HarperTorch, $5.99, ISBN 0-06-101289-0
Historical Romance, 1999
Imagine my delight when I picked this book up (thanks to the gorgeous cover), only to discover later that it is written by Gayle Feyrer! Now that’s serendipity. Now writing as Taylor Chase, she still infuses her writing with raw passion, unconventional heroines, and raw, primitive, almost savage sex.
Heart of Deception takes place in 1586 London, when the plot to overthrow Queen Elizabeth in favor of Mary, Queen of Scots, has just been unearthed. Rafe Fletcher’s grandfather and cousin are implicated and are about to hang. Rafe is determined to clear their name with the help of his friend Gabriel, but Gabriel is murdered before he could pass vital information to Rafe. Rafe enlists himself under Sir Walshingham, the Queen’s spymaster, to infiltrate the London criminal underworld to seek out the person or persons responsible for sabotaging England’s war efforts by smuggling guns. In doing so, he would secure full pardon for his incarcerated relatives.
His only clue leads him to the siblings Swift, Nick and Vivian, who are the two rulers of one of London’s largest crime gangs. Rafe is hired as Vivian’s guard and soon finds him embroiled in the Swifts’ feud with another crime lord Jake Rivett. If that is not complicated enough, these criminals are knee-deep in involvement with the English throne treachery, whether they know it or not, because ultimately everyone ends up as chess pieces in a game plotted by spectral figures out to replace Elizabeth on the throne with Mary. Worse, Rafe has to fall in lust and, later, love with Viv.
You won’t find sweet, lovely Oliver Twist characters here. Viv is not a misunderstood orphan pickpocketing to support an ailing mother or siblings – she is a ruthless, calculative crime ringleader who rules with an iron grip and temper alongside her brother, tampered with a little kindness. This woman can, and actually does, crush her enemies ruthlessly. Her brother Nick hides a ruthless, hard-edged streak under his nonchalant, genial facade. Rafe’s relationship with Viv is more of a power play, a game of dominion and subjugation of the sexes, as Viv spins a web of lust around Rafe. Did I mention that Viv is called the virago man-eater by her men (they’re praising her, by the way) and the nickname actually fits? Like I said, the last thing this book is is sweet.
What this book is, however, is a detailed, intricately-plotted story that has me at the edge of my seat. Nothing is predictable – betrayals, counter-betrayals, and counter-counter-betrayals surface with alarming regularity. Rafe himself is playing a game of deception with Viv, but the author conveys his feeling of torn between heart and duty to family so well that I never feel the need to call the SWAT team and fry this man. Besides, when Viv does find out, Rafe ends up with her blade around his neck. That’s fair enough for me.
I can’t describe how vivid, how vibrant this book is. I feel as if I’m transported right into Ms Chase’s world of the London underdark, where hardened criminals have to suppress their humanity in order to survive. The characters are most fascinating in their complexity: Nick is a homosexual whose obsession with a treacherous transvestite ultimately costs him everything, and his fate actually moves me deeply. Likewise, Gabriel, Rafe’s friend, appears briefly, but his presence burns like a bright flame that when he dies tragically on page 12, I am actually horrified. You mean he won’t be getting his own story, this cheerful, nonchalant witty man?!!! NO! That’s the magic of this book: everyone, even the minor characters, are so well-fleshed out that I actually care for them. Smoke, Izzy, Peter… the men that make up the Swifts’ loyal family, they are all real. When a book actually has me in tears over the death of a crime lord who murders and does things I don’t want to know, I think this book is it.
Ms Chase has outdone herself utterly. For these wonderful few hours of escape into a world of adrenaline-pumping excitement, intriguing political chess games, and raw, earthy passion, I’m very grateful to Ms Chase.