by Allison Chase, historical (2010)
Signet, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-451-22894-9
Most Eagerly Yours is the first book in a series called Her Majesty's Secret Servants. It is set in 1838, before Victoria becomes Queen, but I think we all know that no matter what era a story of this sort is set in - Victorian, Regency, or Georgian - chances are, the tropes remain the same.
At least the series title has it right by calling the three sisters in this book "servants". For some reason, despite their childhood friend Princess Victoria having never written or spoken to them unless she wants some unpaid sacrifice from them, Laurel Sutherland and her three sisters insist that they are Victoria's "secret friends". As you can imagine, Victoria does nothing to disabuse that notion. Especially not in this story when the future Queen asks Laurel to pose as a widow and get close to Victoria's potentially treacherous cousin, George Fitzclarence, to figure out whether he's really plotting against her ascension to the throne. So off to Bath goes Laurel, willing as she is to do anything for her "secret friend".
Meanwhile, the Home Office has assigned our hero, Aidan Phillips who is also the Earl of Barensforth, to Fitz for the same reason. Aidan plays the dissolute good buddy of Fitz, going as far as to sleep with prostitutes to ensure that people know he's boinking away at brothels (how courageous). He too is in Bath to check out Fitz's association with some French guy who claims to have created an elixir with rejuvenative properties. The guy is, by the way, suspected of dire deeds because he's French and his father was a dodgy guy. Don't worry - this book will eventually justify racial profiling as the right thing to do; this book is rife with sentiments of pro-monarchy patriotism to the point of xenophobia against foreigners. Of course, Aidan's Indian manservant is exempt from this racial profiling thing because he willingly serves his superior English master - clearly, he's a good kind of funny foreigner.
At any rate, when Laurel bumbles and gasps her way through her masquerade, Aidan immediately notices her. You can imagine what happens next, I'm sure.
Most Eagerly Yours is a book that becomes progressively stronger as I turn the pages. Even so, patience is needed when reading this book. Let me explain.
At first, Laurel starts out as a textbook example of the Idiot Female Spy - she uses her real name in her deception, she cares too much about being perceived as a harlot, and she cannot lie well. The hero immediately senses her "innocence" when he first kisses her. The only reason Laurel manages to pull off her deception without being exposed is because the author contrives to come up with ways to extricate Laurel out of any potential situation that can expose her, and the contrivances are very obvious.
The author also contrives to ensure that Laurel will be in a position of weakness compared to Aidan. Early in the story, what seems like a random scene of Aidan saving Laurel from being trampled by a crowd that had gathered to see Princess Victoria pass by turns out to be a contrivance to ensure that Laurel will be so infatuated with Aidan that the author doesn't have to work on developing a realistic attraction between Laurel and Aidan. Throughout the first half of the story, Ms Chase will have Laurel playing the damsel in distress. Laurel will happily get herself into some dangerous situations and Aidan will have to save her. I groan when Ms Chase can't even allow Laurel to move out of an incoming storm in Bath with her dignity intact - Laurel's heavy skirts bog her down, so oh, guess who has to come rescue her. That's how weak Laurel's position is in this early part of the story - she seems unable to even walk ten steps without needing to be rescued by Aidan.
But by the second half of the book, Laurel seems to be possessed by the ghost of a more capable heroine as she suddenly morphs into a useful heroine who unexpectedly becomes an asset to the hero. Normally I won't approve of such disjointed lack of continuity, but because I far prefer this Laurel, I am not complaining, not at all. The second half of the story is an excellent tale where Laurel plays a capable version of Mrs King to Aidan's Scarecrow. Despite her continuous tendency to wear silly skirts and such when she's wading in muddy waters while wandering through underground tunnels, she starts being an intrepid amateur spy with a keen intellect and she even comes to the hero's rescue at one point.
As for Aidan, he's a standard spy-for-England hero. But because the story focuses pretty heavily on the mystery of Fitz's extracurricular antics, Aidan doesn't get much room for characterization here. There are some bare details about his past, but the author doesn't dwell on them much. The mystery itself is quite interesting, although the resolution is pretty annoying, since only the non-titled English villain and the French villain get nailed while everyone covers up for the titled English accomplices. This resolution may be typical of the sentiments of that time, but it makes Aidan and Laurel come off as hypocrites as an unfortunate consequence.
I have another problem with Aidan. Aidan is the Earl of Barensforth, but his title is akin to one of those slapped on to him because just every hero in this kind of books needs one. He has no responsibilities to his title, no House of Lords sessions to attend, no household finances to look into, he doesn't have to support his family members, and his sole angst in this story is how he can be a good husband to Laurel when he's devoted to his job as a spy for the Home Office. Because the author keeps bringing up Aidan's whinging about his responsibilities versus his boinking of Laurel, every time she does so has me wondering why Aidan doesn't seem to have any other responsibilities. This is one story that could have been better, I feel, if the author hadn't strapped on the obligatory lofty title on the hero.
Most Eagerly Yours has an enjoyable second half of the story and a mystery plot that is interesting for the most part, but it also has an ill-developed hero with a wallpaper title and a slow and contrived first half. Giving this book a final score that reflects its virtues and weaknesses accurately is difficult because when it is good, it is very good; conversely, when the going gets bumpy, it gets really bumpy. This book is worth a look, but keep your expectations low to avoid unnecessary brushes with disappointment.
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