by Elizabeth Hoyt, historical (2008)
Grand Central Publishing, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-446-40691-8
To Taste Temptation is the first book in a series called The Legend Of The Four Soldiers. I'm unfamiliar with the original fairy tale that inspired the series so I'm afraid you won't see me pontificating as if I'm some kind of expert here, alas. This book is the start of a new series which revolves around four soldiers who once fought for England against the French in the colonies, as part of the 28th Regiment of the Foot. They all survived a devastating ambush at Spinner's Falls (somewhere around Quebec), although the price they paid for their survival was considerable indeed. Eventually, the four soldiers would go separate ways, but as fate would have it, they would meet again one day. You can't escape the past so easily, after all.
To Taste Temptation is Samuel Hartley's story. The former scout in the 28th Regiment has traveled a long way from his home in Pennsylvania to London for two purposes. His main purpose in London is to ferret out the traitor that leaked information of the 28th Regiment's movement to their enemies that fateful day about six years ago that led to the massacre of most of the Regiment. Samuel is particularly determined to discover who the traitor is because... well, I'd suggest that you read the story because I don't think I can do justice with my words how deeply Samuel is affected by the betrayal. His other purpose, one that he uses to hide his main reason to be in London, is to give his sister Rebecca a chance to learn how to behave like a proper genteel lady and maybe find a suitable husband in the meantime.
Lady Emeline Gordon, our heroine, is a widow who has suffered her own losses thanks to the war in the colonies. Now a single mother, she carries herself like the most proper of genteel women around, which is necessary because she teaches deportment to young ladies. To Samuel, Emeline is someone who may be close to the traitor, given the ties of the men in her family to the military, so he decides to use Rebecca as an excuse to get close to her and use her as his means to infiltrate the inner circles of the Ton. Of course, they are attracted to each other, which complicates poor Samuel's plan considerably.
To Taste Temptation is a tough book to review because I really, really want to give this book a keeper status on the strength of the exquisite romance between Samuel and Emeline. Samuel is a self-made man from a place most Londoners still consider a barbaric country, and he is lacking the smooth polish of a typical gentleman of the Ton. Nonetheless, he is a good man, and I must commend Ms Hoyt greatly for her success in making Samuel a noble knight in tarnished armor while still allowing Samuel to have his share of human flaws. He's not perfect, he is definitely not a one-dimensional Prince Valiant action figure; Samuel comes off like a hardworking and decent fellow whose loyalty and sense of justice make him a hero of the most appealing kind.
I know that some readers out there consider Emeline an unlikable selfish woman, an accusation that puzzles me because Emeline is merely behaving like a woman of her time and the product of her upbringing. Honestly, does anyone expect a genteel woman to throw herself eagerly into the arms of a commoner? One from the colonies, to boot? Emeline eventually opens up to Samuel, but that is only after she discovers how much Samuel's character appeals to her, after getting to know him better. Perhaps if I am to compare Emeline with those unrealistically democratic heroines of your more typical historical romance who would address a maid as their equal and have premarital sex with handsome men because they love those men so, so much, then yes, Emeline is an unlikable hoyden who deserves to be tarred for not instantaneously hugging Samuel and accepting him as her equal in status. But me, I find Emeline's attitude pretty realistic for a woman born in a time when commoners and blue-blooded aristocrats do not mingle in the same social circles. The fun here is seeing how she slowly opens up to Samuel and comes to accept him as a friend and later, lover. Apart from her immoral unwillingness to spread love and democracy to the unwashed commoners of the time, Emeline is a most sensible woman who can think, put two and two together, and behave like a sensible woman for the most part.
"For the most part" is an important qualifier here because the woman does become a bit of a silly goose late in the story so that the author can get her heartwarming, if contrived, scene where Emeline realizes that she loves Samuel enough to make some significant changes in her life to be with him. While I appreciate this scene, I wish the author has found a way to build her story up to that scene without making Emeline behave like an uncharacteristically dense goose. Still, this behavior on Emeline's part doesn't drag out for too long so it doesn't really affect how I view her relationship with Samuel as a sublimely exquisite relationship of two mature and sensible people who are so, so right for each other.
One thing I really love about this story is how Ms Hoyt uses words to describe in detail - without going overboard at the same time - the characters' feelings and actions, to the point that I feel slightly guilty to be so intimately acquainted with what goes on in the characters' heads. What could have been romantic because ten times more so because of this, and likewise, what could have been a standard love scene becomes a very erotic scene.
I would love to give this book a keeper status, but alas, as exquisite as I found the romance, at the same time I have to confess that this story is pretty poorly plotted. True, the Ton is a small and even incestuous circle if we go by actual history, but the sheer number of coincidences in this story that allow everyone to be linked to everyone else is a little too much for me. While Samuel may be a wonderful soldier, friend, father, and husband, he is a terrible investigator. He approaches his suspects with all the subtlety of an enraged rhinoceros charging at its victim. In fact, I'm genuinely bewildered by what seems to be his grand plan all along: to confront the traitor with his accusations. What will that achieve? Does he expect the traitor to shed tears of remorse and confess?
To Taste Temptation has a breathtaking romance, one that has me feeling every word, every emotion. In that respect, this is one of the best romance novels I have read in a long time. But egad, the subplot about the spy is all over the place to the point that I cannot overlook that flaw even if I dearly want to. Therefore, I will say about To Taste Temptation - read this for the refreshingly unconventional characters and the sublime romance, not for the plot. Trust me, the world will be a more beautiful place if you adopt this philosophy where this book is concerned.
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