Harlequin MIRA, $14.95, ISBN 978-0-7783-1621-3
Historical Fiction, 2014
The cover art of City of Jasmine is most misleading. The two clean-cut fellows, lying on their stomachs on what seems like a stretch of desert, coo and pose in a manner suggesting that this is one of those “come let’s see beautiful white colonials ooh and aah at the sight of the amusing dark-skinned natives” travelogue historical fiction things that white authors love to write when they want to show the world their inner MM Kaye. Not that there is anything wrong with this, as I do like colonial travelogue stories even if this violates my credibility as a member of the “Angry Asian Reader Who Wants the World to Agree with Everything I Say because I am an Asian DO YOU HEAR ME?” club.
What this story actually is, well, it’s a playful subversion of the “white people doing heroic things in the Middle-East as the good natives clap and marvel in appreciation” formula. No “O Great White Hero, you are so awesome to want to save insignificant poor us, we want to be you!” nonsense here – the author deliberately breaks almost – almost – every stereotypical trope associated with that formula. Unfortunately, this also seems to be a subversion of the romance novel formula, which makes me cringe for the wrong reasons, but I’ll get into that later. First, the synopsis.
About five years ago, Evangeline and Gabriel Starke met, went mad, and got married in a whirlwind courtship. They soon discovered that they had little in common outside the bedroom. He was too withdrawn and her temper tantrum only seemed to drive him even further from her, so they had one final quarrel on a steamer before they went separate ways – to different countries, as it turned out. To Evie’s dismay, it would be the last time she saw him – the ship he was on sank.
Since then, Evie learned to bury her pain by learning to fly – yes, she learned to handle a plane. She parlayed her skill into a celebrity adventurer of sorts. She gets sponsors to finance her well-publicized flights – the public adore her and her aunt for being such exotic and glamorous adventurous women – and life is good. That is, until someone sends a photo to her, a photo which suggests that Gabriel is very much alive and gallivanting in Syria. Naturally, Evie can’t resist both the lure of her husband and the call of adventure – Damascus, the City of Jasmine, here she comes!
This book stands alone, with only a very slight link to the author’s previous colonial travelogue story A Spear of Summer Grass, as the hero of that book was the man who taught Evie to fly. Like that book, this one boasts some elegant and poetic narrative, and there are parts that have me reading them several times just to savor these parts in my best “I’d like to imagine that I sound just like Judi Dench” accent. Deanna Raybourn is one of those authors that always make me feel like an Anglophile at heart because I just love the romanticism of the whole thing. The atmosphere, the graceful narrative, the picturesque scenery – everything comes together to create a fabulous vicarious fantasy. It’s not a politically correct thing to admit, but I won’t tell if you don’t.
Unlike the previous book, this one is very funny. Well, much of the humor comes from Evie and Gabriel bickering exactly like an old married couple. Their war of words are caustic, sometimes outright obnoxious and offensive to other people, but they sound just like what two long-coupled people would get into. And these two are very funny when they go at it. The story also delights in throwing Evie off-guard. Instead of an “O White People, Come Save Us from Our Backward Existence!” reception, the local Bedouins roll up their eyes at Evie’s efforts to impress them. Oh darling, they attended boarding schools in England, so she can just stop now before she really embarrasses herself. There are many enjoyable subversions to typical tropes in a White People in Middle-Eastern action stories, and all of them have me chuckling out loud.
Evie is a fabulous heroine, by the way. She is capable, but at the same time, she can be adorably ditsy without being actually stupid. When her back is against the wall, she knows how to get back out, even if she has to play dirty or rely on her feminine wiles. I like her. She and her aunt play one another off beautiful. At the same time, the author also allows me a good glimpse into what makes Evie tick. Her insecurities and emotions feel very real, and this adds layers to her character, making Evie one of the best heroines I’ve come across in a while.
Here’s a big problem that holds me back from fully enjoying this story: Gabriel. As I’ve said earlier, this story seems like a subversion of a romance novel, but it’s the worst kind of subversion: the author puts all the more obnoxious but common romance hero traits in this man, and then ramp up the cynicism to the point that she’s basically daring me to fall in love with this louse. He is horrifyingly flippant to Evie about the hurt he has caused her, and at the same time, he keeps the truth about himself all the way to nearly the end, therefore allowing Evie to think the worst of him. But he’s no martyr to love or even a knight in tarnished armor. His behavior is the deliberate 180 from the usual “rogue who reluctantly behaves for the sake of the heroine” routine – he is, in fact, self-serving and dishonorable at various points in this story.
Many other romance heroes display his traits, but they are often redeemed by the last page of the story. Here, Evie loves him despite all his many, many, many flaws, and he doesn’t have to work at winning her back. She just goes back to him, even when he smells and acts like a user and a slimeball, and it’s like the author is laughing at me. “See? This is your romantic hero. How do you love him now?” I am actually horrified by the way the “romance” turns out, because Evie deserves so much more than this… this… snake.
To top it off, Gabriel’s reason to play the martyr reptile act stands out like a sore thumb because it is one of the more obvious non-subversive stereotypical trope straight out of the “white people showing Middle-Easterners how amazing they are” stories. This makes Gabriel the sole exception to the celebration of subversion in this story. He is the only dud out of everything, so it breaks my heart that he is supposed to be the consolation prize for a wonderful character like Evie. Honestly, if we want to be cynical about romance, I’d rather have Evie not with anyone by the last page than to see her stuck with that lout. Indeed, why does she need a man to be happy? She has been hurt by that asshole, so let her enjoy her new life without him tainting the scenery!
If you are one of those folks who don’t read stories for the romance – not that I am judging you, of course not – then I suspect you may enjoy this one more than me. The hero really puts me off the whole thing. It’s quite ironic, but I think that, as a romance reader, I would have loved this one even more if it hadn’t included any romance in the first place. Just Evie and her aunt, or Evie and her gay best friend, having the time of their lives in Syria, while Gabriel’s body rots away in a ditch somewhere – now that would be fabulous.