by Anna Randol, historical (2012)
Avon, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-06-202579-
Sins Of A Virgin kicks start a trilogy that features three former spies for the British Intelligence: Wraith, Cipher, and La Petit, Quick, guess which one's the chick! Of course it's La Petit, because we can't have our heroine being known for something she does as opposed to what she looks like. And while my French is limited to a few naughty words, I wonder - isn't "petit" a masculine form as opposed to "petite"?
Anyway, it doesn't matter whether Madeline Valdan is La Petit or La Petite because, more importantly, she is a virgin. She used to play all kinds of temptress roles in the past to seduce kings, princes, presidents, and high-ranking officers for the greater good of England, but somehow she manages to remain a virgin where it counts. Maybe her beauty is so dazzling that the moment she lifts up her skirts, men become so hypnotized that they promptly fall unconscious onto her bosom?
At any rate, because the three agents, including her, were actually felons and what-not serving the Crown in exchange for a clean wipe of their sins, they didn't get much in terms of pay. Now that she is retired, Madeline intends to dazzle the wealthy men of the Ton with her beauty for about six months before announcing to them that she is a virgin and she is auctioning her maidenhead to the highest bidder. A virgin is one thing, but an educated virgin who looks like every man's wildest fantasy - now that is something that brings all the boys to her yard.
Still, Madeline knows that she has to be sure that the highest bidder can actually pay up, so she decides to hire a Bow Street Runner to assist her in ferreting out information about the bidders, such as their financial status and such. Knowing their sexual proclivities helps too, as she doesn't want to get in bed with a violent nutcase or someone with an STD.
That guy is Gabriel Huntford. At first he doesn't want to obey his superior's orders to assist Madeline. You see, his sister was murdered by a serial killer who recently resurfaced after a hiatus of sorts. Gabriel wants to track down this person, whom he suspects to be a member of the Ton, and if he has to disobey his superior's orders and become a vigilante to do so, so be it. However, he soon realizes that he can discreetly conduct his own investigation alongside hers, as he will have full access to the members of the Ton, especially those men that frequent brothels and what not.
This one balances suspense elements and romance pretty well, I find, as they both complement each other without one overpowering the other. This means that the romance takes some time to build up, but I feel that this adds a degree of realism to the whole proceeding. After all, these two have their own agenda, and love isn't on it, so it makes sense that they don't immediately pounce on each other and make out. And when Ms Randol decides to bring on the romantic drama, there are some pretty good scenes here that manage to tug at a few heart strings.
When it comes to romance, therefore, Ms Randol is actually doing fine. It is... everything else, basically, that I have issues with.
If this book is a jigsaw puzzle, then the pieces are romance novel tropes. These pieces fit together nicely. There is the Fake Seductress Who's Actually a Virgin, which goes together perfectly with Tart with a Heart of Gold. You know, that kind of thing. Yet, when I step back and look at the completed puzzle, the big picture doesn't really make sense. The pieces fit, but they fit in a way that can be bewildering and, sometimes, even illogical.
Madeline and her auction, for instance, never gets beyond a gimmick. She has no illusions about her virginity, other than it being another weapon in her arsenal, and she supposedly does a lot of that Mata Hari thing in the past, so why and how does she remain a virgin after all this while? And really now, conducting a private auction may be a way to get plenty of money fast, but seriously now, she's an ex-spy. Let's just say that it's not really a shocking plot development when someone recognizes her after her public display and tries to blackmail her. As the story progresses, the whole auction thing and Madeline's virginity remain attention-grabbing hooks that don't really add anything to the overall story.
Poor Gabriel suffers the worst from the author's inconsistencies, however. Madeline may be a gimmick, but she can walk the talk. In fact, she often pulls through when Gabriel stumbles. Gabriel, on the other hand, is a bag of contradictions. I don't know what Ms Randol has planned for Gabriel, but the end result is pure schizophrenia.
Gabriel is supposed to be someone who has seen humanity at its most base, with him being a Bow Street Runner constantly walking in the shadows and what not, but he is often uncharacteristically shocked or aghast by the unsavory things he encounters in this story. He claims to have seen prostitutes selling themselves out of desperation, but at the same time, he immediately pegs Madeline as an "ice cold" mercenary because he apparently can't imagine a woman selling herself for money. Which is which?
My favorite bizarre contradiction drama from Gabriel is on page 269 to 270, where in the space of a few paragraphs, he first berates a man for trying to send money to the woman he cast off, accusing him of trying to buy her forgiveness with money, only to then accuse him of leaving the cast off woman with nothing while simultaneously saying that it's no surprise that the woman rejects his money.
And these are just some examples of the many ways Gabriel lurches back and forth in a muddle of contradictions. Oh, and let's not forget how Madeline aptly and frequently demonstrates to Gabriel that she is not some fainthearted damsel oblivious to the darker side of humanity, but he will still bleat that he can't marry her because she would run away screaming the next time she hears of his horrible cases. I don't get it. Doesn't Ms Randol see how Gabriel often contradicts himself, even within a space of a few paragraphs at times?
That's not even considering Gabriel's tendency to charge like an idiot and ignore the heroine's well-laid plans. I'm starting to see a trend among the author's heroes: they are so dumb like this, thinking that they know better than the heroine because of the dangling bit between their legs, and this is presented as a virtue of the alpha male when in truth, such stunts make these guys come off as no better than that dumb bull constantly baited by Bugs Bunny with a red cape. Poor Gabriel is already a mess of a character, he really doesn't need "stupid" added to his list of sterling qualities.
It's actually perplexing how this book can be well-written and yet it fails so spectacularly at some fundamental level. Ms Randol can write prettily, and she sure knows her tropes, but it looks like she needs to figure out a way to put these tropes together in a way that is coherent and logical. Putting aside the gimmicky heroine and the occasional pretty writing, what's left of Sins Of A Virgin is an unsightly mess.
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