by Susan Johnson, historical (2004)
Brava, $15.00, ISBN 1-57566-809-2
Pure Silk - which is not related to Pure Sin - is Susan Johnson almost back in her top form. Remember those days when she actually had a plot to go along with her wry sense of humor and scorching erotic love scenes? When characters weren't one-dimensional cardboards? Well, Pure Silk is closest to a really good book by the author nowadays, especially after her last few truly horrid books. Unfortunately, the best things about this book center around a secondary character, the ruthless geisha Sunskoku, and the late twentieth-century Japanese intrigues taking place behind the hero and the heroine's lustily copulating backs.
Set in Japan, the story begins when Tama, the daughter of the daimyo of a clan that opposes the current Emperor, realizes that her father is dead and the army crushed to smites. She realizes that she has to flee to Paris to search for her elder brother, the heir to her father's position, and bring him back to continue the fight. This brother lives in voluntary exile in Paris because of love: he fell in love with a woman of the wrong caste and gave up his old life to be with her in Paris. Tama enlists the help of former Confederate soldier turned daring seafarer Hugh Drummond to take her to Paris. Meanwhile, the ambitious Chief Inspector, Hiraoki, is searching for Tama, and trapped in the middle of his games is Sunskoku, a very beautiful and successful geisha that is searching for a way to free herself from Hiraoki.
Set entirely in Japan apart from the last few chapters where Tama finally reaches France, Pure Silk offers a unique look at the changes in the Japanese culture during the early to middle stages of the European invasion into their culture and politics. This book isn't that heavy in historical details, but enough to make me miss the author's footnotes and trivia that she used to put into her books. The author also offers a satisfying feminist slant in her story - two of the characters that make significant decisions that affect the lives of everyone in this story are women. Unfortunately, none of these women is Tama.
Sunskoku is a very compelling character - she is ruthless, cunning, and devious because she has to be those things and she makes no apologies for it. Sold to the flesh trade by a family that expects her to be grateful, she manages to survive despite having her life literally owned by Hiraoki by masking her emotions, calcifying her heart, and when opportunity strikes, seizes it without whining about love and other prettified nonsense that romance heroines tend to do. But she is not the heroine, unfortunately. Characters like Sunskoku make me really miss authors like Gayle Feyrer that are not afraid to let these women shine as romance heroines. Susan Johnson is not one of these authors, and while I am glad that she at least allows Sunskoku to develop as a character and even find love, she doesn't dare to let Sunskoku be the heroine. Make no mistake, this book is in a way Sunskoku's story. Tama and Hugh pretty much vanish during the middle of the book, appearing in sex scene interludes to remind me that they are still in the story, while Hiraoki, Sunskoku, and other Japanese players plot intrigue and mayhem.
Compared to Sunskoku and Hiraoki's naive mistress that undergoes a bitter wake-up call later in the story, Tama is a wretched stereotype of the berserk hellion that shrieks and pouts at the least convenient moments. Thankfully, Hugh keeps her mostly flat on her back so she isn't in the position to cause too many irritating scenes of heroines behaving stupid. Okay, the scene where Tama kills two ninjas is pretty kickass, but on the whole, she's such an underdeveloped character compared to the Sunskoku that I wonder why Tama is the heroine of this story. She's flat on her back - literally - while the Sunskoku steals the story and runs away with it. Sunskoku is everything Tama isn't - smart, cunning, intelligent, makes no apologies about her circumstances in life (no "I'm a slut, I'm so not worthy!" nonsense from her), and most importantly, she's someone I can imagine living in Japan in those days.
Tama, on the hand, feels like an American hellion transplanted in Japan. Even Hiraoki outshines Hugh - the man is a monster especially in the way he treats his mistress, but Hiraoki never comes off like a caricature. He is a chilling villain because it is very easy to imagine that there are men in the world that are like him.
Sunskoku's characterization hits a snag later in the story when Ms Johnson introduces her boyfriend (her bodyguard at the brothel she works at) and Sunskoku turns into a weepy overly-grateful dingbat. Thankfully, her spine returns by the time her story comes to an end, and I bid her a fond adieu as she tries to find a better life for herself in Hong Kong. And then, there are another hundred or so pages to go and it's time for Tama and Hugh to reach France and bore me to death with some Other Woman nonsense. Hello? After the Japanese intrigues and all, when it comes to Other Woman nonsense, here's a newsflash, Ms Johnson: I. Don't. Care. And to top it off, after Tama makes a big fuss about going back to Japan and restoring her clan's honor, the story skips to an epilogue where the author fast-forwards the story and tells me that somehow, Tama and Hugh manage to get the old castle rebuilt. Talk about a book with misplaced priorities: Susan Johnson relegates the most interesting characters in her book into secondary character hell, jettisons the most intriguing aspects of her plot for some trivial and asinine nonsense, and makes the two flattest characters in this book the stars of the book.
I would be remiss if I don't point out the cringe-inducing language anachronisms in the story. I seriously don't think that the Japanese use "helluva" in those times, and that is the worst of the anachronistic language in this book. I don't know how an author used to be well-known for meticulous history can be so careless this way. Oh well.
There's a very interesting story in here. There's a good book screaming to be written here as well. Unfortunately, Pure Silk pushes forth the wrong characters, wants me to care about the wrong things, and ultimately shoots itself in the knees by trying too hard to keep the sillier population of romance readers and their rigid requirements for a "good" romance novel happy, a population that won't read this book anyway because eeeuw, it is set in Japan and not Regency England and yucks, Tama was not a virgin when she met the hero. Shouldn't Susan Johnson fans be used to the author's non-virginal heroines, oversexed rakes, and kinky sex by now?
From an economic sense, Ms Johnson's actions make sense - Geyle Feyrer isn't the one with her books published at $15.00 a pop today. But as a reader, I am ultimately frustrated because the good characters in this book are given the shaft for two bland dweebs, dweebs that are pushed forth just because they fit the central casting "Hellion" and "Rake" stereotype pervalent in the genre. Still, Pure Silk is set in a different place, the story is far more interesting than those in the author's last few books (or in many other romance novels published today, come to think of it), and Sunskoku may be the most interesting strong heroine one could encounter for a while. Yes, the sex scenes are hot too. While readers new to Susan Johnson are still better off picking up the author's older books, fans of this author may want to give Pure Silk a try, if only because it's definitely the author in a good form that she hasn't been in for a long, long time.
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