by Elizabeth Thornton, historical (2003)
Bantam, $6.50, ISBN 0-553-58489-8
This is not an easy book to give a keeper grade. The author fumbles more than once with her plot, and her characters can and will sometimes carry out uncharacteristically dumb actions just to create some conflict. But on the other hand, the author's deft prose has me turning the pages from start to end, and it's a really good and engaging read. As a bonus, it is not easy balancing so many external conflicts with romance elements, and to a point, Ms Thornton succeeds with her characters. The romance between Caspar "Case" Devere, earl and super sleuth, and Jane Mayberry, bluestocking with a pistol, don't exactly ring real, but their chemistry and charming (if melodramatic) declarations of love and affection work well with me.
All in all, this story can be frustrating at time, but it keeps me reading and it keeps me entertained fully.
Case is looking for a nutcase fiend who was also his enemy during the war abroad in Spain. Now the fiend, Gideon Piers, is in England and he has already claimed a victim. Case and his troop of sleuths from the fictitious Special Branch must stop the man before he strikes again. Gideon also has a close tie with Case, but this aspect of the plot is really stretching it, if you ask me. It's too much of a coincidence.
Anyway, moving on. Case's hunt for Gideon leads his team to Gideon's sister, Letitia. But Letitia was currently under the protection of the Ladies' Library (a foundation run by women to protect their fellow women), and Case's attempt to locate Lettie causes him to clash will with the formidable Jane Mayberry.
When Jane proves to be as reckless as she looks, he finds himself playing reluctant bodyguard to her. You can guess what happens next.
Jane is reckless, and there are times when she crosses the line. Then again, the heroines of Elizabeth Thornton are always treading the fine line between witless or reckless, and I'm just glad this time, Jane has a pistol and a ferocious guard dog and she doesn't hesitate to use both. Except when the author wants Jane to act stupid - like dashing into a burning stable or running into the night without any source of light - just so that she can be rescued (isn't that romantic, people?), on the whole Jane can take care of herself. I like that. Unlike some heroines who prefer to blame themselves for everything, Jane doesn't hesitate to feel angry when she is defeated. Late into the story, when the bad guys go down, she actually says that she wishes they are dead. After what they did to her and the people around her, I find such refreshing and blunt emotion from a her a welcome change from those weepy-eyed moppets all torn up by irrational guilt.
Anyway, as a litmus test, maybe we can compare Jane to Lydia of Loretta Chase's The Last Hellion. They can both be equally reckless that way, but while Lydia is near a caricature, Jane has more human emotions and insecurities that keep her more down-to-earth. If you cannot stand Lydia, probably some of Jane's actions will drive you up the wall.
Case can be as frustrating as Jane. He isn't stupid. He works on the case and it shows - the author's "suspense" in her "romantic suspense" isn't just wallpaper - but when he isn't above acting out of character and making stupid decisions at times. Twice he makes a very hasty judgment on the people he is supposed to trust. Sure, Ms Thornton gets her conflict, but it's at the cost of her characters' well-roundness.
Also, as the story progresses, subplots pile, some that go nowhere and just take up space. Two villains crop out of the blue and then are promptly dispatched with when they aren't needed anymore, making me wonder if the author isn't sure why she brought those two losers out of the woodwork in the first place. But at the same time, the author never loses sight of the relationship between Case and Jane. Despite some unnecessary conflicts (okay, one) in their way, these two do have a nice love story going. I don't see how they can fall in love when they are so busy with their cases, but once they do, Case walks a fine line between single-minded obsession and superheroic protectiveness, while Jane, she may be a crusader and a vigilante in her own psychotic hellion way, but she's doing it for the people she loves, and now that includes Case.
I must also commend this author - she takes the denouement of the story (essentially a damsel in distress thing) and actually make it such that both Jane and Case shine through like dysfunctional, glorious heroes. It's a trend in this story: Jane may get into trouble, but she is never helpless. She's intelligent - if a bit short on restrain and caution - and she's strong-willed. I actually believe she'll be a great match to Case. His caution and her drive complements each other.
Or maybe that's just me making any excuse just to like this book.
But why should I even try? The story engages me so much so that I cannot put down this book at all, and despite the flaws of the characters and plots, Jane and Case's chemistry seem to burn the very pages of this book. An always welcome added bonus is a heroine who isn't the wilting lily type. Jane gives bluestockings everywhere a good name. Almost A Princess is almost a gem of a book.
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