The Chocolatier's Wife
by Cindy Lynn Speer, fantasy (2008)
Drollerie Press, $6.95, ISBN 978-0-9798081-8-0

The Chocolatier's Wife is set in a purely fantasy setting, the kingdom of Berengeny, where love is considered a foolish flight of fancy and marriage is determined via a more pragmatic means - by magic. Or maybe it's by prophecy, as there is an element of prediction to the ceremony. The town Wise Woman would determine a child's future spouse by dropping a single drop of blood of that child into a specially prepared water mixed with essences of flowers, and if that child is fortunate that year, the face of his or her future spouse will be revealed on the surface of the water in the bowl. The spouse is not the person's true love, mind you, it's someone who is best suited in temperament and personality to be that person's spouse.

For William of House of Almsley, it was only until he was seven when he saw the person's face in the bowl. Until then, everyone, including his parents, had assumed that William would grow up to become someone impossible to live with, so it was a relief for all when William claimed to have seen a very young lady who had dark brown eyes and "some hair already". Alas, when the Wise Woman performed a scrying spell to determine where this lucky young lady was, it was revealed that the young lady lived in the North. The North, or Tarnia, was said to be a barbaric land of wild magic and evil monsters completely devoid of culture. Oh dear.

Still, as the years passed, Tasmin Bey, our heroine who is the lucky young lady in question, began receiving letters from William. Of course, the people of the North, such as Tasmin's parents, believe that the people from the South are barbarians with no culture, so the reaction of Tasmin's parents to the destined nuptial is similar to William's parents', heh. The North and the South never really succeeded in mending their differences since a war that happened five hundred years ago.

The story really begins when William, now a young man, decides to leave the family mercantile and shipping business to run his chocolate shop. He doesn't reveal this to anyone at that point, but his seafaring years had left him scarred in ways that had him considering a more pleasant alternative of staying in one place and living a more stable life with a wife. Not that the chocolate business is up and running - he has so far only bought the run-down building that is supposed to be his shop and has yet to do anything more with it. If that decision of his isn't enough to send his parents into shock, he also wants to travel up North to meet Tasmin and bring her back home. But before he can do anything more, he is arrested for the murder of one Bishop Kingsley. They say the chocolates he sent to the poor Bishop were poisoned.

Tasmin's parents are pleased because now she doesn't have to marry, but the young lady is not so sure.

Murder. Funny, how the idea of one's future husband killing someone made headaches go away. It was not that she could not conceive that he was a killer; anyone who read the shipping information at the back of the newspaper, listing, among other things, the manifests of pirate ships that had been taken and destroyed, would know William was quite capable of killing. But, she reasoned, that was hot blooded killing, it was not murder. Poisoning someone with chocolate required coldness and cunning. She moved at last, only enough to take her hair down. She stared at the pins in her hands. No. She could not believe that William was capable of cunning. He was smart, aye. But practical smart. Not without imagination, of course, you could not accuse a man who wanted to make chocolates of a lack of imagination, but he was also not the sort of man to go around blithely killing people with the very product he hoped to sell. She could not believe it.

She thinks about what she should do with her life.

After a while, the surprise wearing off, she tried to imagine the two paths her life might take. She thought of being at the university. She had trained there, and so she had friends as well as colleagues among the staff. Eventually she would have the seniority to teach only the advanced students, perhaps even ascend to the Circle, as her mother hoped. A life of teaching and learning how to use herbs, divining the secret meanings hidden in the wind, the rain, and the veins of leaves was hers. She was no master wizard, but she was very, very good, and she knew her life was mapped out for her here, a scholarly life of respect and decent wages and wanting for nothing. It was, clearly, a good life, which was why her family wanted it for her.

Then there was William. She tried to imagine him, blurry in her mind, by her side. A life of children, shop-keeping. It did not seem as glamorous or interesting, though she trusted she would be able to continue her studies and believed that William would provide for her, but her fame would be as his wife alone. No one would remember her save their children. Still, it was not without its appeal, the idea of having someone who was all yours, someone to curl up against in the winter. It was harder to imagine the future, here, for she knew so little in comparison. The unknown could hold pain as well as joy.

She sighed, and went to bed, in a restless attempt at sleep for what remained of the night.

When she came down the next day she had two cases in her hands, and she was wearing her best traveling clothes. Her family looked up at her from their breakfast, as she put the heavier of the two down, her hands switching the other bag back and forth, nervous and moist on the hard wood handle. "You see," she said by way of good morning and here's my explanation, "the problem is that I rather like him."

Far from the countrified Earth Mother miss that Tasmin may appear to be, she is soon sweeping into William's life and making some changes for the both of them. As William tries to sort out his legal problems, Tasmin opens his shop with the aid of his First Mate's widow, tries to get along with the in-laws, and swats some sense into her husband-to-be when he decides to play the martyr. This is going to be good, I think, turning the pages...

Only to realize, sigh, that the author opts to turn this story into a mystery rather than a story where she can explore Tasmin's adaptation into her new environment and her developing relationship with William. The mystery is a pretty ordinary one if I compare it to the set-up the author has done and this aspect of the story doesn't make use of the setting. Apart from how some spells are used to conveniently expose some secrets and reveal some information, the mystery is one that could have been easily set in, say, a town in England during the 18th or 19th century.

There is some beautiful writing in here, the heroine is a pretty good one as she is smart and can take care of herself, and William is a decent fellow (if bland when he's compared to Tasmin). The Chocolatier's Wife is a well-written and entertaining read, barring the occasional pacing issue such as how revelations after revelations start piling up towards the climatic late part of the story. I would heartily recommend this thing of beauty to anyone who likes a fantasy cozy mystery. It's just that I wish there is a little bit more romance here that would have made better use of the beautiful setting of the story. It is time like this that I wish I am a bigger fan of the mystery genre. I can't help feeling that this story deserves more love than I can give.

Rating: 88

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