The Black Hawk by Joanna Bourne (audiobook) – narrated by Kirsten Potter

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Adrian Hawker rose up snarling out of the slums of London, cunning thief and skilled killer. He’s rescued from that life by the British Service who have uses for his particular skill set.

Justine DeCabrillac, daughter of the nobility whose parents died in the chaos of the Revolution is rescued from a decadent child brothel by a woman of the French Secret Police. Justine, too, becomes a great spy for France.

Attacked on a rainy London street, Justine knows only one man can save her: Hawker, her oldest friend…her oldest enemy. London’s crawling with hidden assassins and someone is out to frame Hawker for murder. The two spies must work together to find who’s out to destroy them…

Rating: Narration:A Content: A+

In All About Romance’s review of The Black Hawk in November 2011, Jean Wan wrote,

“Once in a while, during every reader’s literary life, you encounter a book that reminds you why you are a reader. It renews your faith, if faith was lost; it rekindles your interest, if interest waned; and every word, every page, is a wonder. Adrian and Justine’s story is not only such a book and it confirms Joanna Bourne is one of the best authors currently writing.”

That still holds true. This is a truly exceptional story that has been enhanced by an equally exceptional performance from Kirsten Potter in this new audiobook version.

England’s war with Napoleon has been over for three years, and former French spy Justine de Cabrillac has settled in London where she makes her living as a shopkeeper. But old habits die hard, and when Justine comes into possession of valuable information concerning a plot against the British Intelligence service, she knows there is only one man she can turn to: her former friend, former lover, and former enemy Adrian Hawker, now Sir Adrian Hawkhurst and Head of British Intelligence. On her way to headquarters, Justine is attacked and seriously wounded, reaching her destination by sheer force of will alone. As Justine fights for her life, Adrian and his team of agents sets about investigating the whys and wherefores of the attempt on her life – and discover a plot that goes far further than any of them have anticipated. Someone is out to discredit Adrian and see him tried for murder, and that someone will go to any lengths to achieve these aims.

The stage is set for an engrossing story of revenge and espionage, and I really can’t say much more about the plot without spoilers; all I’ll say is that it’s satisfyingly complex, detailed and expertly rendered. Anyone who has read or listened to any of the other books in this series will know that Joanna Bourne is a superb storyteller whose knowledge of the period seeps through in every sentence. She never loses sight of the fact that her characters are just as important as the twists and turns of the plot.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance

Rogue With a Brogue (Scandalous Highlanders #2) by Suzanne Enoch

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A Rogue For Every Lady

London, 1817: Stuck in a Mayfair ballroom, thanks to his lovestruck brother, Highlander Arran MacLawry wants nothing but a bit of distraction from an arranged betrothal—and a clever auburn-haired lass in a vixen’s mask promises just that . . . until he discovers that she’s the granddaughter of the Campbell, chief of clan MacLawry’s longtime rival. Despite their families’ grudging truce, falling for fiery Mary Campbell is a notion too outlandish even for this Highlander…

The Thrill Of The Forbidden

Raised on tales of savage MacLawrys, Mary is stunned to realize the impressively strapping man in the fox’s mask is one of them. Surely the enemy shouldn’t have such a broad chest, and such a seductive brogue? Not that her curiosity matters—any dalliance between them is strictly forbidden, and she’s promised to another. But with the crackling spark between them ready to catch flame, love is worth every risk…

Rating: B

Sometimes when I request review books for AAR, I’ll choose one or two titles from the list we’re sent and then I’ll ask our esteemed editor to throw in another couple of books to make up the numbers. This was one of those “throw-ins”, but I’ve read and enjoyed other books by this author, so I was quite pleased when it arrived. It was only when I read the synopsis that my heart sank, and I thought “oh, no – not another one of those Romeo and Juliet-esque plots about star-crossed lovers from opposing Highland clans!”

Fortunately, however, Ms Enoch shows what a good author can do with a well-worn trope, and the book exceeded my – admittedly low – expectations, turning out to be a well-written and developed character-driven romance featuring two engaging central characters.

At a masked ball in London, Lord Arran MacLawry, younger brother of Ranulf, the Marquess of Glengask, dances with an enticing young woman who clearly knows his identity while he has no idea of hers. He’s completely smitten with her, only to discover that she is Mary Campbell, granddaughter of the Duke of Alkirk, The Campbell himself – and as a result absolutely the last woman with whom he should have danced or about whom he should entertain thoughts of any kind, let alone amorous ones. For the MacLawrys and the Campbells are age-old enemies, a rivalry that dates back beyond living memory.

But clannish animosity cannot control thoughts or emotions, and even though she knows she should put him out of her mind, Mary is equally taken with Arran. The attraction between them is irresistible, and they begin to meet secretly, wanting to make the most of the time they have together before each of them has to marry someone else for the good of their respective clans. But disaster strikes when they are discovered, and Mary’s father informs her that she will marry her cousin Charles, a man she detests. In despair, she manages to get word to Arran, and they run away together.

The story is thus a kind of road-trip with a difference – the difference being that the protagonists are already in love before undertaking their journey. In the short time they’ve known each other, Mary and Arran have already developed a close affinity, and their time on the road allows them to discover more about each other and to fall irrevocably and deeply in love.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance

How to School Your Scoundrel by Juliana Gray (audiobook) – narrated by Carmen Rose

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Princess Luisa has devoted her life to duty, quietly preparing to succeed her father as ruler. Nothing, however, primed her to live on the run, disguised as a personal secretary to a notorious English scoundrel. The earl is just the man to help her reclaim her throne, but Luisa is drawn to her powerful employer in ways she never could never imagine.

Philip, Earl of Somerton, has spent six years married to a woman in love with another man – he refuses to become a fool due to imprudent emotions ever again. Only, as his carefully laid plans for vengeance falter, fate hands him hope for redemption in the form of a beautiful and determined young princess who draws him into a risky game of secrets, seduction, and betrayal. And while his cunning may be enough to save her life, nothing can save him from losing his heart.

Rating: Narration B-; Content B+

This is the third and final book in Ms Gray’s A Princess in Hiding trilogy, in which three royal sisters have to flee their homeland following a revolution. The princesses are transported to England where their uncle, the powerful Duke of Olympia arranges for them to go into hiding disguised as young men. How to School Your Scoundrel focuses on the eldest sister Luisa who, following the assassination of her father, is now the Crown Princess of Holstein-Schweinwald-Huhnhof. At the beginning of the book she arrives, in the guise of Mr Louis Markham, at the home of the Earl of Somerton to apply for the position as his personal secretary.

Anyone who is familiar with Ms Grey’s earlier Affairs by Moonlight trilogy will recognise the Earl as the villain of A Gentleman Never Tells, in which he pursues his estranged wife to Italy with the intention of gaining custody of their five year-old son. I confess that Somerton is the big draw for me when it comes to this book. I’m a sucker for seemingly irredeemable, tortured bad-boys. Unlike so many of the “wicked,” “rakish,” or “rogue” heroes that abound in historical romance today, Somerton really is a black-hearted scoundrel – ruthless, implacable and unscrupulous. He isn’t well liked, he’s feared rather than respected, and he doesn’t give a damn what anyone else thinks of him. Which are, of course, qualities that make him ideally suited to helping to wrest back a kingdom (or, in this case, small German principality).

Somerton finds something admirable in the fact that young Mr Markham not only stands up to him, but shows no fear when doing so, and employs him. As the months pass, they strike up an odd kind of master/servant relationship. Somerton puts up with Mr Markham’s cheek because the man is efficient, straightforward and trustworthy – and his trust is something Somerton does not give lightly or often. There is also the sense of a developing friendship, which is clearly something with which Somerton does not have much experience.

I admit that it does seem odd that Somerton, one of the government’s foremost intelligence masterminds doesn’t see through Luisa’s disguise immediately; I can only presume he is so focused on his own goal of proving his wife’s infidelity and exacting revenge on her lover that he fails to see what is under his nose.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

Douglas: Lord of Heartache (Lonely Lords #8) by Grace Burrowes

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Douglas Allen needs a home for his aching heart

Douglas Allen, Viscount Amery, hates having arrived to his title without knowing how to manage his properties. Guinevere Hollister is a distant family connection raising her daughter in rural obscurity while stewarding the estate. Douglas reluctantly puts himself in Gwen’s hands for lessons in land husbandry and discovers beneath her prickly exterior a woman of passion and honor. Yet despite the closeness they find, she will not marry him.

Guinevere Hollister needs a champion

When the powerful Duke of Moreland arranges an engagement between Gwen and his heir, Douglas knows the marriage is not what Gwen wants. In Douglas’s eyes, Gwen deserves to make her own choices, and he will take on family, the meddling duke, and Gwen’s own lonely, stubborn heart to ensure his lady’s happiness.

Rating: A

When we met Douglas Allen, Viscount Amery in Andrew, he came across as rather cold, unfailingly correct and a bit stand-offish, so it was perhaps a little difficult to imagine him as the romantic hero of his own book.

To be fair, he has bloody good reason to be all those things. His older brother has just died, leaving him with a mountain of debts, an estate that he has never been trained to run and a younger brother and mother who complain of his every effort to curb their spending; and added to that, he is suspected by the Alexander brothers (Gareth and Andrew) and David, Viscount Fairly of possibly trying to cause harm to his sister-in-law and her unborn child. So Douglas is a man with a lot of crosses to bear, and one who, it’s made clear in the earlier book, has always been the odd-one-out of his family. Not at all gregarious as his brothers were, Douglas is the steady-hand, the practical one, which didn’t make him popular with his immediate family, who all saw him as a killjoy.

In Douglas, our eponymous hero is still struggling to repay his debts and to rebuild his life as best he can. Both his brothers are dead and his mother is very ill and he has no other family or close friends to whom he can turn for help or for simple companionship. Fortunately for him, by the end of Andrew, he’s been more or less adopted by the Alexanders and Worthingtons, all of whom prove to be steadfast friends.

One of Andrew’s estates, Enfield, is managed by his cousin, Guinevere (Gwen) Hollister. She is all but a recluse, having retired there after the birth of her illegitimate daughter, Rose, who is now five years old. Gwen is very self-reliant and even the mighty Alexander brothers are somewhat in awe of her and have tended to leave her to herself, because it has seemed to them that that is what Gwen wants. It’s what Gwen thinks she wants, too – until she is brought to see the disadvantages such isolation could bring to her daughter, as well as to realise that perhaps having someone else to shoulder some of her burdens may not be such an insupportable idea.

Gwen is a very good land-steward, so it’s to her that Andrew sends Douglas for guidance and instruction concerning estate management. His father and elder brother never bothered to learn much about the land they owned other than how to spend what money they could squeeze from it, and Douglas wants to retrench and start over. Andrew has offered to sell him one of his estates, and has suggested that Douglas asks Gwen to visit it with him to look it over and give him an honest opinion of its worth and its future viability.

Anyone who has read Ms Burrowes’ first published novel, The Heir, will have met Douglas, Gwen and Rose before, and will know a little of their backstory, which is fully fleshed-out in this book. Gwen’s experience with men left her badly burned emotionally, and she is determined never to place her trust in one of them again. But she can’t help but be won over by Douglas who is ever respectful and properly behaved towards her. He is a truly gentle man (and a lovely beta hero), one she comes to know she can rely on to do the right thing and who will never hurt her. Both Gwen and Douglas are misfits, but together, they find companionship, shared understanding and reawaken emotions so long buried they had forgotten they’d ever existed.

I applaud Ms Burrowes for the way she has turned Douglas from the aloof man we met in Andrew into a romantic lead without giving him a major personality transplant. He’s still very much the same man from the earlier book; still very proper and somewhat reserved, and it’s lovely to watch him loosen up when he’s around Gwen and Rose and to admit the possibility of affection into his life.

There is, of course, a nice big dollop of angst in the story, which comes when Gwen has to make a horrible choice between doing what she believes is the best thing for her daughter, or being with the man she has come to love – it wouldn’t be a Grace Burrowes book without it. And the crazy thing is that she does this to me book after book after book – I know it’s coming, and I still sit here sniffling and trying to locate the nearest box of tissues! (Which is in no way a complaint – I seem to have become addicted.)

The other thing I loved about the book is the Alexander/Worthington alliance and the way that Gareth, Andrew and David have taken Douglas under their collective wing. They regard him as family, even though his connection to them is fairly tenuous (his elder brother was married to Astrid, who is now Andrew’s wife, and also Gareth’s sister-in-law). The idea of these three very wealthy, very powerful men trying their hand at matchmaking is rather funny, and the scenes which feature the three of them are among the highlights of the book. The way they and their womenfolk rally around Douglas and Gwen at a time of crisis is truly touching and really brings home the importance this author places on family and familial relationships.

This one is joining Darius and Ethan as one of my favourite books in the Lonely Lords series.

Accidentally in Love (novella) by Claudia Dain

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Miss Emeline Harlow has loved Kit Culley all her life and is going to marry him. Unfortunately, Kit doesn’t know that.

Growing up together in Wiltshire has given Kit the odd idea that he and Emeline are practically siblings. They are not. Now that they are both in London for the 1804 Season, Emeline is going to prove it to him. Emeline and Kit both have mothers who are determined that they marry into the peerage, but that isn’t going to stop Emeline from using every ploy she can think of to get Kit to realize that he loves her.

What Emeline quickly realizes is that growing up in Wiltshire has not prepared her to have “ploys.” She does, however, have Lady Eleanor Kirkland as a new London friend and Eleanor is very sophisticated for a girl just Out, and she has very sophisticated Town connections, one of them being Sophia Dalby, ex-courtesan and widowed countess.

Between Eleanor and Emeline, Kit and Lord Raithby, Emeline’s mother and Kit’s mother, Emeline’s three younger brothers, and with a final push from Sophia Dalby, there are ploys aplenty. Find out how Kit falls accidentally in love in this lighthearted Regency romp, a novella in the More Courtesan Chronicles series.

Rating: D+

As this review is quite possibly the shortest one I will ever write for AAR, I’m just going to say that I gave this novella a D+ and say that you can find it HERE.

My original review at Goodreads read as follows: “Pretty Pointless”.

Raven’s Bride by Lynn Kerstan

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She tried to rob him. And then she stole his heart.

If a mysterious assassin gets his way, Ashton Cordell, the Earl of Ravensby, will die without leaving an heir. Five years ago, that assassin murdered the Earl’s wife and unborn child, and Ashton has dodged repeated attempts on his life since then. Now reclusive and wary, he takes no chances when two highwaymen attempt to rob him one dark night. Killing one of them, he takes the other prisoner, only to discover a beautiful and sharp-witted young woman beneath a robber’s hood.

Glenys Shea is at his mercy, and she knows it—even more so after her devoted young brother, an apprentice street thief, barges in to save her. Ashton quickly realizes that the pair are good-hearted and loyal despite following in the footsteps of their father—the robber Ashton killed. Glenys wins him over with her kindness, intelligence, and empathy for the tortured life he leads.

Together they concoct a scheme to lure the assassin to light, but as their plan progresses, danger lurks at every turn, and their growing love only serves to make the stakes even higher.

Rating: C+

This is a digital reissue of a book originally published in 1996.

Ashton Cordell, Earl of Ravensby has, for the past six years, been trying to find out who murdered his wife and unborn child – and who is out to deal him the same fate. As a matter of self-preservation, he has become a recluse, holed up in his ancestral home of Ravenrook, where he is constantly surrounded by a small army of bodyguards.

One night, his coach is held-up by highwaymen, and in the ensuing confusion, Ash shoots and kills one of them. The younger of the two men is taken for questioning – and discovered not to be a young man at all, but a young woman, and the dead man was her father. At first, Ash is convinced that the pair must have been hired to kill him, but when the girl’s brother arrives with more information, he realises his error.
This leaves Ash with rather a dilemma – what to do with the two young people? He comes to see that they’re decent and loyal, and finds he feels a degree of responsibility for them. He doesn’t want to hand them over to the magistrate – so he takes them in temporarily, with the idea of eventually sending them over to America to make a fresh start.

In the meantime, Glenys, who is independent, clever and shrewd, with a perennially sunny disposition – wants to know why Ash thought she and her father had been paid to kill him; in fact, wants to know why anyone would want to kill him. Ash is very reserved and doesn’t give much away, but it’s clear he’s rather a lost soul, and Glenys is doggedly determined to draw him out. More than anything, she wants to make him smile and bring him back from whatever dark place he’s been in for the past six years. Along the way, she falls head-over-heels for him, (of course) but doesn’t hold out any hopes that there can ever be anything between them. For one thing, he’s an earl, and she’s the daughter of an ex-soldier (although her mother was the daughter of a marquess), and for another, he’s drop-dead gorgeous and she’s plain and lacking in the most basic of feminine graces and accomplishments.

Raven’s Bride moves along at a good pace and is a well put-together story; and while the characterisation isn’t particularly deep, the two protagonists are likeable and attractive. Glenys is like a force of nature – she breezes into Ash’s life determined to help him (whether he wants it or not), which can admittedly be rather an annoying trait; but there’s something so good-natured and endearing about her that pulls her back from the brink of being annoying-as-hell. She is a natural optimist and is not easily cowed, and even when she faces setbacks, she puts them behind her and determines to move on. Ash is almost her complete opposite; he’s austere and reserved, and has been reactive rather than proactive over the last six years. Glenys shows him that, and convinces him that the only way he can be free of the threat hanging over him is to get out there and confront it, rather than waiting for it to find him. The identities of the villains are fairly obvious (well, one of them is), but that doesn’t detract from the story as a whole.

The romance is quite nicely done, although I wish we’d seen a little more of it from Ash’s point of view. Overall Raven’s Bride is a quick and entertaining romantic mystery that’s certainly worth a couple of hours of anyone’s time, although I’m not sure it’s something I’ll revisit.

The Rules of Seduction by Madeline Hunter

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Dangerous. Sensual. Handsome as sin. Meet Hayden Rothwell, the shamelessly erotic hero of The Rules of Seduction and author Madeline Hunter’s most irresistible alpha male yet: a man of extraordinary passion and power, a man who can bring out the seductress in any woman.…

He enters her home without warning or invitation–a stranger of shadowy motives and commanding sensuality. Within hours, Alexia Welbourne is penniless, without any hope of marriage. Until Hayden Rothwell takes her to bed. When one impulsive act of passion forces Alexia to marry the very man who has ruined her, Hayden’s seduction of Alexia is nearly complete. What Alexia doesn’t know is that her irresistible new husband is driven by a secret purpose–and a debt of honor he will risk everything to repay. Alexia is the wild card. Reluctant to give up their nightly pleasures, Hayden must find a way to keep Alexia by his side…only to be utterly, thoroughly seduced by a woman who is now playing by her own rules.

Rating: B

I haven’t read many books by this author, and judging from various reviews I’ve seen, she can be a bit hit-and-miss for many, but I enjoyed this, and was particularly impressed with the way she utilises a specific historical event (the stock market crash of 1825) to provide both background detail and impetus for her story.

Lord Hayden Rothwell, brother of the eccentric Marquess of Easterbrook is a highly successful and skilled financier, as well as being a mathematical genius on the quiet. He is a man who keeps himself tightly controlled and is not subject to whim or impulse; everything he does is carefully considered and calculated, which has earned him a fearsome reputation in both high society and in financial circles.

Several years previously he, like many of his peers, travelled to Greece to fight in the war of independence against Turkey. Were it not for the actions of his friend, Benjamin Longworth, Hayden would have been killed – and that debt of honour is one that Hayden holds sacred, even four years after Benjamin’s death at sea. Because of that debt, Hayden now finds himself in an impossible situation, having discovered that Benjamin’s brother, Timothy, has been embezzling funds from the bank in which both he and Ben were partners. Hayden has no alternative but to confront Longworth with his knowledge; but owing Ben his life means he is not willing to throw Longworth to the wolves. He comes up with a way for Longworth to avoid the gallows – but it will mean repaying as much of the missing money as he can and then learning to live within his now meagre means.

Bound by his word never to reveal the truth to Longworth’s sisters and the impoverished cousin who lives with them, Hayden has to endure the misplaced enmity of the entire Longworth household. It’s not that he cares overmuch, even when rumour begins to circulate that he deliberately ruined the family, but it’s an inconvenience, especially when Hayden finds himself unexpectedly drawn to the Longworths’ cousin, Alexia Welbourne. He is impressed by her dignity even as she makes clear her dislike and disdain, and he can’t help rising to the tempting bait she presents, sensing that beneath her controlled exterior, she’s seething with frustration and unable to help thinking of other ways he would like to rouse her passions.

Alexia can’t deny that Hayden is a very handsome man, and against her will and better judgement she is attracted to him. But she is convinced it is a transient thing, and instead still clings to the memory of Ben, with whom she was in love. Before leaving for Greece, he had – she believes – promised to marry her, although he didn’t actually propose. He had no such intentions, of course, but she has remained unaware of that, and is clearly more in love with Ben’s memory and the idea of being in love, than she was with the man himself.

Realising that her cousins’ impoverished state means Alexia will not be able to continue to live with them, he arranges for her to take a position as his aunt’s companion and governess to his cousin who is to make her début this season. As the ladies will be taking up residence in the Longworth’s former home, Alexia will not have to leave or try to find other employment.

Because of his aunt’s demands that he dance attendance upon her and his cousin, Hayden is often in company with Alexia. He’s well aware that his aunt has designs upon him on her daughter’s behalf, but he’s interested only in Alexia and is prepared to put up with his relations in order to spend time with her. His continued presence makes her feel rather uncomfortable because she is starting to find much in him to admire, and to more than like the way he makes her feel when he kisses her. She can’t understand it – how can she feel such an intense attraction to a man she doesn’t even like?

After passionate kisses turn suddenly and unexpectedly into lovemaking, Alexia believes Hayden intends to make her his mistress. She decides to be practical and accept his offer of carte blanche with the intention of putting aside enough money and jewellery to support her comfortably after he leaves her and to offer her cousins what help they will accept.

She is stunned to receive an offer of marriage instead.

She knows that this will cause a serious breach between her and her cousins, who are her only family; yet Hayden is offering her a comfortable life, and one filled with passion for as long as they want it, for neither of them can deny the intensity of the sexual pleasure they experienced together. Prepared to live in a marriage of convenience in which both partners lead separate lives, Alexia can’t ignore the small voice at the back of her mind telling her that when her husband eventually strays from her bed, it will hurt like the devil.

While there are elements of miscommunication in the story, they don’t reach the level of the silly Big Misunderstanding, the sole existence of which is to provide easily resolvable conflict. There are issues between Hayden and Alexia that take time to resolve, it’s true, but for the most part they DO talk honestly. There is one important exception, however, which is Hayden’s request to Alexia early on that there should only ever be the two of them in their bed. He means it mostly as a reference to Ben, as he believes that although Alexia is a passionate and very willing bed-mate, she is still carrying a torch for his old friend; but she interprets it very literally, and never speaks of her problems in the bedroom, often reminding Hayden of his request on those occasions he asks what is troubling her.

While I do have a few minor quibbles about the book as a whole, the storyline is very well put-together both in terms of the romance and the plot concerning Hayden’s following of the money-trail as he tries to work out exactly who stole what and what happened to the money. There’s a brilliant and unexpected twist towards the end, which I didn’t see coming, but which, looking back on it, is subtly signposted.

The characterisation of both leads is very good, and there is plenty of chemistry between them. I liked that they actually talk to each other quite a lot, and especially enjoyed the way that Ms Hunter allows the romance to build slowly. Hayden is a delicious hero – tall, dark and handsome of course, but he’s also defined by an air of competence and a deep intensity and sensuality that make a heady cocktail! Alexia is practical and intelligent, and while there were times I didn’t agree with her actions, they nonetheless made sense within the terms of the plot. She resists her attraction to Hayden while he is determined to foster it – and in doing to, he falls hard and has to learn to accept that there are some things he can’t control. But he is also considerate and never treats his wife with anything other than respect – he values her opinions and her spirit, and is sensible of the fact that she needs to make her own decisions about him. With time, Alexia comes to see that her new husband is a man of honour and integrity, and to finally have her suspicions that perhaps the Longworths’ ruin was not his fault.

The Rules of Seduction is an enjoyable read featuring a well-developed love story set against a very intriguing historical background. There are three more books in the series, which I certainly intend to check out at some point on the strength of this one.