September 26th, 2010

DuzWriter

Review: Dark Road to Darjeeling by Deanna Raybourn

ISBN: 978-0778328209

Source: Net Galley

One thing must be said about large families: they don’t let you get bored. Lady Julia and her favorite husband, enquiry agent Nicholas Brisbane, were closing in on eight months of honeymoon when her siblings Portia and Plum cornered them in Shepheard’s Hotel in old Cairo.

Portia’s former lover Jane unexpectedly found herself widowed on the brink of becoming a mother. The disposition of her late husband’s estate (a tea plantation outside of Darjeeling, India) depends on the gender of Jane’s unborn child, and based on hints in Jane’s letters, Portia suspects Jane’s husband was murdered. Jane or, worse yet, her child could be next. Portia convinces Lady Julia and her somewhat reluctant husband to accompany her and Plum (Portia’s chaperone—the Lady Julia Grey mysteries revel in their late 19th century setting, after all) to the estate.

The trip is arduous, complicated by family peccadilloes and newlywed strife. The marriage of two personalities as decisive as Nicholas and Lady Julia is guaranteed to be volatile, which is exactly how Ms. Raybourn’s fans want it. Romantic mystery series don’t survive on their sleuth’s deductive prowess. They thrive on tension and conflict, ideally sizzling between the principals at all times in all places—the more exotic the better.

And what could be more exotic than the zenith of the British Raj? There is a full measure of deceit, skullduggery and death awaiting our intrepid aristocrats at the tea plantation known as The Peacocks. But that’s only part of the novel’s allure. Like Elizabeth Peters’ classic Amelia Peabody mysteries, Ms. Rayburn’s lush prose invites readers to become tourists of the mind, exploring some of the most evocative locales in history through the fictional experiences of her likeable, passionate and privileged protagonists. The fact that those experiences resonate in the reality beyond the covers of Ms. Peters’ and Ms. Raybourn’s books is a credit to their skill and in no way diminishes their value as entertainment and escape.

Although the fourth in the series, Dark Road to Darjeeling works well as a standalone mystery. In fact, the relatively small number of family members in the cast may make it easier for new readers than earlier volumes in the Lady Julia Grey series. Ms. Raybourn’s sly, sexy wit shimmers through the pages, and the story is punctuated with the historical equivalent of Easter eggs. Chances are you won’t catch all of them. I know I didn’t. Fortunately, they’re too subtle to qualify as in-jokes, and missing them in no way detracts from the reading experience. But the pop of recognition when you catch one makes it doubly gratifying, like Ms. Raybourn’s tip of the hat to one of the most famous rooms in America. I’ve always loved that room, and I can’t think of a better setting for characters I adore.

Verdict: Two thumbs up.
DuzWriter

Review: Breathless by Anne Stuart

ISBN-13: 978-0778328506
Book Source: Net Galley

Lady Miranda Rohan committed Society’s ultimate crime. After allowing herself to be abducted and deflowered by a fortune hunter, she neither married him nor pined away in decent obscurity. Instead, she adapted to her new life and thrived…except for an occasional spot of boredom. Unfortunately, boredom is a Rohan’s Achilles heel. It’s only a matter of time before her risk-taking nature reasserts itself, playing into the schemes of Lucien de Malheur, the notorious Earl of Rochdale.

Lucien isn’t called the Scorpion simply because he used to keep one as a pet. He’s almost a caricature of Ms. Stuart’s trademark Scorpio heroes: literally scarred and twisted, the light inherent in his name all but extinguished by his experiences. Seeking a cruel poetic justice for his dead half-sister, he will stop at nothing to achieve his vengeance against the Rohans, including relative innocents like Miranda.

As we discover in his first scene, Lucien was the true, if hidden, architect of her ruin. I could accept that. What I found difficult to swallow was the scenario he devised, one which couldn’t help but lead to the 19th century equivalent of date rape. At some level, a man as intelligent as Lucien must’ve known and accepted this outcome. Turning a man capable of that into hero material presents an almost insuperable challenge. Ms. Stuart just about pulls it off.

With the story of Lucien and Miranda, she returns to her favorite theme: the redemption of the not-quite-damned. Lucien excels at mind sex, seducing by the force of his personality and playing on the sunny Miranda’s inevitable curiosity about his shadow life. He claims she wants him to play her Caliban, but he takes his cues from Shakespeare’s Richard III.

Not to mention Hades. Ruthless, the first book in the House of Rohan series, teased the reader with allusions to the abduction of Persephone. Here we see the myth played out, minus the crazy mother-in-law as Deus ex Machina. Miranda-as-Persephone is more than a match for her Dark Lord, especially given her Shakespearean skill set. I loved, loved, loved the strategy she used to wear him down—and the insight Ms. Stuart gives into its cost. The banter and smashing climax (Of the plot! Geez, some people—you know Ms. Stuart always delivers more than one of those) provide everything a fan could ask.

But a part of me still hesitates. It’s one thing to say fiction need only answer to itself and the truth of its characters. It’s quite another to accept it when a hero’s truth contradicts a deep-seated conviction. Heroes don’t hurt heroines, even by proxy. My daddy taught me that, and my mamma reinforced it by teaching me Frying Pan Kung Fu a very early age. It’s to Ms. Stuart’s credit that I enjoyed this book so much in spite of it.

Verdict: Two thumbs up for the writing, but with reservations.