Step Into Darkness
by Naomi Bellis, historical/paranormal (2006)
Signet, $6.99, ISBN 0-451-21938-4


Step Into Darkness is an uneven debut from Naomi Bellis. It's supposed to be a historical romance set in the Georgian era with "strong magical elements", as the publicity material would say, but the "strong magical elements" can easily be removed from the story and much will remain unchanged as a result. The author has a strong sense of who her characters are and she manages to bring them to life very well, but her prose can be on the overwrought side.

The story revolves around English espionage and everyone's favorite villain, the entity known as "the French". Sarah Leaford is a sheltered young woman whose father is held prisoner somewhere in Paris. I tell you, those French people can be so inconsiderate. They don't appreciate the beauty of the aristocracy like we romance readers do, so really, they are such nasty people to want to take down the Beautiful People of the Ton. The less said about the Revolution, the better, ugh. At any rate, Sarah can somehow see her late mother's ghost and this ghost leads her into the seedier areas of London to seek out an infamous thief known simply as "Gentleman Jack". She wants to hire him to rescue her father.

A reasonable plan, that, and as far as plans of historical romance heroines tend to go, this one is surprisingly sane. Unfortunately, poor Sarah has no idea that John Tremaine isn't merely a thief - he's an ex-convict who would have hanged thanks to her father. Tremaine was rescued by the spymaster Sir Alaric who subsequently forces Tremaine to work for him or return to the gallows. Sir Alaric forbids Tremaine to accept Sarah's request, but Tremaine sees an opportunity to clear his name by aiding Sarah. You see, if he rescues a titled gentleman like Simon Leaford, he would be hailed as a hero by the government and become so well-known that Sir Alaric will have no more use of him as a spy. He may also receive a pardon for the crime he didn't commit.

Things get complicated when Tremaine realizes that Sarah is being courted by his own enemy and one thing leads to another where Sarah ends up accompanying him to Paris as he attempts to be Sarah's white knight. In the meantime, poor Sarah is in for a few unpleasant surprises as secrets concerning her father, her suitor, and Tremaine will come out in open one way or the other.

This is a very busy story and the above synopsis is just the tip of the iceberg where the twists and the turns of the plot are concerned. It makes for a most interesting read indeed. I have to say, though, the first half of the book is not my thing at all. The villains are cartoon characters and they actually cackle and sneer as they reveal every detail about their plan to Sarah and Tremaine. The author seems to have an idea of how over-the-top her villains are, as at one point Tremaine wonders aloud whether a villain imagines that he is on a stage. Still, self awareness isn't enough. The villains are Snidely Whiplash caricatures and the prose can be over-the-top as well. I feel as if I'm reading a high-strung melodrama.

Fortunately, the second half of the story is very strong indeed. Sarah starts out sheltered and even naïve at times, but she grows into her own person and even takes active (and very sensible) steps to protect the hero when he needs her. I like Sarah because Ms Bellis allows Sarah to behave like a real person without forcing Sarah to bend over backwards to become the perfect martyr. Sarah is a good and honorable person, but she's not some dim-witted Selfless Historical Wretch stereotype. When she realizes that she and Tremaine may not have a future together, for example, it's because she believes that he is a wanted man and therefore the difference in their status precludes a happy ending for them. That's a refreshingly sane reasoning, don't you think? It's far more realistic than Sarah hysterically blaming herself for her father's sins or deciding that she's plain and therefore unlovable. Also, Sarah's feelings concerning her father are also realistically dealt with without Sarah having to go over the top and do something stupid like your typical Avon historical romance heroine is wont to do.

As for Tremaine, Jack, or whatever he chooses to call himself, this is a splendid example of a woobie hero. Tortured but not self-absorbed, Tremaine does things and tries to better his situation instead of sitting around moping that he needs to shag a million whores and drink himself to oblivion because his life sucks so bad. His feelings for Sarah are most gallant and romantic. He may not believe himself to be one, but he comes off like the perfect knight in shining armor here. Of course, this makes the story even more delightful when Sarah comes to his rescue when his back is against the wall and he has no more place to run.

Step Into Darkness is an enjoyable romance where the heroine truly comes to her own and becomes an equal to the hero in all that matters, emotionally and intellectually. If the first half is a little less overwrought, this would have been a spectacular debut. As it is, it's a most enjoyable one that has me taking down the author's name for posterity.

Rating: 85


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