by Julie Anne Long, historical (2006)
Warner, $6.50, ISBN 0-446-61686-9
Beauty And The Spy is the start of a new series revolving around the loves and the lives of three sisters who were separated when their mother, Anna Holt, had to flee after she was accused of murdering her lover, Richard Lockwood. Anna has disappeared while each of the three sisters, separated and raised by different people, eventually forgets that she has two sisters. Beauty And The Spy is Susannah Makepeace's story.
Susannah doesn't remember this but she was taken in by the man who came to warn Anna to flee that fateful night. She only knows the man as her father James Makepeace whose distant affections to her can be explained in her mind by the fact that he was too grief-stricken by the death of her mother. Susannah is now twenty, a typical belle of the ball who is about to be married to a cute and respectable man. She loves parties and fashion although a part of her wonders why she is feeling this vague sense of emptiness inside her heart. However, her world comes crashing down when James is killed and she finds herself penniless, boyfriend-free, and on her way to live with James' sister Frances Perriman in the village of Gorringe in Barnstable.
It's not easy to be a former belle of the ball turned into a rusticating princess but ah, Susannah may find a measure of entertainment in the form of Christopher "Kit" Whitelaw, an agent with the Crown who has been banished by his superior (his own father) to Gorringe to exorcise his restlessness on a mission to survey the wildlife of Gorringe. Because he knows through an unorthodox manner that Susannah is good at drawing, he hires her to accompany him on his trips so that she will sketch the subjects of his study. What she doesn't know is that Kit is sent here because his father doesn't want him to dabble in a case involving the death of agent James Makepiece. Susannah's past is going to catch up with her soon enough, especially when this book suffers from a case of The Runaway Duke-itis: the author uses all kinds of amazing coincidences to tie everything up together. The woman Kit had a past with a while ago is the mistress of the villain who arranged for the death of Richard Lockwood and James Makepiece, men closely linked to the woman Kit is currently sleeping with. You want me to say that again?
I love Susannah as a heroine - she's an intriguing and well-done realistic mix of Miss Thing preciousness and intelligence. She also's smart enough to put things together. This story however puts her at a disadvantage by having Kit not even telling her that she's in danger until the last moment. Kit is an adorable hero too, with him having plenty of enjoyable chemistry with Susannah.
But like The Runaway Duke, the villains Thaddeus Morley and his on-off paramour/partner-in-crime Caroline Allston soon eclipse Susannah and Kit in my opinion. Like the misbegotten villains in The Runaway Duke, these two are people born low on the totem pole who manage to claw themselves up the social ladder using all their wiles and guile along with pure ruthlessness and even cruelty. Thaddeus is a complicated villain - he killed at least two men to be where he is today but he uses his position as a Member of the Parliament to champion for reforms among the working class that he used to be part of, especially reforms for children in the workforce. I find it a pity that Ms Long never has characters like Kit and his father ponder over this grey aspect of Thaddeus Morley's character, instead they are positively gleeful about putting him away for the murder of someone from their own class. Who will now champion the kiddies and the disenfranchised? Kit? I don't think so, sigh.
Ultimately, as much as I enjoy reading about Susannah and Kit falling in love, I find the villainous characters and even Kit's best friend John much more interesting than the two main characters. I wish I am reading instead the story of John's obsessive infatuation with Caroline or Caroline's dysfunctional relationship with Thaddeus. After all, who is Kit? Someone who's had everything - money, friends women - come so easy to him to the point that even John calls him on it towards the end when Kit comes close to turning into another Connor Riordon, a bloody fellow who gets everything in his life so easily but has the gall to judge other less fortunate people for wanting the same. Kit, as much as he is charming, has little to interest me compared to ruthless complicated Thaddeus and the cold-hearted yet vulnerable Caroline. Susannah is a smart heroine that I adore, but I'd take Caroline's story over hers anytime anyday.
The problem with Beauty And The Spy, therefore, is not that it is a bad romance novel. It is a very enjoyable story with a roguish hero and a heroine who's actually smart rather than being merely not stupid. However, Ms Long puts in such interesting and even magnetic villains that capture my imagination, so she's not playing fair if she expects me to root for people who are born with everything and rarely want for anything over such dark and fascinating antiheroic characters who had goals, determination, ambitions, and ruthlessness to succeed beyond all their wildest dreams. I'm actually quite disappointed when the designated good guys in this story predictably win at the end. Poor Thaddeus. Maybe one day.
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