Book Review: The Bourbon Kings by J.R. Ward

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Title: The Bourbon Kings (The Bourbon Kings #1)
Author: J.R. Ward
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Length: 400 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Synopsis

The #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Black Dagger Brotherhood delivers the first novel in an enthralling new series set amid the shifting dynamics of a Southern family defined by wealth and privilege—and compromised by secrets, deceit, and scandal….

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.

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As someone who loves Ward’s vampire series The Black Dagger Brotherhood, I was rather shocked to learn that she was writing another series in another genre. I was even more shocked and maybe even a little dubious when I learned it was going to be contemporary romance, but I have to say that Ward really does the genre justice with The Bourbon Kings. It’s one of those perfect summer beach reads about insanely rich over privileged people who all live on the same estate (even though they have enough money to get their own place) engaging in more back stabbing and cheating and over-the-top drama than you can shake a stick at. It’s a throwback to those wonderfully trashy soapy shows of the 80’s, Dynasty and Dallas, and you can practically smell the money and the scandal coming off the pages. It employs almost every soap cliche there is and as someone who was raised on Dallas, Falcon Crest and General Hospital, I loved it all.

The Bourbon Kings is a sprawling saga centering around the Bradford family, rulers over the bourbon industry. From the beginning Ward really immerses you in the world these characters live in, from the estate they live on, Easterly, to the state of Kentucky itself. These characters eat, breathe, and sleep bourbon, horses, and basketball and anyone who has been to Kentucky knows just how accurate this is. At the heart of the story is Lane, the youngest of the brothers and Lizzie King, a horticulturist who works at Easterly. They broke up two years prior essentially over a misunderstanding, and I hate to say it but this is the part that I liked least about the book. Their romance just didn’t work for me. I didn’t really connect to them as a couple, in the past or present, and I felt their reunion was too rushed. For an author who excels at romance and hot sexual tension, Lane and Lizzie lacked both. Lane was interesting when he interacted with other characters, so I guess my real problem was Lizzie. I understand that when there is so much over the top drama, you need a counterpoint to the dysfunction. Not everyone can be crazy, but I really think Lizzie’s character suffered in comparison to the others. When her biggest dilemma is whether or not to bang the hot billionaire who professes his love to her every other page, it’s hard to sympathize with her. If only we all had that problem.

What did work for me and what I loved most about the Bourbon Kings was every other story not connected to Lane and Lizzie’s romance. First and foremost, Edward. Words cannot express how much I love this character. He is the oldest of the brothers. The golden child. The prodigal son. The man who could do anything better than anyone else and who handled everything. He was the brother set to take over the family business but when we meet Edward, a tragic set of circumstances has left him a broken man. He’s broken physically, emotionally, and psychologically and he’s no where near the man he used to be. Edward is by far the most well rounded, fully developed character, and his arc is the one I’m most interested in. I can see the beginnings of a love triangle forming and I am fascinated, absolutely FASCINATED, to see how it all goes.

Then there’s my other favorite character, Gin. She’s the youngest of the siblings and the only girl. She’s is a complete train wreck of a person who is easy to hate. She sleeps with anyone, she’s selfish and money hungry, and she neglects her daughter. And yet I felt for her. When you see how her father (a truly evil man) treats her, as a commodity, it’s easy to see why she is the way she is. Then there’s Samuel T (I love these names), the family lawyer and the only man she’s ever loved, a man who she can’t be with. They fight like cats and dogs and whatever sexual tension Lane and Lizzie lacked, Samuel T and Gin more than made up for. I adored them and my heart broke for both towards the end.

There’s another brother, Max, who is only ever mentioned or seen in flashback but the cryptic things said about him have me itching to know more about him. All in all, while the main characters didn’t do much for me, all of the other characters kept me engaged in the plot. There were faked pregnancies, unexpected deaths, forbidden romance, murder, prostitutes, business wheeling and dealings, and a whole lot of talk about derbies and how bourbon was made, and I knew when I finished I wanted more. I want to know more about the Bradford family and I’m definitely along for the ride wherever Ward decides to take them. Just don’t end it with a dead character showing up in the shower declaring it was all just a dream. That’s one soap cliche I can do without.

– Rachel

*An ARC was received from the publisher for an honest review.

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