For several months, I’ve been eagerly anticipating the release of The Siren of Sussex by Mimi Matthews. The first in her new Belles of London series, I was drawn to several things that make it stand out compared to other historical romances: It stars a half-Indian protagonist, features an interracial and interclass relationship, and highlights a love of horses and riding. I was thrilled when I was invited to be a part of the new novel’s book tour and, separately but coincidentally, won an advanced copy in a Goodreads giveaway. The Siren of Sussex is as wonderful as I’d hoped and is a book I’ll be recommending to everyone. Read on for my full review.
|The Siren of Sussex by Mimi Matthews|
|Series||Belles of London (#1)|
|Genre||Historical Romance; Historical Fiction|
|Number of Pages||400|
|Format I Read||Paperback|
|Original Publication Date||January 11, 2022|
Victorian high society’s most daring equestrienne finds love and an unexpected ally in her fight for independence in the strong arms of London’s most sought after and devastatingly handsome half-Indian tailor.
Evelyn Maltravers understands exactly how little she’s worth on the marriage mart. As an incurable bluestocking from a family tumbling swiftly toward ruin, she knows she’ll never make a match in a ballroom. Her only hope is to distinguish herself by making the biggest splash in the one sphere she excels: on horseback. In haute couture. But to truly capture London’s attention she’ll need a habit-maker who’s not afraid to take risks with his designs—and with his heart.
Half-Indian tailor Ahmad Malik has always had a talent for making women beautiful, inching his way toward recognition by designing riding habits for Rotten Row’s infamous Pretty Horsebreakers—but no one compares to Evelyn. Her unbridled spirit enchants him, awakening a depth of feeling he never thought possible.
But pushing boundaries comes at a cost and not everyone is pleased to welcome Evelyn and Ahmad into fashionable society. With obstacles spanning between them, the indomitable pair must decide which hurdles they can jump and what matters most: making their mark or following their hearts?
Special thanks to Berkley and Penguin Random House for providing me with an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review!
The Siren of Sussex opens with Evelyn Maltravers, a 23-year-old woman embarking on her first season in London. Though a gentleman’s daughter, her family’s financial situation is getting tight, and she’s intent on not only securing a husband for herself, but also paving the way for her four younger sisters to make good matches. Evelyn considers her beauty and conversational skills lacking, so she decides to come at this season from a different point of strength: her skills as an equestrienne. All she needs is the perfect outfits to make her shine when riding her Andalusian in Rotten Row. She seeks out an up-and-coming tailor named Ahmad Malik.
Ahmad Malik is half-Indian and half-British, and despite racism and class limitations holding him back, his goal is to own his own tailor shop. He’s on track to take over once his co-worker retires, but he needs to gain both capital and reputation first. When Miss Maltravers commissions him for a riding habit, and later for dresses and gowns, it seems like the perfect partnership, one in which the both lift each other up. But how will their partnership work out once they acknowledge the growing feelings they have for one another? How can a relationship between them – between people from two different social classes and races – ever work?
There is so much I love about The Siren of Sussex, and it checks all my boxes for a perfect historical romance.
Firstly, I love that the novel’s hero is half-Indian. It’s somewhat rare that I see people of color in England-set historical romances, especially as one of the protagonists. Mimi Matthews doesn’t shy away from depicting the racism that Ahmad and his cousin, Mira, face on a day-to-day basis. From upper and lower classes alike, they aren’t always welcomed into certain spaces and face micro-aggressions aplenty. Ahmad feels like he doesn’t belong anywhere, feeling neither fully Indian nor fully British. He faces an inner struggle for acceptance for who he is, but he’s not optimistic about how much can change. This comes up once he and Evelyn consider what an actual relationship between them could look like. Evelyn would be forced to see – and in some ways, experience – the bigotry aimed at Ahmad. How can an interracial couple thrive in 1860s London?
The Siren of Sussex also offers some excellent criticism of England’s colonialism, particularly in how it disparaged India. Not too much of a spoiler, but at one point, Evelyn wants to learn more about India. She’s unimpressed and offended by the first two books she picks up, both of which were written by white British men. She and her friend, Lady Anne, briefly discuss the problems of colonialism and the harmful, dehumanizing depictions of India and Indians found in those books. Luckily, another character (who will play a bigger role in the next book) was able to suggest an #OwnVoices book… approximately 150 years before “#OwnVoices” was even a thing!
In addition to race and colonialism, I also love how The Siren of Sussex focus on characters who are neither rich nor titled. In Evelyn’s case, she does come from a higher class background, but with both of her parents gone, she and her sisters have dwindling financial resources. Money and financial security are of concern to Evelyn, and she’s trying her best for herself and for her sisters. Ahmad comes from a much poorer background, having had to work since he was 15 to support himself and his younger cousin. He grew up in a brothel and has had to climb his way up despite the many barriers placed in his way. Again, Ahmad and Evelyn will have to consider how they could work despite their different class backgrounds.
As a side note, I appreciate Ahmad’s perspective on the upper classes and their reluctance to actually work. One subplot involving Evelyn’s sister could, in his mind, be resolved if rich people would just get a job already. Hear, hear. Though I do understand the alternate perspective that Evelyn provides, too.
Evelyn isn’t your typical romance lead, either. She doesn’t consider herself beautiful, and she wears glasses. She’s opinionated and prefers the company of horses over people. I love that she is a strong and wonderful character in her own right, and that Ahmad never tries to change her. She doesn’t need to go through a glow up to become beautiful before capturing the guy’s attention; Ahmad always likes her exactly as she is, even if his garments do enhance her features.
Ahmad and Evelyn are a lovely couple, and I appreciate how their feelings for each other grow gradually and naturally. They don’t have any miscommunications. Rather, the barrier between them is one outside of their control. How can they overcome racism and financial limitations? But if they’re both willing to make it work, perhaps they could have a beautiful future together.
And although The Siren of Sussex is a closed-door romance, the relationship between Evelyn and Ahmad is still satisfyingly passionate. They have excellent chemistry, a compelling attraction between them, and are a perfect match mentally and emotionally as well. They are believable and feel completely real, and they make for an adorable couple.
This review wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the horses! I loved horses when I was growing up and always dreamed of having one. My two favorite breeds were Arabians and Andalusians, and I was excited to see the latter here. Evelyn’s horse is Hephaestus, an Andalusian from the southern Spanish region for which the breed was named. I loved learning more about horses (Andalusians in particular) and riding.
A passion for riding also introduces Evelyn to her three friends, Julia, Anne, and Stella. I enjoyed their supportive friendship, and this book does an excellent job of setting up the next in the series. I’m already eager to read about Julia and Captain Blunt in The Belle of Belgrave Square!
The Siren of Sussex is a beautifully written, thought-provoking, and immersive historical romance that weaves in complex themes of race, class, feminism, and empowerment. It offers a believable and passionate romance between two people who can seem so different on the outside but are willing to pave their own path. It’s everything I hoped it would be and more.
I’m also excited to read the second book in the series, The Belle of Belgrave Square, currently expected out on October 11, 2022. Before that, I plan to read Mimi Matthews’s recent novel, John Eyre. Stay tuned for reviews of both! Mimi Matthews is already on track to become a favorite author of mine, so I may be picking up the rest of her books before you know it.
“…a tender and swoon worthy interracial, cross-class romance in Victorian London…Readers will delight in this paean to women’s fashion and horseback riding.” — Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Matthews brings the Victorian era to vivid life with meticulously researched details and an impossible romance made believable and memorable.” — Booklist, starred review
“Matthews deftly underscores racial and gender discrimination in Victorian London in this excellent start to ‘The Belles of London’ series; rather than overshadowing, it propels the romance. Romance aficionados who love fashion and animals will delight in this tender romance and will be excited to see Evelyn’s friends in future installments.” — Library Journal, starred review
“Unflinching, tender, and moving, the delicately crafted The Siren of Sussex might just be my favourite work from Mimi Matthews; it certainly is one of my favourite historical romance reads this year.” — Evie Dunmore, USA Today bestselling author of Portrait of a Scotsman
Mimi has generously offered a fabulous giveaway package for her readers. Here are the details:
1 winner (selected at random by Rafflecopter) receives the following:
- Signed print copy of The Siren of Sussex
- Horse scarf
- Pewter sidesaddle brooch (made in Sussex, England!)
- The Siren of Sussex tote bag
- Three candles in scents: Fresh Hay, New Saddle, and Winter Ride
- Box of Ahmad Tea (60 count, assorted flavors)
- The Siren of Sussex bookmark
The giveaway is being hosted by Mimi Matthews and is open from 12:01 am Pacific time 1/4/22 until 11:59 pm Pacific time on 2/7/22. No Purchase Necessary. Entrants must be 18 years or older. Open to US residents only. Void where prohibited.
The winner will be announced on Mimi’s blog – mimimatthews.com – at 8:00 pm Pacific time on 2/8/22.
About the Author
Mimi Matthews is the author of A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty (Pen and Sword Books, 2018) and The Pug Who Bit Napoleon (Pen and Sword Books, 2017). She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. Her articles have been published on various academic and history sites, including the Victorian Web and the Journal of Victorian Culture, and can also be found at BUST Magazine.
Mimi’s research has been referenced in such diverse web and print publications as Smithsonian Magazine, The Paris Review, The Journal of Civil War Medicine, and Apartment Therapy. Her work is often used in high school and college classrooms as part of an English or History curriculum.
When not writing historical nonfiction, Mimi is a USA Today bestselling, award-winning author of proper historical romances, including Fair as a Star, a Library Journal Best Romance of 2020; Gentleman Jim, a Kirkus Best Indie Romance of 2020; and The Work of Art, winner of the 2020 HOLT Medallion and a 2021 Daphne du Maurier Award nominee. Her novels have received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Booklist, and Kirkus, and have been translated into several languages.
In her other life, Mimi is an attorney. She resides in California with her family, which includes a retired Andalusian dressage horse, a Sheltie, and two Siamese cats.