A Spear of Summer Grass by Deanna Raybourn

A Spear of Summer Grass

Paris, 1923

The daughter of a scandalous mother, Delilah Drummond is already notorious, even amongst Paris society. But her latest scandal is big enough to make even her oft-married mother blanch. Delilah is exiled to Kenya and her favorite stepfather’s savannah manor house until gossip subsides.

Fairlight is the crumbling, sun-bleached skeleton of a faded African dream, a world where dissolute expats are bolstered by gin and jazz records, cigarettes and safaris. As mistress of this wasted estate, Delilah falls into the decadent pleasures of society.

Against the frivolity of her peers, Ryder White stands in sharp contrast. As foreign to Delilah as Africa, Ryder becomes her guide to the complex beauty of this unknown world. Giraffes, buffalo, lions and elephants roam the shores of Lake Wanyama amid swirls of red dust. Here, life is lush and teeming-yet fleeting and often cheap.

Amidst the wonders-and dangers-of Africa, Delilah awakes to a land out of all proportion: extremes of heat, darkness, beauty and joy that cut to her very heart. Only when this sacred place is profaned by bloodshed does Delilah discover what is truly worth fighting for-and what she can no longer live without.

Rating: A-

I’ve read and enjoyed Ms Raybourn’s Lady Julia Grey books, so when I saw she’d written a story set in the 1920s, I was intrigued and at the same time a little apprehensive. Not only was the author treading new ground, but so was I – my taste in historicals tends to run to the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries. Maybe because I was born and grew up in the second half of the 20th Century, it’s still a little too close for me to really regard it as “historical”!

Fortunately, however, my apprehension was quickly proved groundless, because A Spear of Summer Grass grabbed me from the start.

Delilah Drummond is presented as the epitome of the 20s good-time girl. She’s rich, spoiled, does exactly as she likes and doesn’t care who she shocks or upsets along the way. She’s been married three times (widowed twice, divorced once) regularly takes lovers (including her ex-husband on occasion) without a second thought and has a taste for all the good things in life.

At the beginning of the book however, she has caused one scandal too many for the liking of her family, and she is sent to rusticate in Africa until such time as the gossip has died down and she can return to Europe.

Even in Africa though, she continues to ruffle feathers, mostly because of the fact that she treats the natives as people and takes upon herself the traditional duties of the ‘lady of the manor’ in treating their illnesses and making sure her workers are adequately fed and well-treated. She is immediately adopted by the local ex-patriots, who are real bunch of misfits, having nothing in common other than their presence in Africa and a thinly veiled dislike of each other.

One of the first of these ex-pats encountered by Delilah is Ryder White, who makes his living principally from safari-guiding. He’s sort of a cross between Indiana Jones and Allan Quartermain (I can’t help wondering if J. Ryder White is an hommage to H. Rider Haggard) although rather more promiscuous than either of them. But he’s a compelling character; ruggedly masculine, with a good sense of humour and an air of vulnerability and fatalism about him that sometimes belies the steely exterior. Ryder escorts Delilah to Fairlight, the estate owned by her stepfather. To her dismay, it’s a mess – but being Delilah she doesn’t let it deter her and with the help of her cousin and companion Dora, and local workmen, she sets about putting things to rights.

I’ve seen a number of comments from other readers pointing out the similarities between this story and Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa. I confess I’ve not read her book, and it’s been quite a long time since I’ve seen the film, so I don’t want to comment on that. All I’ll say is that if that is the case, it didn’t stop me enjoying Delilah’s story.

In Delilah Drummond, Ms Raybourn has created a character that, to quote Jane Austen (on Emma) “no one but myself will much like”. Perhaps we’re not supposed to like her all that much in the beginning, but like her or not, she’s ballsy, courageous and outspoken, and isn’t afraid to admit to her own shortcomings – well, some of them. Of course, behind the highly polished exterior lies a wealth of pain and doubt, a woman who has experienced more than her fair share of loss and heartbreak. As she says to her lover, Kit – “Like every bad thing that’s ever happened to me, I lock it up and don’t think about it.”

In terms of the love story in the novel, I think there are actually two. The relationship between Delilah and Ryder develops slowly to start with. There’s a strong current of mutual attraction and antagonism between them, and the sexual tension fairly crackles as they play a game of one-upmanship as to who will seduce whom. But alongside the human romance is the story of how Delilah is seduced by Africa; the sights, the sounds, the smells, the customs and kindness of the people, and how she is changed by it.

My one complaint is that the romance between Delilah and Ryder could have been better developed. It was clear that they wanted each other physically and that they bonded through an understanding of the life and customs of the country. But these were two emotionally prickly people, and I felt there needed to be more said between them. I’m not really a fan of the plotline in which one of the protagonists has to be alerted as to how the other feels about them by a third party; and Ryder’s actions at the end of the book when he ploughs everything he owns into Fairlight for Delilah’s sake but without any certainty of her reciprocation seemed rather out of character for the man we’ve encountered throughout the rest of the novel.

Those reservations aside however, A Spear of Summer Grass has much to recommend it, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s superbly written and well-paced, the characterisation is excellent throughout and Ms Raybourn’s descriptions of the scenery and landscape are simply ravishing.

(Incidentally, more of Ryder’s backstory is revealed in the prequel novella Far in the Wilds, and I don’t think it has to be read before Spear. I read it afterwards and enjoyed getting the full story of some of the events alluded to in the novel in retrospect.)

With thanks to Harlequin/MIRA and NetGalley for the review copy.

Frederica by Georgette Heyer – (audiobook) Narrated by Clifford Norgate

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Frederica Merrivale has come to London for the glittering social season, in order to give her beautiful younger sister Charis a chance to make a good marriage. The Merrivales, a family of solid social standing, have fallen into unhappy financial straits, and the marriage might deliver them from this situation. Frederica herself, a gay and witty charmer, is feared to be beyond marriageable age — she is twenty-four!

But when they are introduced to London society by their distant cousin, Lord Alverstoke, they find themselves both besieged by more suitors than they can possibly handle!

Rating: B+

I haven’t read this in years – I’ve just listened to the audio version, narrated by Clifford Norgate.

I’d more or less forgotten the plot, but it’s one of those books where the inclusion of younger siblings works really well and makes for some funny and delightful moments. The romance between Frederica and Alverstoke moves slowly, with him becoming aware of his feelings for her quite some time before (it seems) she has any idea, or about hers for him. They form a strong friendship to start with, and I always enjoy friends-to-lovers stories, so that’s an added bonus.

The narration is excellent on the whole; Norgate has a mellifluous voice and brings to life a large cast of characters which includes children, dowagers and tulips of the ton. If I have one criticism, it’s that he’s chosen such a deep tone for Alverstoke. I realise this is to mark him out as different from the other male characters, but there are times he sounds a bit too old for a man in his late 30s.

But even with that caveat, it’s a very skilful and varied performance, and is certainly one I’d listen to again.

Darius (Lonely Lords #1) by Grace Burrowes

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Desperate, penniless, and shunned by his wealthy father, Darius Lindsey begins offering himself secretly to jaded society ladies. He hangs onto his last shreds of honor, but he’s losing ground financially each month.

That is until the aging Lord William Longstreet makes Darius an offer he can’t refuse: get the Lord’s pretty young wife-of-convenience, Lady Vivian, pregnant discreetly, and he will earn enough money to never want again. But problems lie ahead when the stunning Vivian captures his heart, and his clients refuse to let him go. Can Darius untangle himself without scandal and offer himself to Vivian heart and soul?

Rating: A-

I have to confess to being a big fan of Grace Burrowes’ work. Her writing is sublime and even more importantly, so is her characterization. I’ve laughed and cried while reading her books; it takes a lot for the written word to reduce me to tears, but she’s managed it a few times.

Darius is the first in a new series of eight books under the title of Lonely Lords. From peeking at the next couple of books in the series, I see that the central characters from each story are related in some way, with a couple of characters from Burrowes’ Windham series making cameo appearances.

Darius Lindsey is a ‘spare’. The impoverished second son of the Earl of Winslow, he ekes himself out a meagre existence by providing services of an ‘intimate’ nature to wealthy, bored women in exchange for money. It’s clear he takes no real pleasure in his occupation, and that he despises himself for doing it. But having been cast off by his father and feeling unequipped to do anything other than trade on his good looks and charm, he does what he has to do to keep a roof over his head and to protect those he cares about. At the beginning of the story, he is persuaded into employment by Lord William Longstreet who is in need of an heir, having recently lost both his sons. Darius doesn’t have sex with the women who employ him – but Longstreet’s offer proves more than he can resist: enough money to make Darius financially secure in exchange for impregnating Longstreet’s much younger wife.

I’m normally quite wary of this sort of storyline. In the wrong hands, it can turn out to be an excuse for endless sex scenes and of course, in order for the hero and heroine to get their HEA, the elderly husband has to die conveniently or be otherwise put out of the picture.

But this author hasn’t let me down yet, so I felt fairly confident that she would be able to make such a contrivance work. I can forgive a hackneyed plot if the author makes me care about the characters, and that, I feel, is Burrowes’ greatest strength.

The reasons for Darius’ estrangement from his father emerge slowly, but from the outset it’s clear that his childhood was not a happy one. There are also references to a past scandal involving one of his sisters (which I imagine will be addressed in the next book) and the fact that Darius is doing the best he can to integrate her back into society and protect her from censure.

Vivian Longstreet is, as Darius terms it, a “married spinster.” She had previously been companion to Longstreet’s late wife, but after the latter’s death, William marries Vivian in order to prevent her being married off for profit by her rapacious stepfather. But with death approaching, he needs to secure her future and in order to do so, comes up with the idea of finding a man to sire a child who he will present to the world as his heir and who will inherit part of his estate and enable Vivian to live independently.

Vivian agrees reluctantly to the plan and together, she and her husband come to the conclusion that Darius is the ideal choice: in need of the money, very discreet and above all, Vivian comes to realize, a man who is fiercely protective of the people he cares about.

Even before their liaison begins, Darius senses danger. Vivian is fragile and lacking in confidence and he knows he needs to take care with her, and not just in the physical sense. But more than that, he recognizes a kindred spirit, someone he could easily come to love but who, for the sake of the child and her reputation, can never acknowledge him after their time together comes to an end.

Darius and Vivian are to spend a month together, and given the nature of their agreement, things begin awkwardly. But Darius, as well as being handsome, charming and good in bed, is a truly good man. He knows that the longer Vivian is allowed to brood over their situation, the more likely she is to want to back out – so while he can’t allow her too much time to come to terms, he sets about putting her at ease with a mixture of consideration and playfulness. Vivian begins to blossom in his care, gaining confidence in her appearance and in her ability to assert herself.

Before the month is out, they have fallen deeply in love even though they don’t acknowledge it and know it can never amount to anything. Their relationship is beautifully written, full of tenderness and genuine affection. I particularly liked the scenes where they have breakfast in bed, which were a little glimpse of an informal domesticity in the lives of two people who have never before experienced it. I sometimes think that moments like that are just as intimate as sex scenes – if not more so.

Their month ends, Darius and Vivian have to part and I don’t mind admitting that the pages that covered their final night and their subsequent goodbyes brought a lump to my throat.

Vivian returns to her husband, more or less sure that she is expecting a child. Darius attempts to return to his previous life, but he can’t – not only are his finances in a better state, Vivian has enabled him to rediscover some of his sense of self-worth and he resolves to tell his two current clients that they’re finished. Unfortunately, however it’s not that simple. They’re not going to give him up that easily, and make threats against his sisters to try to ensure his continued attentions.

There’s another spanner in the works, too, in the shape of Vivian’s stepfather, who, even though no longer married to her mother, has never removed himself from Vivian’s life and still has plans to gain control of her fortune as soon as she is widowed.

If I have a criticism about the story, it’s the somewhat melodramatic nature of the villains and their respective plots. On the plus side, these are not allowed to drag on or create a Big Misunderstanding between the hero and heroine. Darius decides on a plan of action and meets underhandedness with underhandedness which, while he is not proud of it, quickly and satisfactorily neutralizes the threats.

I know that Burrowes has been criticized for inaccuracies in historical detail in her novels, and while there were a couple of things here that made me raise my eyebrows (like the scene where Darius takes Vivian to Gunter’s and at one point feeds her ice cream!) there was nothing here that truly bothered me.

Because for me, what’s important in a romance is that we are shown that relationship developing. We get to know the characters, to understand what attracts them to each other, and watch them fall for each other and overcome whatever obstacles lie in their path. And this is where I think Grace Burrowes excels. Darius and Vivian have both been missing something in their lives – he feels worthless and lives on the edges of society, and she has never lived for herself – and in finding each other, they find themselves as well.

Never Less Than a Lady by Mary Jo Putney (audiobook) – Narrated by Simon Prebble

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As the sole remaining heir to the Earl of Daventry, Alexander Randall knows his duty: find a wife and sire a son of his own. The perfect bride for a man in his position would be a biddable young girl of good breeding. But the woman who haunts his imagination is Julia Bancroft—a village midwife with a dark secret that thrusts her into Randall’s protection.

Within the space of a day, Julia has been abducted by her first husband’s cronies, rescued, and proposed to by a man she scarcely knows. Stranger still is her urge to say yes. A union with Alexander Randall could benefit them both, but Julia doubts she can ever trust her heart again, or the fervent desire Randall ignites. Yet perhaps only a Lost Lord can show a woman like Julia everything a true marriage can be…

Rating: B-

This is another audiobook I borrowed from the library, principally because Simon Prebble is one of my favourite narrators.

Julia, a widow, is a country midwife, who had captured the interest of Alex Randall in the previous book – although he was reluctant to show any interest and gave her to believe he disliked her.  But Julia has a dark past and is hiding from her late husband’s father, who believes that she murdered her late husband (who was Alex’s cousin). In fact, he was an abusive bastard and she killed him in self-defence, but she knew she’d never have been believed and ran.

At the beginning of the story, she is discovered by two thugs (hired by her ex-father-in-law) and kidnapped; Alex rescues her and offers her marriage in order to protect her.  She’s reluctant, but sees the sense in it and eventually agrees.

Putney doesn’t shy away from describing the horrors of Julia’s first marriage, and her fears about intimacy and sex are well-grounded.  I suspect her ‘recovery’ was probably quite fast, although I have absolutely no knowledge about how a woman who has been subjected to what Julia went through would have reacted or if she could ever have let another man touch her.  But this is a romantic novel so one has to allow some degree of poetic license; and the author did a good job of giving the situation a degree of credibility and in showing Julia’s struggles and both the forward and backwards steps that were taken in her relationship with Alex.

In fact, the part that felt least plausible to me came later in the book once Alex and Julia have discovered that she is, in fact, a great heiress and he begins to worry that she no longer needs him (a fact which rather wounds his masculine pride).  But then, she had given him little reason to think otherwise, especially given her initial  insistence on there being a way out of the marriage if she wanted it at the end of a year.

This isn’t always an easy read, but it was an engaging story and I liked the characterisation of the two principals – Alex is kind and honourable, and Julia is no-nonsense.

Simon Prebble is an excellent narrator.  He differentiates character voices clearly and although one or two of his accents were a bit wobbly, overall, I enjoyed his performance.

Seducing the Princess by Mary Hart Perry

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Painfully shy and lonely, convinced she is unattractive and unloved, the dutiful Princess Beatrice finally accepts that she will never marry and vows to devote herself to the queen in Victoria’s waning years. In fact, her mother has secretly discouraged suitors for Beatrice’s hand. Just when she has all but given up on love and happiness, she meets Henry Battenberg, a dashing nobleman from the Continent who matches wits with the aging Victoria and risks his life and liberty to woo Bea.

But Henry isn’t the only man interested in being welcomed into Beatrice’s bed. The timid princess has become the target of a cruel plot hatched by her nephew, the madman destined to become the last Emperor of Germany. Wilhelm II sends a ruthless agent, a charming Scot, to seduce the naive princess and spy on the queen. How can the sheltered princess hope to fend off a man capable of murder, and perhaps worse, to get what he wants? But Beatrice is not without her own allies–her older sister Louise and Louise’s American soldier-of-fortune and lover, Stephen Byrne. Will Beatrice discover which of the two men pursuing her she can trust, before it’s too late? Drama, romance and peril chase the royal family from Buckingham Palace to a storm besieged castle on the Isle of Wight.

Rating: C+

I admit that although I found this book to be reasonably enjoyable, I found it difficult to rate and review. It’s certainly a historical novel, but it’s neither straight Historical Romance nor Historical Fiction. In fact, in her foreword, the author states that “Although some of the characters were inspired by the lives of real people, the story itself is an invention of the author’s imagination.” What the book turns out to be is part romance, part thriller; a “what if?” story, taking as its principal character Princess Beatrice, the youngest daughter of Queen Victoria.

The plot is simple. At the age of twenty-seven, and somewhat shy and downtrodden, Beatrice feels herself to be firmly on the shelf. Her siblings are all married and living their own lives, but she remains with her mother, acting as her companion and finding the constant solemnity of the court depressing. She despairs of ever having a life, husband, and family of her own until she meets the handsome Prince Henry of Battenburg. He is the first man ever to show an interest in her and they quickly become friends. It is not long before the pair are falling in love, but when Henry asks the queen’s permission to marry Beatrice, Victoria is furious, and promptly forbids him to set foot in England ever again.

In the meantime, Victoria’s grandson Wilhelm (later Kaiser Wilhelm II) hatches a plot to infiltrate Victoria’s court. His aspirations towards an Empire are well documented as being one of the major causes of the First World War, so the idea that he hates and distrusts the English establishment and people is certainly plausible. He plans to plant a spy within Victoria’s family circle by finding someone to seduce and marry his aunt Beatrice, and to this end recruits an old schoolmate, Gregory MacAlister, the handsome third son of an impoverished Scottish laird. Knowing of Victoria’s fondness for her former gillie, John Brown, Wilhelm reasons that a Scotsman will be likely to evoke memories of Brown and therefore have a head start in gaining the trust of the queen and her daughter.

MacAlister duly worms his way into a position working in the royal stables. Charming and handsome, he becomes Beatrice’s regular escort on her daily rides, and although she is heartbroken over her mother’s dismissal of Henry’s suit, she is nonetheless attracted to the new groom, and he becomes her confidante.

There is much to enjoy in the story. It’s generally well-written, although there were certain passages and turns of phrase that felt anachronistic – for example, I really can’t imagine Queen Victoria thinking that anything was “just fine” or picture her riding “on aways”. There was one very silly scene in which Beatrice’s maid confronts MacAlister – clearly, she hasn’t read the memo about what happens to characters who secretly meet the bad guy in order to tell him they want out!

Beatrice is probably the most well-rounded character in the book. Starting out as a rather dowdy old-maid type, she begins to question her mother’s actions, and to gain more confidence in herself and her right to have her own life. Unfortunately Henry is rather two-dimensional as dashing heroes go, and I have to say that both MacAlister and Wilhelm were stereotypical in their villainy.

Victoria is frequently presented as a selfish, domineering mother. She tells Beatrice that her refusal to allow Henry’s suit was to save her (Beatrice) from the indignities of the marriage bed and the trial of constant pregnancies, whereas of course, Beatrice believes it is because Victoria wants her to remain with her for the rest of her life, to be a companion to her in old age. Nonetheless, she is still torn between her duty to her mother who does, after all, have a country and an empire to govern (and a Prime Minister she doesn’t like in Mr Gladstone) and her desire for marriage and a life of her own.

The book references certain historical events, such as the unrest in India, and the massacre at Khartoum in the Sudan, so there is no doubt that the author has researched her setting thoroughly.

If, however, you are looking to read a piece of historical fiction based closely on the life of Princess Beatrice, this may not be the book for you. In most HF, authors have to invent some scenes because of a lack of evidence or documentation, assigning motivations to their characters and creating details like conversations which may or may not have taken place in order to propel the drama. This is not really the case here, as despite the use of actual historical figures in principal roles, the story presented iscompletely fictional. It’s true that Beatrice did indeed marry Henry Battenburg and after their marriage, they both lived and travelled with Victoria at her request. Wilhelm was certainly somewhat unhinged – jealous of the British Empire and the Navy; and, because of a physical disability, felt the need to prove himself at every turn. The author has cleverly integrated historical fact into her story, but the focus is the fictional plot rather than known events.

If you’re in the mood for a straightforward, well-told story that has plenty of period flavour and can accept the author’s disclaimer that this is a ‘made-up’ story about the British royals, then you could do a lot worse than read Seducing the Princess.

The Chalice by Nancy Bilyeau

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England, 1538. A bloody power struggle between crown and cross tears England asunder. Young Joanna Stafford has already tasted the wrath of the royal court, seen what lies inside the king’s torture rooms and escaped death at the hands of those desperate to possess the power of an ancient relic. After seeing such sights, the quiet life is not for Joanna. Soon she risks arrest and imprisonment again, when she is caught up in a conspiracy scheming against Henry VIII. As the powerplays grow deadly, Joanna must realise if her role is more central than she’d ever imagined. As one fateful night at the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket proves, she must make a choice between those she cares for most and taking her place in a prophecy foretold by three different seers, each more powerful than the last. To learn the final, sinister piece of the prophecy, she flees across Europe with an amoral spy sent by Spain. As the necromancers complete the puzzle, Joanna realises the life of Henry VIII as well as the future of Christendom are in her hands; hands which must someday hold the chalice that lies at the centre of these deadly prophecies…

Rating: A

This is the second historical novel to feature Joanna Stafford, niece of the Duke of Buckingham and formerly a novice at Dartford Priory. The first was The Crown, in which Joanna was forced into the service of the powerful Bishop of Winchester, Stephen Gardiner in order to save the life of her father.

I don’t think it’s essential to have read that book first in order to fully appreciate this one, as the story stands alone, even though many of the historical figures we encounter appear in both. I regret to say that I haven’t read The Crown, but definitely intend to do so in the near future.

In The Chalice the English Reformation has led to the destruction of the religious way of life and Joanna, while still referred to as ‘Sister’ is no longer a novice nun. She continues to reside in Dartford, intent on starting a tapestry-weaving business; but as a member of a prominent family, related to both the King and the Duke of Norfolk, the powerful factions around her are not willing to leave her to a peaceful life in obscurity.

The story hinges on a prophecy made about ten years before the action of the book, in which Joanna was told that she would be the one to bring about a change in the fortunes of the Catholic Church in England and to undo all that Henry VIII had done to crush it. Despite her devotion to her faith, or perhaps because of it, Joanna wants nothing to do with the prophecy and in any case, does not see how someone as insignificant as she could possibly be destined for such an act.

The prophecy also tells that Joanna will need to meet with a further two seers in order to discern her course of action, something that she is determined never to do. But as events ten years later bring her into contact with the Exeters, Norfolk, Gardiner and the Spanish ambassador, it becomes clear that she is never going to be able to escape her destiny.

The plot is complex, but never confusing. Bilyeau’s writing is superb, and for the most part, well-paced; and in the character of Joanna Stafford, she has created an extremely likeable, multi-faceted heroine who is shown to be fallible as well as heroic. Joanna is devout, but it’s clear that she would have probably had trouble with vows of obedience. She has problems controlling her temper at times, and has an inquiring mind; perhaps not the best qualities in one expected to conform and submit without question. She is kind without being sugary-sweet, intelligent, but not all-knowing. Her impetuosity and honesty lead her into dangerous situations and attract the wrong sort of notice – yet she is brave, determined and self-possessed.

She has faults – the way she continually denies her attraction to a man who loves her passionately and instead turns to one who, while also loving her, is a much less ‘dangerous’ choice – is a huge self-deception on her part, as well as being somewhat frustrating for the reader. But although there are strong threads of romance running through the book, it is not the main focus. Joanna knows she has more to do than fall in love and finally, having been rather beaten down by circumstances, she makes the decision to hear the final prophecy and meet her destiny.

The Chalice is a superb read, full of suspense and intrigue. The author’s attention to historical detail is excellent – from the conventions of Court life to the day-to-day existence of the lower echelons, and she presents the reader with a fascinating glimpse of the intricate power struggles and politics of Henry’s court. She also raises an interesting question concerning the fate of those expelled from religious orders due to the Reformation; no longer able to serve God in their chosen manner, they were also forbidden to marry and were forced to live on the fringes of society, banned both from a purely religious life and a secular one. If I had an issue with the book as a whole, it was with the fact that the final section which deals with Joanna’s journey to and escape from the Low Countries felt a little rushed, but that didn’t in any way spoil my enjoyment of it.

I can think of no higher praise than to say that this was one of those rare occasions when the fact that the story is told in the first person didn’t bother me in the least – which just goes to show how gripped I was!
Highly recommended – and I hope there are more of Joanna’s stories to come.

Sins of a Ruthless Rogue by Anna Randol

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Revenge never tasted so sweet…

When Clayton Campbell shows up on her doorstep, Olivia Swift is stunned. For long ago, Clayton was the boy who stole her heart. He’s also the man her betrayal had sent to the gallows. A man she believed dead, now standing before her, looking leaner, harder, more powerful than ever, his haunted eyes filled with a lust she had never seen—for vengeance…

Or burned so hot…

He’s a Crown spy who once faced death and escaped unscathed. Yet Clayton Campbell cannot deny that the sight of Olivia rouses in him something more than a thirst for revenge. Or that the bold beauty would lure him once more into a dangerous game. Only this time, Clayton plans to be the victor—with the tempting Olivia in his bed as his prize. But once passion ignites between them, the hard-hearted agent will face his greatest battle yet—for his heart…

Rating: B

Anna Randol is a new-to-me author, although this isn’t her first novel. It’s the second of a trilogy featuring “The Trio”, a group of young people who were saved from execution during the time of the Napoleonic wars. In exchange for their lives, they were put to work as spies for the British government, but with the cessation of hostilities, have been released from their service. I haven’t read the first book (yet), and I don’t think it’s necessary to have done so in order to work out what’s going on in this one.

At first, I thought Sins of a Ruthless Rogue was going to be a tale of revenge and eventual reconciliation. The book opens with both protagonists – Clayton Campbell and Olivia Swift – as teenager-sweethearts. Clayton works for Olivia’s father who owns the paper mill that prints banknotes for the Bank of England – and he has discovered something untoward about the operation. The prologue ends with Olivia naively thinking this is all a misunderstanding on Clayton’s part and heading off to ask her father about it.

Then, ten years on, we’re back at the paper mill which is now being run by Olivia because her father is very ill. After about three pages, Clayton – whom she’d thought had been hanged ten years earlier – appears completely out of the blue and tells her that he’s out for retribution against her, her father, and the mill.

In the intervening years, Olivia has lived with the guilt of believing she sent the man she loved to his death. She’s grown up a lot and is no longer the spoiled child she once was; feeling the need to make up for what happened to Clayton, she has been throwing herself into various charitable works, social reform, and the improvement of life in the surrounding villages by providing work at the mill.

So there I was, settling in for cold-hearted Clayton and strong-minded Olivia to engage in a battle of wills over the ownership of the business, sparks flying, love-hate growing until their eventual reconciliation. But to my surprise, that’s not what I got. In chapter three, Olivia is kidnapped (by enemy agents who, because of Clayton’s association with her, mistakenly believe her to be a spy) and spirited off to St. Petersburg, where she becomes aware of a plot to kill the Czar and his entire family by members of a revolutionary movement.

Clayton, realizing his part in Olivia’s abduction, follows, tracks her down and rescues her, then reveals to her that he was recruited as a spy instead of being hanged and has spent the last ten years doing whatever dirty work the British government needed doing as part of “The Trio,” a crack group of spies.

The story of how Clayton and Olivia elude capture, bring the plot to the Czar and have to work together to decipher a code that will reveal the nature of the plot and the identity of the conspirators is fast-paced and enjoyable. I liked the different setting – Russia rather than England or France – and thought that when Ian (the third member of the trio, otherwise known as “Wraith”) turned up, the book acquired some much-needed humour. (I’m rather looking forward to Ian’s story.) Clayton has become cold and ruthless over the years (he’s had to be to survive) and he’s certainly good at what he does; he’s clever, resourceful and good with a knife or his fists. Olivia, while somewhat impressed, finds herself remembering the kind, honourable boy he was and wanting to rescue him from his “inner darkness.” He, however, doesn’t want any of it, although he does begin slowly to unbend towards her. He spends the first part of the story thinking she’s an enemy spy; but when he finally does begin to trust her, she agonizes about the lies she’s told him about the business and believes that once she tells him the truth he’ll walk away and want nothing more to do with her.

Naturally, by this point, I was thinking that’s the least of their problems, when they’re enmeshed in an assassination plot and racing around St. Petersburg trying to crack the code and prevent themselves either getting killed or dying of frostbite while doing so!

And when Olivia finally did reveal all, it wasn’t anything that the reader hadn’t probably already guessed, which made Clayton’s reaction to it appear rather overblown.

In terms of the characterization, I felt that Clayton was more compelling than Olivia, although I will say that on the whole, they were well-matched. He’s dark, brooding, and bent on revenge; and while deep-down, he still has feelings for Olivia, he doesn’t want them, or her. Olivia is clever and capable; while she holds herself responsible for what happened to Clayton all those years ago and has never forgotten it, she nonetheless stands up to him and doesn’t have a fit of the vapors when she finds herself lurching about on a ship or shivering in the Russian winter.

On the negative side, I felt she was rather too forward when it came to the sex scenes, and at times, her manner of speech was too modern. Using “right?” at the end of a sentence is certainly not something a nineteenth century miss would have done.

As the story progresses, Clayton grudgingly comes to appreciate – and even take pride in – Olivia’s intelligence and quickness of understanding, although he can’t quite let go of his mistrust. He’s spent his life believing that women are not to be trusted, thanks to a mother who would run off with anything in trousers, and finds it easy to question Olivia’s motives, even when she confesses the truth to him about the mill and business at home.

Needless to say, however, Clayton does redeem himself and is man enough to admit when he’s wrong.

Overall, Sins of a Ruthless Rogue was an entertaining read (although I really can’t work out what the title has to do with the actual story – who comes up with these things?!). Set in an unusual location, it moved at a cracking pace; and while I think that the characterization lacked real depth, the leads were appealing enough to keep me reading and wanting to find out what happened next. I’d say that the romance is secondary to the adventure story, but if you’re in the mood for a rollicking tale of derring-do, you should find this enjoyable.