A review copy was generously provided by Berkley Publishing Group.
Last summer, Well Met by Jen DeLuca had me wanting to pack a corset and head to the nearest renaissance fair. After doing a little happy dance that I received an early copy of the new sequel, Well Played (thanks Berkley!), I dove into it and read it over the course of two days. Well Played is an excellent follow up to Well Met – fans of the first book get to see the continued story of Emily and Simon, while discovering who Stacey (Emily’s friend from the first novel) is outside of the Faire and her character as a bar maiden.
Stacey is jolted when her friends Simon and Emily get engaged. She knew she was putting her life on hold when she stayed in Willow Creek to care for her sick mother, but it’s been years now, and even though Stacey loves spending her summers pouring drinks and flirting with patrons at the local Renaissance Faire, she wants more out of life. Stacey vows to have her life figured out by the time her friends get hitched at Faire next summer. Maybe she’ll even find The One.
When Stacey imagined “The One,” it never occurred to her that her summertime Faire fling, Dex MacLean, might fit the bill. While Dex is easy on the eyes onstage with his band The Dueling Kilts, Stacey has never felt an emotional connection with him. So when she receives a tender email from the typically monosyllabic hunk, she’s not sure what to make of it.
Faire returns to Willow Creek, and Stacey comes face-to-face with the man with whom she’s exchanged hundreds of online messages over the past nine months. To Stacey’s shock, it isn’t Dex—she’s been falling in love with a man she barely knows.
The great part of Jen DeLuca’s books is that they give the reader the perfect blend of historical and contemporary romance. She gives readers pirates and barmaids as well as bookshop managers and receptionists – you get the fantasy of a pirate wooing a lady, while also getting the realism of texting miscommunication. Plot-wise, Well Played hit the sweet spot of a balance between dramatic moments and realism. I was really impressed that the miscommunications between Stacey and her love interest actually seemed grounded in reality and the fights they got into were mostly healed by good old-fashioned healthy communication.
Unlike Well Met, Well Played takes place over the span of a year – a huge departure that made a ton of sense for Stacey’s story. Since this book is focused heavily on her figuring out what she wants for her (real, non-Faire) life, it made a lot of sense to set this book mostly during her day to day life. Taking the Faire (and the fantasy life Stacey lived during it) out of the equation forced her to reckon with what she actually wanted versus the expectations of those around her. The author also strategically deployed time jumps to prevent slumps in the plot – they also helped a lot with the development of Stacey’s romance and avoiding too much mundaneness from seeping into the story.
Stacey was an unexpectedly great lead for this book – she wasn’t super well developed in Well Met, so I wasn’t sure how well she would shine in her own book. Luckily, my expectations were off base, and Stacey was a great, heartwarming lead. She began the book in a state of uncertainty – she’s not sure if her heart is in staying around Willow Creek, but she felt a sense of obligation towards her aging parents. She had skipped major career opportunities in years prior, and she was reckoning with what could have been. Naturally, the majority of the book was about her wrangling with her own desires for her life as well as the expectations and (falsely assumed) obligations to friends and family. By the end of the book she had truly become the person she was meant to be – she had experienced a full arc of character growth and had learned how to better manage the expectations put on her. I also really liked that she was a plus-sized character who didn’t fixate on losing weight or conforming to societal (unrealistic) norms – she was confident in who she was.
Ok – so what about the romance? The romance in this book felt very reminiscent of The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary – the two main love interests only communicated via texts and emails for the majority of the book. Even without face to face interactions, Stacey and Dex (or is it Dex?) quickly develop a great rapport and fiery chemistry. Not having face to face interactions took physical attraction mostly out of the equation – they had to fall in love with each other’s personalities alone which was really refreshing. It felt genuine and like they were actually building a solid foundation for a life together. When they finally did come face to face, the sparks flew (though in unexpected directions) and created a romance as sweet as Emily and Simon’s (from Well Met).
Overall, I think Well Played is an excellent follow up to the phenomenal Well Met. It hits the sweet spot of enough drama to drive the plot forward, while still staying realistic. Also, it has a healthy dose of renaissance costumes (and men in kilts) and an uber-sweet romance. This book would be perfect for someone debating on dipping their toes into historical romances or anyone looking for a cute read. If you haven’t already read Well Met, you have plenty of kilts and ren-faire action ahead of you! 5/5