Avon, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-06-202580-7
Historical Romance, 2012
Our heroine Mari Sinclair is, from all appearances, an English expatriate in Constantinople looking after her opium-addict archeologist father as the man looks for old things here and there. However, Major Bennett Prestwood knows that she is actually a spy, who uses her closeness to the local pasha (who treats her like a beloved the daughter) to smuggle detailed plans of Turkish bases and such to the English. Now, it appears that Mari’s identity is compromised, and a disgruntled Bennett is forced to ditch his own plans for his future to protect her. And so, it begins.
A Secret in Her Kiss is a rather difficult book to review because when it’s good, it’s good, but when it’s not, it’s really not. Reading this book is like a roller-coaster ride, where the highs are highs and the lows and lows, with not much in between.
The first half or so of the book has more lows than highs. In fact, I’m reviewing this book far down the road from its initial publication date because I’ve put down the book so many times during this first half. Oh, I understand the heroine: if I were blackmailed into continue risking my life by the English after I’ve tried to quit the business, I wouldn’t be so trusting of the English agent sent to “protect” me. So in that account, I can understand Mari perfectly. But Mari falls into a common heroine behavior that never fails to make me sigh in exasperation: she’s clearly besieged by too many things and she’s slowly losing control of the situation, she knows that, but still she refuses to confide in even her trusted friends because she’d like to rely on herself. Predictably, this gives rise to scenes of the heroine getting into trouble and the hero puffing up as he comes to the rescue.
But more annoying is Beckett. On one hand, I can appreciate the character growth the author has in store for this fellow. Bennett, you see, starts out as a classic lawful stupid guy, one who follows orders even if he does not agree with the orders at all. Eventually, he will learn to follow his own rules instead, one that sees him doing the right things for the ones he care for. But in the meantime, this guy is so bloody graceless. He’s a lummox! Not only does he charge into situations with all the arrogance of a cocky bull, often making a situation worse, his idea of “seduction” is to reach up and grab the heroine’s soft bits – uninvited, of course, because manly men just reach out and grab what they want – or force a kiss. The heroine doesn’t complain too much, but I find such scenes so lacking in finesse and elegance. Bennett displays the combination of a Neanderthal grabber and Leeroy Jenkins that I find off-putting, and I can’t fully warm up to him even in later parts of the story.
The story, however, gets better as it goes along, when Bennett tones down his Randy Rambo act and Mari starts opening up to him. By that point, they have some decent moments where they seem to connect well. The whole intrigue thing is put together nicely as well, and along with the solid pacing, the story has me turning the pages easily by that point. It’s actually amusing how I can’t put the book down then when I kept putting it down earlier, heh. The romance never really recovered from its bumbling and clumsy start, but by the last page, I think they’ll be fine.
The pay-off is quite disappointing, though. Sure, it’s darkly amusing to have Beckett’s high-handed arrogance in the early parts of the story come back to bite him when he realizes that the heroine’s suspicions, which he didn’t take seriously, turn out to be true. But the villains’ motives turn out to be personal when the story is built up to take on larger issues like patriotism and conflicted loyalties. It’d been a better pay-off if the villains had been motivated by these bigger issues instead of sheer greed.
From all appearances, A Secret in Her Kiss is Ms Randol’s first published effort. All things considered, this is a pretty noteworthy debut, then. Ms Randol tries to do something different and bigger than the usual “scoundrel rake mistress ravished virgin bluestocking” mix-and-match romps, and while she doesn’t always succeed in doing what she set out to do, the end result is still worth a look.