Pocket, $6.99, ISBN 0-7434-6349-8
Historical Romance, 2004
Andrea DaRif’s A Kiss of Spice is one of the few in a dying species: a historical romance that does not insult my intelligence. While the author’s previous book The Tiger’s Mistress has a heroine that is lacking in the upstairs department, the heroine of A Kiss of Spice is a refreshing heroine who does not pull the martyr act to debase herself in some misguided belief that having a lack of self esteem is the same as being virtuous, and is actually useful to the hero. The one drawback is that despite the delightful lack of idiocy going on in the story, this one does not sizzle in the plot department.
Also, there are enough allusions to scenes from The Tiger’s Mistress that can exasperate any reader who has not read that book. The hero Maxwell Bingham, Viscount Davenport, and the heroine, Olivia Marquand, met in the previous book, as a matter of fact, and readers would most likely enjoy this story better if they read the previous book first. Ms DaRif’s clumsy backstory technique (where Max narrates his backstory to his sister with Olivia present) may not satisfy.
Max comes off like a stereotype. A former war hero who has lost an ex-girlfriend when she chose money over him, Max lives apart from Society so he gets a reputation for being reclusive. Stories float around about him being disfigured or scarred in the face to explain his reclusive behavior. He’s in fact a whole person and a pretty sane one at that, as Olivia can testify. Max has developed some feelings for Olivia in the previous book, but they weren’t meant to be back then.
Today, their paths cross again when Olivia decides to make a permanent move from Bombay, India to London and innocently accepts a dinner invitation from the hellion-in-making Lady Cara. Cara turns out to be Max’s estranged sister. Max returns on Cara’s request to solve the mystery of his missing brother as well as an increasing number of suspicious “accidents” plaguing the people in his York estate. Cara believes that the family is plagued by the curse of the Ruby Lion, a small statuette stolen from a Middle-Eastern tribe by an enterprising Bingham fellow some time ago. When the Ruby Lion falls into the wrong hand (what, like that light-fingered William Bingham?), plenty of doom and gloom will befall the owner. Max’s brother Kip is may just be the villain who is causing trouble around the place, after having kidnapped Kip’s girlfriend and stolen the Ruby Lion. Max chooses to believe that Kip is in trouble.
So Max now has to find his brother, find the Ruby Lion, find whoever it is that is causing problems around the place, and deal with his attraction to Olivia. Olivia is an unusual heroine in that she actually runs a successful spice trade enterprise. Even better, she knows more than Max can ever will about the activities taking place in the English ports, legally or illegally, thanks to her contacts, and when it seems that Kip is potentially involved in a prostitution ring, Max has to turn to Olivia for help. Olivia is more than happy to help if this means that she can help those poor women held captive by the villains. Neither plan to act on their attraction to each other. Of course they don’t.
I turn the pages of this book cringing in anticipation of some typical formulaic development that will make me want to pull clumps of hair from my scalp. Will Olivia turn out to be some fake who will start acting like a nitwit screaming that she just wants to save the world with some harebrained scheme while believing that she is not good enough for anybody? I confess that I am quite jaundiced when it comes to expecting good things from Regency historical romances. But to my pleasant delight, Ms DaRif allows Olivia to stay in character as an unusual lady who started a business and ran it successfully. She has brains, this Olivia, and I am quite sure that I will never come across too many heroines who can outline to the hero why running a business is no different from planning a war. Olivia also makes no apologies for being who she is, she doesn’t pull that “Eek, you deserve a proper English girlfriend so I’ll just sleep with you and then cry myself to death afterwards from a broken heart” nonsense, and frankly, she’s one refreshing heroine to read about. Olivia is a heroine who comes off as intelligent without at the same time coming off as superhuman or super tortured.
Max is more of a stereotype but the story doesn’t allow him to become too much of one. He has familiar women issues, for example, but Max doesn’t spend pages after pages in self pity. He wants to look for his brother so it makes sense that his mind is often occupied by more important issues than his past. He doesn’t fight too hard when it comes to falling in love and neither does Olivia.
However, the story is on the dull side. While there are plenty of opportunities of intrigue and action, Ms DaRif approaches the plot in a rather methodological manner, sort of like someone running through a shopping list or trying to balance a ledger. A common pattern in the story is this: Max talks to this person, moves to another person, and ponders over what he has learned. Also, there are too many scenes in this book that feel like padded filler. There can only be so many ballroom scenes, for example, that don’t serve much purpose before the story becomes even more bogged down in suspense-free inaction.
The characters are fine and their interactions are enjoyable to read, however the plot is dry and uninteresting. The result is a book that is way too easy to put down. This is truly a pity because Olivia and Max deserve a more lively story than the one they are stuck in. I am so disappointed to find a story in which nobody works overtime to drive me up the wall, only to find that the same story is also as tasty as stale bread crust.