved and I liked how the story ties up here.
I think a lot of your feelings about this story are going to rest on Alphonse. As I said, he is, by his own admission, not very smart and he needs to essentially be led along by Jacobi or Aaliyah in order to get from here to there. He is sweet and easy going and accepts the fact that he is kind of dim with a good-natured attitude. My issue is not that he isn’t smart or can’t follow along with things. It is that Alphonse just feels like a cork bobbing along in the water, wherever the current takes him. He is apparently content to let everyone else figure things out for him and tell him what to do. Alphonse feels like he has no agency to learn or grow or even take an active role in his own life much of the time. Jacobi, and later Aaliyah, seem to make every decision for him and he just goes along with it, rather than making any attempt to think or do for himself. While Alphonse is very sweet and kind, he also often seems mostly concerned about his own comfort and happiness and just sort of floats along while others manage him and his life. It just made for a bland character to me and it was hard to read an entire story in his sole POV. Alphonse is just so passive for almost the entire book, until he finally takes a bit of action at the end.
From a romance standpoint, this one develops quite slowly between the men as Alphonse is unaware of his own attraction to men until Aaliyah has to literally point it out to him. Then he suddenly becomes aware that he does, in fact, have feelings for Jacobi. Of course, with Jacobi being his valet, that adds a layer of complication. I appreciated that Alphonse is very careful about that line and not wanting to make Jacobi uncomfortable with any unwanted overtures. So it takes a bit of time for the men to sort themselves out, but ultimately they come together nicely with a sweet ending. My problem here is that I never really understood what was drawing either of these men to one another, and there is almost no romantic relationship development between them. We know Alphonse thinks Jacobi is handsome, but what beyond that makes him fall in love? Is it just the fact that Jacobi so competently takes care of him? We never get any sense of what the allure is beyond Jacobi’s role as a trusted and beloved valet. I think part of the problem is that while Jacobi is clearly brilliant and talented in his job, and I quite liked him as a character, we learn essentially nothing about him. I couldn’t tell you one thing that doesn’t have to do with his role as valet. On the other end, I have no idea at all what attracts Jacobi to Alphonse. We are never in his POV, which makes things more challenging. The men seem friendly and Jacobi clearly cares about doing well at his job and taking care of Alphonse (and Alphonse needs a lot of caretaking), but beyond that, we get no sense of what is drawing Jacobi to Alphonse as a romantic partner. In addition, we scarcely see the men interact as anything other than employer and employee, making it hard for me to see them as equals in this relationship, or even how they interact with each other beyond their professional dynamic.
This story is the second in the Flos Magicae series, though the books are standalones that take place in a shared world. I haven’t read the first book and had no issues at all jumping in here. Magic exists in this world, though Alphonse notes most of his friends use it primarily for party tricks and that he has no magic of his own. There really isn’t much in the way of world building and, honestly, I forgot this was a magical world for large stretches of the book, as it plays essentially no role at all until the very end. We see a few small tricks, and at one point Aaliyah makes a privacy bubble so she and Alphonse can talk, but beyond that, magic isn’t really a factor through the majority of the story. It does come into play in a really sweet way at the end between Jacobi and Alphonse, so there are some nice moments there. But the inclusion of magic feels a bit out of nowhere coming so late in the story, and I feel like if the book is going to be about a world that contains magic, that magic needs to impact the story before we are about 90% of the way through.
Overall, I found this book to be sweet and an easy read. I think Alphonse is affable and pleasant, but his lack of seemingly any drive or motivation beyond letting others handle things for him made it hard for him to carry the story as the sole POV character. I loved Aaliyah and enjoyed Jacobi and, for me, the two of them and their clever machinations and extreme competency are what really carried the book. As I said, I think if you like Alphonse more than I did as a character, I think this will be a smoother story. But I needed more from him as a character, as well as more from the relationship between the men to fully pull it together. Still, this story has an easy way about it that I think will appeal to many readers.
This review is part of our 2021 Reading Challenge Month for Judge a Book By Its Cover Week! Leave a relevant comment below and you will be entered to win one of five $20 JMS store gift cards from JMS Books (you can see the details on the bundle in our Prize Preview post)! Commenters will also be entered to win our amazing Grand Prize sponsored by NineStar Press: a Kindle Paperwhite loaded with 50 NineStar Press books! And don’t forget if you read along with your own challenge book this week, you can earn ten contest entries for writing a mini-review on our wrap up post on Friday! You can get more information on our Challenge Month here (including all the contest rules) and more details on Judge a Book By Its Cover Week here.