The third Stranje House by Kathleen Baldwin ably sets up the rest of the series, adds in some more common Regency elements, and ends up being a fast read.
Kathleen Baldwin’s first two Stranje House books, A School for Unusual Girls and Exile for Dreamers, had the same Regency-era setting that the new third book, Refuge for Masterminds, keeps. (No time skips here.) However, School and Exile went a little more towards the Pride and Prejudice, countryside aesthetic. Of course, they also are a set of spy thrillers with supernatural elements, but that’s neither here nor there for now. Refuge, however, brings things to somewhere a little more familiar for fans of modern historical romance: London.
The setting change does the book good. Not only does it allow Baldwin to introduce some new characters, but it also lets the students of Miss Emma Stranje get a little fancy (and still get up to hijinks, of course.) With all that in mind, though, there are a couple of things that didn’t resonate quite as well. As such, yours truly gives this book 3.5/5 stars.
As has become the norm for this series, Baldwin again ably juggles all of the different genres mixed up in this series while managing to throw in a greater dash of the more modern Regency romance subgenre than before. Again, this is due primarily to the setting shift. (It isn’t as though there aren’t Regencies not set in London, but it’s a standard setting for a reason.) However, at the same time, the romance doesn’t overwhelm the story. Indeed, this one unfolds slightly differently thanks to some complications thrown in by Lady Jane’s backstory. Of course, it’s hard to say no to a few dancing scenes. I’d be remiss not to say that love interest Alexander Sinclair is also still magnificently funny.
But even so, the spy plot actually holds some opportunities for growth. Since Jane is, in-story, one of the more experienced students inasmuch as she’s spent a great deal of time at Stranje House, it’s refreshing to see her put her talents to use. As the title suggests, she’s a mastermind, instinctively good at tactics, strategy, and logic, but the book nevertheless challenges her to do some physical work. That’s a distinct plus both for the story and for the character arc contained within, and it helps Jane.
Every so often, Baldwin’s text slips in some turn of phrase that feels decidedly anachronistic. “Finger of doom” comes to mind in particular, said late in the novel (page 317 according to the final print copy). Any more context might constitute a spoiler. It’s made all the more glaring and jarring because, for the most part, the book keeps to fairly standard and expected language. This isn’t to say that no one ever said “finger of doom” in the Regency era, because there’s probably something out there that could prove me wrong, but it’s not exactly something you expect to come across in a historical fiction novel all the same.
On the whole, Jane’s narrative voice is perfectly fine. However, and this, I understand, is perhaps a minor thing, but it’s enough to bother me. There are some dialogue issues here and there. Piffle and folderol, both of which are real words, usually get italicized. Baldwin also draws out vowels for one character in particular to emphasize her grandiose affectation. It makes sense, but it’s also a touch irritating to read when it happens multiple times on one page. Finally, though some characters use bits of foreign languages here and there, there’s at least one error I spotted. It’s nitpicky, but for a book that has characters who specifically look for such small details, again, that makes these small things stand out all the more.
Refuge for Masterminds is fun, fast-paced, and has plenty of crossover appeal. It’s a fine third novel and one that should keep fans interested in what else is to come in the series.
Refuge for Masterminds is available now.