by Naomi Bellis, historical/paranormal (2008)
Signet, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-451-22328-9
I was not too enamored of Gabriel d'Aubrigny when he first showed up in Naomi Bellis' Step Into Darkness because that character came off too much like the mouthpiece of the author as she sometimes intruded too obviously into that story. He gets his story in Theft Of Shadows and I have to say, by the last page, I think he's alright.
The plot is a bit outlandish but Ms Bellis puts everything together nicely, trust me. We are back in the author's alternate Georgian London where magic and all the associated stuff like demons and psychic abilities co-exist alongside the familiar trappings of historical romances set in England. Gabriel has, since I last saw him, traveled to Europe to locate his estranged family and make as much peace with his father as two people with irreconcilable differences ever could. When the story opens, our former spy has returned to England with some money given by his father, money that he hopes to use to start a new life. However, it isn't long before his past catches up with him.
Gabriel, you see, used to work for Sir Alaric Fitzwilliam, known as "the Master" for his role in orchestrating the secret agent stuff for England. Sir Alaric is also a sorcerer and if you have read the previous two books by this author, you will recall that he's a pretty good one. Sir Alaric suspects that the Prince Regent's new bosom buddy, Sebastian Balthazar, is most likely using magic to charm the Prince Regent and his buddies into doing his bidding. After all, we all know that the Prince Regent is never a weak-willed person susceptible to temptations, oh no. Gabriel doesn't want to get back into the spy business, knowing full well that he may never have another chance to walk away from it again, but alas, when he is robbed by a female of that money as well as his horse, he has no choice but to accept Sir Alaric's job offer in exchange for the moolah.
Anne Tremaine, our heroine who has robbed Gabriel, needs money to finance her own plot. She wants to pose as a genteel widow to infiltrate the Ton and find a way to destroy Sebastian Balthazar's reputation. A genteel woman who was once seduced by a lover only to be abandoned when he had grown tired of her, Anne had since then done a few sordid things in order to survive. Nothing prepared her for her past encounter with Sebastian, however, and she is now determined to destroy the man with any means that she has at her disposal. When you read this book and learn of the reason why Anne wants Sebastian utterly destroyed, you may agree with me and Gabriel that she has more than enough ample reasons to feel that way.
So here we have two people who end up in the same ballrooms and social circles, initially unaware that they are on the same side. Gabriel has some latent woo-woo powers that he is only starting to master, which puts him at a serious advantage as he can "read" people's feelings (which appear as colorful auras around a person) and as a result he knows that "Mrs Therrien" is keeping secrets from him. How will he react should he learn that she was the one who robbed him and forced him to return to Sir Alaric's clutches? And while we're at it, what is the deal with this Sebastian Balthazar fellow?
The plot has its share of weak moments, especially towards the end when the author introduces some concepts that allow for some too-convenient wrap-up of our characters' problems. I personally find the characters and their relationship more interesting than the plot, to be honest.
Anne is a well-written heroine. She has this tendency to cry, which can get annoying as the story progresses, but I can cut her some slack since she's just someone who is out of her depths in this story. She's not trained to be a spy the way Gabriel and his buddies are, she's just a young woman who has to quickly adapt to various precarious situations in order to survive. What I like about Anne is that she is intelligent enough to plan and think. Many romance heroines tend to come up with some ridiculous and obviously unworkable plan only to rush headlong into trouble because playing the martyr is apparently the way to go, but Anne is always aware of what she can and cannot do. She can assess a situation without becoming too emotional. Anne is also a pretty good liar, which is appropriate given the role she chooses to play in the story. In other words, this is one heroine who can walk the walk as much as she talks the talk, and I really like that.
As for Gabriel, Ms Bellis has achieved a nice balance with him. Gabriel is angst-ridden, but not to the point that angst becomes his entire personality. He is commanding when he has to, but at the same time he can also be a charming and easy-going guy when he feels like it. He's a well-balanced woobie that way. He can become quite melodramatic when it comes to love - apparently the folks in his family tend to love utterly and completely, a trait that may or may not be associated with their woo-woo abilities - but that, I find, only adds to his appeal. It makes perfect sense that a man who has done a few sordid things in his past will easily overlook Anne's past because he's in love with her.
For a relationship where for a long time each person is trying very hard to keep secrets from the other person, this one feels most credible to me. The sexual tension is gripping and the characters have a bond between them that feels real. The fact that there are two intelligent people here - as opposed to a braindead heroine and an alpha male who constantly has to babysit and rescue her - slowly falling in love here only adds to my pleasure.
Despite having some rough edges here and there when it comes to the plot, Theft Of Shadows ends up being a most enjoyable read.
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