The Bourbon Kings (Amazon Link)
Author : J.R. Ward
Published By : Penguin
Year Published : 2014
Genre / Tags : Romance, Family Saga, Drama, Light Mystery, Contemporary yet old-fashioned.
Formats : Hardcover, Paperback, eBook, Audiobook
# of Pages : 424 (Hardcover)
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 facade. 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 ironfisted 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 book in a three-part series by J.R. Ward. This series starter caught me off guard in multiple ways.
First, I’m mainly familiar with Ward via her paranormal romance series Black Dagger Brotherhood (which, note to self, should re-read or just continue the next book) The Bourbon Kings is about as far a cry as one can get from paranormal.
I’ve seen The Bourbon Kings often compared to a soap opera, think 80s-90s soaps with constant plot twists, cliffhangers, outrageous turns, excessive opulence, so on and so forth. I can almost hear dramatic music playing in the background. It’s kind of like that but makes a mark of its own that’s a smidge more sophisticated in writing style and not so easily typified. The story is also surprisingly dark. I was feeling for the family depicted here and the excessive page count (430 odd pages, though it feels more like 500+) provides ample opportunity to bond with them and get eager for the sequel. Which I immediately yearned to read despite all drawbacks of this first entry.
To explain the storyline and characters in summary, it all centers around a wealthy family with a sprawling estate. The Bradfords are kind of like a Julia Quinn’s Bridgertons, if they were all born under a bad moon. The central characters are the Bradford siblings. Each are in their thirties (I think) and navigating their lives while coping with secret traumas. The twists and turns of this family unit can get as over-the-top as a tv drama/soap. But there are also moments of seriousness and Ward tends toward a more elegant and wordier style of writing. I was left in a whirl from the drama but got sucked into the immaculate details, curious about how/if these characters could overcome their dysfunctional ways and move forward. The sleek exterior of this family is a facade- and as much a curse as a blessing.
There are three couples depicted here. Quite ambitious to try to include such an assortment, though I was chiefly interested in a particular pair- making other sections less appealing by comparison. To avoid spoilers, I’ll just mention what I thought of each couple without naming them.
Couple A is the most stable and “normal” of the bunch, relatively speaking. They are given the lion’s share of development, time, and opportunities to sort out their issues. They also read a bit younger than the others in my view. Honestly, this pair bored me at several junctures. They’re the more basic and conventional of the couples. A break from the mayhem but bordering on bland. (Note from the future – The sequels heavily favor this couple and I ended up becoming somewhat resentful of the pair. Having a bunch of characters/couples compete for time in one book might not be a good situation after all…)
Couple B is a cartoonish mess. At least one of this pair is hiding terrible secrets from the other person. They fight and are on-again off-again and behave in ways that are spasmodically hot and cold. That said, both are so dysfunctional on an individual level that in being apart they still manage to find worse situations than being together. I shouldn’t be centering them or becoming this invested in their sub-story. But every time the author tried to accentuate how impossible a happily ever after could be between the two of them, my silly and trouble-seeking reading brain was like-
In closing on my thoughts about Couple B, messily and heartily shipped them.
Couple C. No idea what’s going on with this couple. Do they even exist? There are multiple characters who might get together, might not, and the guy at the center who has received a lot of development had me on the feels train. He’s the single most sympathetic character in this whole book. Anyway, assuming this mystery character is getting with one person it’s going to be a pretty chaotic ride. If they get with the other, it’s a situation more like couple A but a more interesting version.
It’s probably obvious this series has its clutches in me and is quite victorious in that sense. However, there are some criticisms to be made.
There are some wild tangents that seem unnecessary. At one point a rant about millennial workers occurs. The narrative voice opines about how great and gifted and bootstrappy the previous generations of artisans were. It’s kind of a humorous scene but mind you, the Bradfords live on a vast southern estate rolling in generational wealth- with imagery that is sometimes uncomfortably similar to Gone With The Wind.
Nameless, faceless female side characters are lambasted for looking or acting like bimbos compared against one of the heroines, who is apparently not-like-the-other-girls and so virtuous. Reminds me a bit of Beautiful Disaster by Jamie Mcguire in that regard. I had a lot of problems with the “girl hate” in that one. But in The Bourbon Kings, the heroine at least does not indulge in these thoughts herself. Those thoughts are shoehorned into the narrative via other characters or a general narrative voice. I still consider this a misstep and wish it wasn’t such a widespread thing in romance. Making other characters look bad to prop up another character is annoying. No amount of chastising extra characters for how they dress/behave/look is going to make a heroine more interesting or likable. She has to put in that work herself. Some of the passages are startling, and would earn authors of more modern romance (New Adult comes to mind) scathing reviews from people.
But this isn’t New Adult. Moreover, this book is seeking to be old-fashioned and makes this apparent very early on. So I try not to judge it too much by criteria that it’s not going for. That said, The Bourbon Kings was written in 2015 and seems to have too narrow a pandered audience for being so technically new. There is a lot to like here between the fairly high grade writing style, onslaught of drama, wild turns of the story, and ambitious multi-perspective multi-couple family saga proceedings. A new generation of readers should be able to enjoy trashy reading like this. Alienating possible portions of the audience with silly rants and excessive, dated slut-shaming seems ill-advised. Finally, there is even a scene wherein the ending of Gone Girl is spoiled. Just… why? So there is just some notable fat to the text that could have been cut within this book, making it a more comfortably brisk 350-some pages without losing much content and gaining some restraint.
Overall Rating – 8/10
Why You Should Try It – A sprawling family saga romance juggling three couples and a family submerged in old-school secrets and drama. There aren’t very many books in the 2000s that can be described this way. Lots of worthwhile character development and a distinct cast. The writing style capably depicts a setting of opulence and prestige. Still a “what will they do next?” guilty pleasure read but with surprising effort that had me anxiously wanting to read the sequel. An eventful first-in-series that builds momentum and hope for the sequels to follow suit.
Why You Might Not Like It – A dated romance that strives to be even more dated. There are good aspects to this but also bad ones. Slut-shaming is rampant and very in-your-face. Several awkward conversations between characters or judgment of side characters that exist to be one-dimensionally irritating. (One more thing. Upon checking out forthcoming books in this series, while I really like the idea of having a story spanning multiple couples and members of a family it’s worth mentioning that the sequels struggle with giving all of them equal footing or attention. Might not be such a good approach after all.)
The Bourbon Kings (Amazon Link)
Thanks for checking out my review of The Bourbon Kings, have you read it or are planning to? I hope this review doesn’t come off as too salty. I did like this book quite a bit. Romance is pleasant but often goes in one ear and out the other for me (what is a reading equivalent of this idiom? lol) The Bourbon Kings is different. It had me feeling a lot of ways and coming away with strong opinions. It’s like one show among hundreds that manages to grip you enough to watch the next episode- even though you’ll probably be yelling at the screen, lol. Typically this is a good thing and the sign of a title that stands out from the pack. ~ Kitty