by Celeste Bradley, historical (2003)
St Martin's Press, $6.50, ISBN 0-312-98485-5
Celeste Bradley's debut commits all the classic mistakes of characterization and plotting, but in The Pretender, she gets nearly everything right. The author's exuberantly bouncy prose brings her characters to life so wonderfully, but this time there is also a better plot, lots of humor, zinging chemistry, and lots of love and laughter to go around.
Agatha Cunnington is looking for her brother James who has gone missing. She leaves for London, marrying an imaginary man named Mortimer Applequist to help her get her way to London with minimum hassle. Indeed, as she remarks, it is amazing how people are more willing to oblige a married woman compared to an unmarried spinster! However, it is harder to maintain an imaginary husband once Agatha has settled in a townhouse and now that she needs to travel among the Ton to seek clues to James' whereabouts. She needs a man to pretend to be Mortimer. She believes she has found the perfect gullible dupe in Simon Rain, a chimney sweep who happens to be there at the correct time, correct place.
Actually, Simon is the ringleader of the Liar's Club, a front for a group of former criminals now putting their skills to good use (read: espionage and subterfuge for the English government). Agatha's brother, James, is part of this club. James' MIA prompts suspicions that the man is actually the mole in the spy network. Simon has to find James and if he has to, execute the traitor. He believes that Agatha is James' mistress (don't worry, that's a logical explanation to this - a decent one, anyway). Helping her in her plans can only aid him in his own quest, right? However, those two predictably fall in love and ruin the whole "business only" masquerade of theirs.
Firstly, let's shower some love on the main characters. I love Simon. He has his roots in the gutters of London, and his occasional lack of polish at times can be so adorable. If he goes all Cockney on me, I think I will humiliate myself by swooning, because damn it, I find this rascal so adorable! And oh, Agatha, big, beautiful, buxom Agatha, she is exuberant, charming, can tell the wildest tales if she has to, and best of all, she's no innocent dingbat despite being a virgin, she's no martyr, and she is not stupid. Her plans make sense, she has a strategy, and she actively aids Simon rather than acts as a liability. When the novelty of a heroine who isn't dingbat personified fades, there is enough sparking fizzy chemistry and sexual tension between Agatha and Simon to keep me riveted. These two talk. They work with each other. They laugh with each other and they even feel for the same things in life.
While Agatha's sensibilities can sometimes seem too modern, I'm all about embracing it fully just the way Agatha tackles life with full gusto. Seriously, she does nothing wrong in this book - she even takes responsibility for wanting to seduce Simon. Because she is just wonderful to read, and because Simon and she go so well together, I find myself smiling and laughing all the way through this book. A bonus is the spy subplot that actually makes some sense. The secondary characters rarely intrude, and I find them a wonderful addition to this story.
There are lots of fun in this story, mostly because Agatha and Simon are two intelligent people and Celeste Bradley is very generous with her brand of humor. There is one scene involving an aphrodisiac (actually headache powder) in a study that has me laughing out so loud. But the best aspects of this story are of course the main couple. The author is guilty of introducing some extraneous plot elements that seem gratuitous, such as Agatha's Florence Nightingale stint, but these elements only bring out some much needed substance in the main characters to balance the fizzy lightness of the story. I really can't complain too much, really.
I can complain about how the pace falters slightly during the late third of the book when the author introduces some very familiar plot developments into her story. While Simon and Agatha never disappoint as they remain in character, the fun dims a little because the remaining bulk of the story feels so fresh and exciting to read.
My initial grade of this book was a 92. I am waffling about the grade because while I really have a great time reading The Pretender, the curmudgeon in me points out that this book doesn't really have too much emotional punch. It's funny, fun, steamy at places, and all in all fabulous, but it doesn't make me feel, if I am making sense here. However, this book succeeds in doing a few things very few books did to me in a long time now. It makes me gnash my teeth in impatience when I realize that the next book is not out now. That's when I realize that I have never been this excited about a book in such a long time, I can barely recognize the feeling now that it hits me after a too-long hibernation. I'm actually looking forward to reading more books now because this book is so good, it leaves me feeling high and invulnerable to any stinky bad books out there. Bring them on! Thus, in a way, this book does make me feel. And for that, I'm giving it a bonus two more points. (Well, I am mean and stingy.)
Good work, Ms Bradley. Now keep this up, and we'll all be having one great time ahead.
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