"I've been working toward a girl gang my whole career," the author tells EW.

By Maureen Lee Lenker
February 18, 2021 at 09:00 AM EST
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"The Avengers, but make it MacLean."

That's how romance author Sarah MacLean describes her latest book series, Hell's Belles, which centers on a fierce girl gang in Victorian London. MacLean has been writing in the world of 19th-century historical romance for a decade now, and has built a vast literary universe of characters, including the denizens of her casino the Fallen Angel and the Covent Garden criminal empire of the Bareknuckle Bastards.

But her new series, which will launch this summer with Bombshell, straddles the criminal underbelly she's spent time cataloging and the ballrooms of her earlier work. "This story is very much about women who live in between worlds," MacLean tells EW. "Which is something that women have to do generally in the world."

Bombshell is the love story of Sesily Talbot, a fan favorite from MacLean's Scandal and Scoundrel series, and tavern owner Caleb Calhoun. After years of living as the talk of London's scandal sheets, Lady Sesily Talbot has leaned into her reputation, luring men for her own aims.

Caleb has tried to deny his attraction to Sesily, who is his best friend's sister, but when he discovers her secret, the two embark on an unintended partnership. Caleb is determined to keep Sesily out of trouble during their escapades, but instead finds himself falling harder and harder for her.

Bombshell drops Aug. 24, but EW can exclusively reveal the sinfully gorgeous cover for the novel below. Check it out and read more from MacLean below.

Credit: Avon

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Sesily Talbot became a fan favorite in the Scandals and Scoundrel series, and for a while you said she and Caleb would get their own novella. What made you decide to give them a full book, and why was now the time?

SARAH MACLEAN: I had an idea for Hell's Belles. I knew Sesily and Caleb had more to their love story, and I was like, "Oh, I'm going to just button them all up with a with a fun little romance, like a Christmas novella, and it'll be a treat for readers. When I have some extra time, I'll work on it and then we'll put it out." I had gone immediately from Day of the Duchess, which was the last book in that series into a new series, The Bareknuckle Bastards. Bareknuckle Bastards is set in Covent Garden. The tavern from Day of the Duchess is in Covent Garden. These are these characters are still all here. Sesily and Caleb were in Wicked and the Wallflower, which was the first book in Bareknuckle Bastards. That's when I started to noodle the idea of Hell's Belles. I knew I wanted to write a girl-gang series, where it was women who took no prisoners and lived out loud and fought for what they believed in and fell in love with excitement and power and passion and all the things that love should have in it. It seemed logical pretty quickly that Sesily would be a Belle. So the novella got put away as a concept. I had to field a lot of angry emails from readers for a few years, but I think people are going to be happy in the long run.

Your books are always feminist, but they often engage with the discourse happening in our contemporary world. How would you say Bombshell does that?

The series idea was conceived during a time when I was thinking a lot about the power that women have — in politics and in the domestic arena and in the world at large, as voices and as bodies and as active members of a society. As people whose anger and frustration can really move a needle. I'm really interested in how women are portrayed historically in all of these spaces. Because historical romance isn't the story of, in my case, the 1840s, it's the story of 2021 and how women are in the world now and how using history as a backdrop can reflect their relevance and their importance and their power in the world. Hell's Belles is very much about the power that women have to move the needle and to change the world and to impact the world from their own spaces. What the first book does explore is spaces that are for women. And I'm talking about all women — cis women and het women and queer women and trans women. Spaces where women can thrive. Spaces where they feel safe. And how the world threatens those spaces and threatens them in those spaces. But of course, it's a romance novel. And the center of the story are these women who are true badasses who are able to fight for what they believe in and who are able to find colleagues and a support network that will support them as they do that important fighting.

When you announced the book, you included both definitions of the word bombshell — the one referring to explosive secrets and the more modern definition of a gorgeous woman. So, why Bombshell?

I'm really interested in the way that the world views women as dangerous. That's something that romance has spent a lot of time over the last 50 years exploring — this idea of woman as some kind of danger to the world, as some kind of cataclysmic experience. People have to take care around women. I really like the idea of these four women, the four pillars of the Belles, playing with this idea of a bombshell being both a shattering and destructive thing, but also a sexy, tempting thing and a surprise and a revelation in some way.

All your titles in the series, though not announced, will have that duality. What appealed to you about that?

They're all designed as words that women have to both suffer as labels and also words that women can claim for their own power. All my books are somehow about the way the world views women and the way women mold the world. And the way the world attempts to change us and the way we we end up changing it. The world attempts to change women in so many ways. And one of the ways that it attempts to change women is by using these weaponized words. I'm really interested in how women end up changing the world and how people who are constantly put upon by a society end up having to break it in order to to rebuild it for everyone.

This cover is so beautiful: the dark colors, the red brocade and velvet gown. It has the darkness of Bareknuckle Bastards, but also something more sinful or romantic. Can you explain conceptually what your conversations were like?

The Belles are the next logical leap for me as a creator. It feels like I've been working toward a girl gang my whole career and here we are. Where the Bastards had been very dark and really removed from society, this story is very much about women who live in between worlds. We all live in between places. It's not just women; it's other marginalized people too. Romance does such a good job of painting the picture of those in-between experiences and in-between places. And so with the cover, we kept coming back to this idea of [living in between]. We wanted it to feel modern, but also like a historical romance. We wanted it to feel dark, but also feel light and give a hint at the playfulness of the series. We wanted it to be sexy, and we wanted it to have a little bit of mystery. Because every one of these books is going to tackle all of those things. It's going to be everything that women are in the world: smart, clever, sexy, fun, dark, powerful, scary. All of those things are in here, and I wanted the cover to say that.

As you mentioned, you really do have quite the collection of characters at this point. Can we expect some other Sarah MacLean familiar faces to pop up?

Sesily is the last of five sisters who had their own series, so all those girls turn back up again. But Caleb owns a tavern in Covent Garden, and the smuggling operation of the Bareknuckle Bastards runs through that tavern. So, we'll see the bastards again. I imagine it will be hard to not end up in a casino at some point, so we'll be able to see the Fallen Angel again. I never want to leave my characters.

How would you say Hell's Belles reflects your evolution as a writer?

As I've become more comfortable with having this be my career and really being able to describe myself as a writer, without hiccuping over the word, my goal has always been to remain fearless. And to become more fearless and try things that I might not have been willing to try 10 years ago and might not have even imagined being able to try 10 years ago. That's not to say that girl gangs couldn't have existed 10 years ago in the hands of a different writer, or in my own hands. But what I'm interested in now, a decade after my first book, is how heroines of romance can exist by themselves as powerful figures, who are able to change the world, able to protect themselves and others, able to throw a punch if they need to, but also able to love and be loved in a really intense, emotional way. It feels like I'm pulling my punches less now. I feel like this is the new thing. It's a new setting for me, in some ways, because it's getting more modern. I've left behind the Regency squarely. And it's also new in the sense that I'm worrying less about things like, "Where are their governesses? Where are their chaperones?" No, these women hang out in nightclubs, and they knife bad guys, so they don't need a chaperone.

For those who might just be discovering your books thanks to the "Bridgerton effect," will this be a good place to jump in?

I think so. What you'll find here will be a little darker than Bridgerton. It'll be hopefully just as fun, but a little bit more of an adventure. There will be brawls involving women. There's a rival gang. Imagine the Bridgertons, but with a twist of action-adventure.

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