by Kasey Michaels, historical (2006)
HQN, $6.99, ISBN 0-373-77100-2
Kasey Michaels' A Gentleman By Any Other Name is the first book of a series called Romney Marsh. Romney Marsh is an isolated seaside hideaway in Kent where smuggling is the main "unofficial" industry. In Romney Marsh lives a man with a past named Ainsley Becket. He is smart, talented, strategic, witty, and more - insert any random positive adjective you can think of and he's it. He also plays a role in the Black Ghost Gang that protects the smugglers although he may or may not have retired by the time this story takes place. Over the years of his travels, Ainsley had a daughter and he also adopted seven other children. Yes, you guessed it, people, these children are the stars of the books in this series.
This book is the story of the eldest kid, Chance Becket. Chance had over the years married, lived in London, lost his wife, and joined the Crown as an agent, not necessarily in that order. Now, does it make sense for Chance to work as an agent when he, at the same time, is determined to protect Ainsley Becket from his past? I'm sure Chance's superiors did some background check before they admitted him as an agent, after all. Perhaps it does make sense in a way if I am to extrapolate that Chance wants to keep an eye on the Crown to make sure that they don't get too close to troubling Ainsley deeply, I guess. Anyway, Chance wants to dump his daughter, five-year old Alice, on some nanny so that he can run along and carry out his latest mission for the Crown. The heroine Julia Carruthers has lost her father and is here in London to look for a job. She walks into an interview with Chance at the last minute just when he is close to giving up on finding a nanny for Alice and ends up getting the job. Then Chance realizes that his mission will see him joining Julia and Alice in Romney Marsh as he tries to discover the source of recent increase in smuggling activity and you can bet he is worried whether Ainsley is behind this. Again, I wonder: why then Chance even bothers to become an agent for his country? Come on, with a foster father like his, that's just begging to be charged for suspected treason. At any rate, I'm sure you can imagine what will happen between Julia and Chance.
Julia is... amazing. She's one of those Mary Poppins heroines who could have easily swooped down from the sky holding an umbrella with one hand and a handful of manna with her other hand because there is nothing she cannot do, it seems. Meanwhile, Chance is unbearably whiny. He can't stand to be near Alice, because he's a bad man and he doesn't want Alice to be as bad as him! Maybe he should've thought of that before he bopped his wife. He is not of noble birth, wah wah wah! He will repeat this particular whine very often in the story, by the way.
But the bigger problem here is the disjointed feel of the narration. Let me try to explain what I feel when I'm reading this book. I find myself being thrown off by the constant disparity between what the character is feeling and how that character then reacts to the feeling. For example, Julia tells me that she is terrified of the Beckets because they may be bad smugglers, but she then mouths off to the people she claimed to be terrified of, as if her feeling and her behavior are not at all related to each other.
The author sometimes like to tease the reader, I feel, just for the sake of it because often the characters will say one thing and do another thing as if they deliberately want to toy with me for daring to second-guess them. While playing catch with a romance author may be fun sometimes, I prefer reading a story where I can understand most of the time why the characters are behaving the way they are. One of the main issues in this story is whether Chance trusts Aisley. But because details of his past are hinted at in opaque references through the story and is revealed only much later in the story and because he keeps telling me and Julia that he is loyal to Aisley but he also dislikes Aisley for that Mysterious Thing In His Past, I want to scream after Chance starts to whine one time too many about this Mysterious Thing. "Let me know what this is about, dang it!" I want to scream. "If that crybaby overgrown emo brat wants to keep whining at the expense of my nerves, at least let me know why he is whining!"
The author drops information like she's paid to keep the reader guessing until the last moment. There is no build-up to any revelation. Everything seems to drop from the sky out of the blue. Julia travels to Romney Marsh. Oh, do you know she used to live in the neighboring land? Julia encounters the handiwork of some smugglers. Oh, she used to help her father protect the smugglers back then, did you know that? And on and on, really, with revelations coming to light only when something happens. I find myself wondering whether Julia will come to a cliff and then reveals that she used to be a seagull in a past life before spreading her hands and waving them wildly as she jumps off the cliff. The abrupt and often convenient "revelations" often come off as deus ex machina.
It's a pity that this book feels so disjointed to me because the premise itself is pretty interesting as the series revolve around the in's and out's of the smuggling trade rarely described in this level of detail in other historical romances. Unfortunately, the romance lacks sparks because Chance is always whining while Julia is demonstrating to everybody that she's so good that she can probably translate "supercalifragilisticexpialidoceous" to at least three hundred different languages. The author seems to be writing like she just wants to get the story over with, her characters come off like deus ex machina devices rather than characters in their own right, and ultimately A Gentleman By Any Other Name feels like a chore to read. It is just not interesting enough for me.
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