Jove, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-515-15537-2
Historical Romance, 2015 (Reissue)
Otherwise Engaged marks Amanda Quick’s return to historical romance after what seems like 700 Arcane Society books. Don’t be so eager, though, by “historical romance”, what I really mean is “those boring mystery-over-romance books that aren’t made any better by the fact that the mystery is not engaging enough to make up for the tepid romance” books. It’s a shame, because the story starts out in a way that is not like the author’s usual join-the-dots style.
Amity Doncaster is a well-traveled heroine who has seen many places outside of England. She is this close to having her travel guidebook published, an achievement that greatly pleases her. When the story opens, she is about to head to New York after a jaunt in the Caribbean islands when she stumbles upon the badly wounded Benedict Stanbridge. She nurses him back to health during the ship journey, and they part ways at the end of the trip, with him taking a cab to California. This is after they’d spent lots of time talking and what not, and then there was that one kiss before they say goodbye…
Well, since he never wrote or called, Amity eventually assumes that she’d never see him again when she returns to London. However, word gets out that she and Benedict have been very cozy in a ship, and while the whispers have not reached fever pitch yet, she is worried that the publisher wishing to publish her book may kill the idea. Worse, the rumor makes her the target of a serial killer dubbed by the press as the Bridegroom – apparently this villain goes after women tainted by scandals of indiscreet behavior and such. She manages to escape from the villain’s clutches, and the resulting media circus is… lively, let’s just say. Benedict shows up and proposes a fake engagement to keep the scandal at bay. He also plans to investigate the whole thing too. Oh, and if he has his way, the engagement would be real and it would lead to a happily ever after.
This is definitely a “serious” mystery story when the author forgoes the usual “oh, the heroine is not conventionally pretty and her breasts aren’t huge” way of describing the heroine. There is no “the hero is dark-haired and he has sexy thigh muscles” stuff too. Amanda Quick hopes straight into the drama after getting that first kiss out of the way, so you know she’s in serious business mode. The romance is barely there. The kiss, some occasional brief mentions of attraction, the big sex scene, and then it’s basically a wait until they finish the whole investigating thing to get married and send everyone off to buy the next book. While the last few books are very heavy in “psychical” and “your psychical probes make me horny” stuff, I feel that those books are far more romantic than this one. Amity and Benedict could very well be two dills squashed up against one another in a jar of brine for all the chemistry going on here. No, change that – the pickling process has a hundred times more chemistry taking place than anything found here.
Still, things won’t be so bad if the mystery is interesting. The initial premise – the Bridegroom forcing his victims to be photographed in a wedding dress before killing them – is macabre enough to keep me reading, but the whole thing soon turns out to be a rather mundane series of episodes of our main characters discussing strategy, chasing after and interrogating suspects, repeat and rinse. Nothing particularly memorable happens here, just the usual amateur detective hour stuff.
I’m also not too keen on how the story often dumbs down Amity to an uncharacteristic degree. In the past, the author’s hero tends to lecture the heroine about things, but that’s fine, because those heroines are usually sheltered. Here, however, Amity is supposed to have seen the world and immersed herself in various cultures outside of England. And yet, she still has to be explained to a few times as to why Benedict’s plan to fake-engage with her may work to her advantage, for example. There are also various moments when she would be so clueless about what should have been obvious that I don’t know what to make of her. Not that Amity is constantly on the nitwit side. She can put two and two together, and she can be quite smart when the author allows her to. It’s just that, when she is with the hero, she goes right into blank slate mode for the hero to act all smart and stuff.
At one point, Benedict actually says that Amity is a unique woman because she survives the Bridegroom’s attempt to capture her – apparently, other women would automatically die when this happens to them. Things like this make me wonder whether he believes that Amity is really unique, or he is operating on the assumption that women in general have such low intelligence and self preservation instincts that they should be lauded and celebrated for being able to meet his lowest expectations of that sex. This is a shame because this is one of those rare books where the heroine and her sister actually take care of things on their own in the denouement – no big strong males needed. So, on one hand, the story often portrays women like they are such fragile little dears in need of protection and explanation, but at the same time, it also allows those women to do some pretty refreshingly kick-ass stuff. So, which is which? It’s as if the author can’t make up her mind.
Oh well. Otherwise Engaged is actually an apt title for this book. The romance is threadbare and far from satisfying because the author’s attention is, er, engaged in trying to be the best mystery author in the world. Not that she succeeded in that last bit here, so this book ends up being the very definition of the word “dry”.