Secret Ways
by Kat Martin, historical (2003)
Pocket, $6.99, ISBN 0-7434-1917-0

Living in Kat Martin's fictional world is very simple for a woman. Accused of sins of - gasp - harlotry? If you have the almighty hymen, you're safe. Your aura of innocence and purity will redeem you - provided you let the suspicious hero deflower you first, that is. I can just imagine tons of kiddie readers believing that this is the only way to be a "good woman", ie to sleep with a boy to prove that she loves him and she's good enough because he's her first, and shudder at the image.

Secret Ways is a welcome improvement after the brain tumor carcinogen that are her previous few shockingly bad books, but its overreliance on lazy sex scenes and antiquated double standards make this book a far cry from those days of Innocence Undone and Dangerous Passions. Or maybe it's because my tastes have changed? I don't know. But still, Secret Ways, with a heroine that is just less braindead than her predecessors and a hero who is stupid but at least not deliberately cruel, this book is a step up from the last few books. But there's still some way to go to recapture the author's former glory.

Vermillion Lee Durant is an orphan trained by her auntie to be a courtesan. She's almost legal now, but she hates it! She hates her beauty! She wants to be respectable! (Of course, you know that if she's respectable, she'll probably hate it just as much and find ways to be ruined. They always do.) She doesn't want to be called Vermillion, she'd rather be called Lee and wear tomboy outfits and ride horses at top speed before being kind in a condescending way to single mommies at the Home. (All heroines need a happy charity.) Her proximity to single mommies and the sight of these women in pitiful squalor inspire her to long to be a single mother of her own, because if she is ruined she will never have to be a courtesan and she loves babies! You figure that one out. I'd rather jam my head on the photocopier, Xerox my dazed expression, and mail copies to Kat Martin's home with a thank-you note attached.

She has a selection of possibly kind suitors to choose from to be her eighteenth birthday kebab stick, but in the end, her heart pitters-patters for that man who looks at her with pure hostility from the stables! That's a smart heroine for you. It's probably less painful to leap onto a sword. So what if he thinks her a harlot? He is good with kitties and horses, so he must be a good, good man!

He is actually Captain Caleb Tanner, undercover to filter out that spy who is passing info to the French via either Lee, Harlot Auntie, or someone else. But after he kisses her and has sex with her, he realizes that she is an innocent. And as we all know, virgins are incapable of sins or even impure thoughts. So now he has to... well, leave her with just a curt note, return to her later once his Important Manly Duties are done, and hopes she'll forgive him. Won't it be easier to just kick her to the curb, at least then she knows she's no longer relevant and hence won't have to keep pining? That's love, dumb romance novel style, for you.

But he comes back. She will never forgive him. Sex. She will never forgive him! Sex. Everything is solved by sex. Arguments? Sex to follow. Issues are resolved by banging the bed board against the wall. As expected, their silly petty bickerings just drag on and on as a result, with both parties playing really petty and silly games when a short and clear talk would have cleared matters. Oh, and since harlots don't deserve love, Lee gets a Secret Titled Daddy who turns out to be a Good Misunderstood Guy after all. Dollar ex machina plot devices save the day, so now they can all live happily ever after.

The moral of the story? The most important things a woman should have in this life are a title and a hymen. I hope Kat Martin doesn't think less of me for having none of the two.

Still, the characters don't do too stupid things like the heroine pouting because she is too ugly to be raped or worse. It is not a compliment to say a book is better because there are worse books to compare itself to, but that's exactly the case in this instance. It's a mediocre, formulaic book filled with foolish characters behaving immaturely, but disenchanted Kat Martin fans may start to hope that Secret Ways is a first step in the author getting back on track. We'll see if her next book will prove this right.

Rating: 60

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