The Bourbon Kings

Welcome to J.R. Ward's Kentucky, where the bourbon is served up with a side of crazy sauce.

In Ms. Ward's Dallas Louisville Kentucky, the Ewing Baldwine family reigns supreme. At the Baldwines' Easterly estate, you'l find a scheming daddy, a catatonic mama, a vampy sister, two prodigal brothers, and the requisite girl from the wrong side of the tracks. You'll go to Easterly in search of J.R. and Bobby's gilded South Fork and find yourself, instead, firmly ensconced in John Ross and Christopher's cheap and glitzy incarnation of the Ewing family estate.

Ms. Ward, a self-professed "Yankee who now lives in the South"and alumna of Smith College and Albany Law School, did what all women who marry Louisville natives eventually do: she moved to Louisville. The corporate attorney-turned romance novelist usually pens novels with a paranormal edge, but has embarked on a new series set in a slightly fictionalized version of The Bluegrass State. The city of Charlemont serves as a stand-in for Louisville, where the University of Charlemont Eagles basketball team (whose team color is red) are in-state rivals with Kentucky University (blue, natch). Charlemont's spaghetti junction leads you down river road to the Easterly Estate, while Spirehill Downs is the home of the Charlemont Derby. We all know what she means.

JR Ward. Image via the Courier-Journal.

I reckon the Baldwines live somewhere around here.

When we meet the titular Bourbon Kings, the three Baldwine sons and their cartoonishly evil daddy, there's plenty of drama. Brother Max's whereabouts are unknown; I'm sure he'll get a Gary Ewing-style spinoff book of his own down the road. Meanwhile, eldest brother Edward has let the family business slip into quite a mess. He suffered horrible injuries after a South American kidnapping, as you do. Now, he spends his days training thoroughbreds, drowning in booze and self-pity, and employing call girls who resemble the love of his life, the scion of a rival bourbon house. THESE THINGS HAPPEN, y'all.

Younger sister Gin -- that's right, a "gin" in a House of Bourbon -- is Lucy Ewing meets Connie Corleone in Valentino RockStud Pumps. Only, kind of more vapid and self-sabatoging. There's a never-ending supply of wealthy litigators to serve Gin's appetites, but she pines for the father of her secret daughter. On behalf of every one of my single girlfriends here in the Derby City, I've got to say that Charlemont trumps the real Louisville in the availability of eligible gentlemen alone. A girl can find herself two or three dashing dates for the Derby in a moment's notice, complete with seersucker suits and vintage Jaguars. 

As for the business end of it all, who even heard of independent operators handling operating expenses in the 21st Century? If the family label is suffering, you sell to a multinational corporation and retain a Presidency role for one of your offspring. Ol' JR Ewing taught us that trick in 1987 with his Cartel buddies.And why would your risk your personal fortune on the family company? Maybe Evil Daddy Baldwine is getting a bad rap: he might not be as evil as he is just plain dumb. He should've paid less attention to decking himself out in University of Charlemont red and a little more time listening to his business professors.

But, the real story of The Bourbon Kings is the Upstairs, Downstairs romance between Bourbon King Lane Baldwine and Easterly's horticulturalist, Lizzie King, who characterizes their love as "Sabrina without the happy ending, darlin'." Lane's a playboy with a heart of gold -- he leaves New York City for his old Kentucky home when he hears that the family's African-American cook, whom he considers his "real mother", is in failing health. Lizzie's just folks, and she's got a farm across the river in Indiana to prove it. She keeps Graeter's ice cream in her freezer; lax copyediting keeps shifting whether that Graeter's was Peach or Candy Cane, but every real Graeter's fan knows that it would make no sense to have either of these seasonal flavors around at Derby Time. One would be 10 months out of season, and the other 5. But, that isn't as important as Lane and Lizzie's forbidden love, which peels the paint off the walls -- or at least destroys a priceless family painting in Lane's boudoir. You get the picture. Oh, and there's the pesky matter of Lane's spoiled, Virginia-bred wife (and possibly his evil daddy's mistress) to complicate things further. Y'all keeping up so far?

All the elements of a good soap opera are there in The Bourbon Kings -- gorgeous, rich bad boys with hearts of gold, forbidden love, family intrigue -- and it would be easy to dismiss Ms. Ward's Kentucky as a fantasy world of privilege, lust, and Southern stereotypes. But, there's just one small problem with that analysis: the story kind of works. As a reader, you root for these two crazy kids to bridge the gap across the Ohio River and fall into one another's arms. You cross your fingers that Sad Ol' Edward will find a way to leave his madams behind and find love with rival bourbon heiress Sutton Smythe. You hope that Gin will take a stiff drink of espresso or sparkling water and get her life together.

NBC has purchased a television project based on The Bourbon Kings, and additional novels in the series are expected. I, for one, couldn't be more excited. Ms. Ward's manuscript comes out and describes Lane as a "Channing Tatum lookalike", so the Eye Candy quotient promises to be high. (BTW, Endemol Shine Studios, if you're looking for a sassy Kentucky native lady blogger to add some local color to the writer's room, I'd love to talk to y'all!) I love a good soap opera, and I hope that this one plays out as self-aware and campy, on the grand scale of 80s dramas like Dallas or Dynasty. It would be nice to see bourbon in primetime, even with a crazy sauce chaser.