by Julia Ross, historical (2004)
Berkley, $13.00, ISBN 0-425-19406-X
Robert Sinclair Dovenby or Dove comes home one day to his London townhouse to find his mistress Margaret, the Countess of Grenham, burning his clothes on the street as a very public kiss-off gesture. He learns that Meg, whom he is really fond of, is led to believe that Dove will be bringing home a new mistress to replace Meg, hence Meg's temper. Indeed, he discovers two strangers left tied up by Meg in his bedroom. Those two claim to be looking for his cravat as a wager. Dove suspects that these two are hiding something, especially when he realizes that the "man" in his house is actually a woman. This woman is Sylvie Georgiana, a spy who is charged to learn of Dove's secrets.
Let's just leave it at that, the synopsis of this book, because The Wicked Lover is one of those books that are fine while I'm reading it, but when I'm done, I start seeing problems all over in the place. Sylvie wants to get Dove to hire her as a secretary, among other things, but the whole disguise scheme seems a little too convoluted as a means to achieve that aim, with too many possiblities in the scheme to be affected by chance or luck. I find it very difficult to believe that someone like Sylvie, purportedly a good spy, will come up with such an intricate plot whose sole virtue is it being, well, intricate.
I also have major problems with Sylvie. Let's just say that she is the epitome of the genre's unfortunate tendency to equate "feminine virtue" with utter ineptness. She blushes, she sometimes even stammer, and every emotion she experiences is there for Dove to read on her face. This makes her a good spy? I'm just amazed that she isn't fish food by now. And what's with her calling herself "George" when she's disguised as a man? Just what it is with romance authors that laud their heroine's "intelligence" this way - it's like claiming that a ten-year old girl is a rocket scientist because she can spell "rocket" correctly. A spy that uses names that can easily be traced back to her real identity is not talented or smart in my book. I don't know why romance authors always do things like this. Is it for the benefit of some really slow romance readers that will get confused if Sylvie calls herself Thomas? Are there that many such very slow readers in the first place?
Okay, so Sylvie isn't as smart as Julia Ross insists that she is. Worse than that, she's much more inept that Ms Ross would like Sylvie to be. Sylvie is so ridiculously affected by Dove's beauty, for example, that she is already grasping at straws to believe that she is wrong about the man despite being told otherwise by a man she claims to trust. My favorite is that scene early on where she agonizes over the fact that Dove is kind enough to feed "George" just once - surely an evil spy won't do such a thing, she insists, and laments that should she be wrong about Dove, she is the worst woman in the world for Lying and Deceiving him. This is on page 64, way earlier than I anticipate on when she will start pulling that "good historical romance heroine" act, and a good indication of her actions in the rest of the book, where she tries so hard to justify that Dove is Good that she gets played, emotionally, totally by Dove who knows her gender all along like the stupid violin that insists on being virtuous that she is.
The saddest thing here is that Sylvie pulls her martyred spy act not because there is any valid justification for her to do so. I can only deduce that her lust for him is driving her to go on her virtue trip. In this, Sylvie isn't Mata Hari, she's the silly chit that James Bond seduced into betraying her people just because she can't resist succumbing to his charms.
Dove is appropriately interesting - just like how the heroes are often well-written compared to the heroines in the books by this author - but he is basically the one hand that is clapping valiantly here and he has his work cut out for him. Because Ms Ross drabs her story in an unfortunately less intelligent kind of black and white morality, in a plot which her "good heroines don't lie and are completely visceral in nature" style of characterization is horribly mismatched with, The Wicked Lover is a story of a woman overestimated by the author and presented as so much more intelligent than she actually is falling in love oh too easily with her suspect. Sylvie is just lucky that Dove doesn't fatally abuse her gullibility and her suspectibility to his physical attractions.
In a good spy story, the heroine should have no qualms about lying, she should be more resistant to the hero's beauty especially for a woman who claims to be willing to use her sex to achieve her means, and she definitely won't whine and complain about the nature of her job. The Wicked Lover will only work for readers that are willing to share the author's rigid viewpoint of female moral codex that has Ms Ross' heroines all behave according to the really predictable ways of martyrhood in all her books so far, to the point that the heroine's rigid adherence to the codex takes precedence over common sense and even a small semblance to realistic spy behaviors that the plot calls for. In short, the majority of traditional Regency fans will lap this Georgian-era story up. Enjoy!
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