Harlequin MIRA, $14.95, ISBN 978-0-7783-1775-3
Historical Fiction, 2014
Penelope “Poppy” Hammond is a charming young lady from the upper crust society of England in the 1920s. One fine day, she flees on the day of her wedding to an aristocrat, because the little darling realizes that she can’t bear to spend the rest of her life being a mere society butterfly to a man who couldn’t even make love to her decently. She stumbles upon Sebastian Cantrip, who seems to be the curator of the church she is fleeing from, and the man helps drive her all the way to her father’s place.
Eventually, Poppy decides that what she really wants in life is a purpose, a mission. Like… like… her aunt Julia who was featured in Deanna Raybourn’s other series! And the heroine of the author’s previous book! Of course, she has to attend to some closure before she can become the next GI Jane, so she goes back to the church where everything began to say thank you to Sebastian. Only, he’s missing and the folks at the church don’t believe they have a curate that fits his description.
Intrigued, Poppy has to look into this matter. Her investigation suggests that this Sebastian fellow may have taken off to Damascus for some mysterious reason. He may be in danger! Naturally, it’s up to her to save him! Okay, so she isn’t some globe-trotting femme fatale who can kick rear ends while maintaining a sexy pout 24/7, but how hard can such a thing be anyway?
You may be staring at the synopsis by now, the way people usually can’t take their eyes away from the rear end of a severely overweight man who insists on forcing himself into a tiny pair of banana hammock and waddling about with nearly his entire rear end spilling over the waistband. But don’t worry, take it from me: I imagine that this is a slightly more adult version of a typical adventure mystery romp by Enid Blyton, and all the pain goes away. You know, the circus boy Barney from that “R” mystery series used to be my crush back when I was still foolish enough to do this kind of thing, and Sebastian has that same kind of allure that Barney had: he’s tall, gorgeous, and mysterious. Once the mystery goes away – such as after Barney finds his father and stops being an exotic circus attraction – the guy loses much of his appeal, but Night of a Thousand Stars isn’t a romance as much as it is Poppy’s happy adventures in Damascus, so Sebastian’s superficial mojo isn’t that much of a deal breaker here.
The entire story is hard to take seriously, if you ask me. Despite her inexperience, Poppy is never in any situation that feels genuinely dangerous. I do like how she may be inexperienced when it comes to international thrill-seeking, the rough and tumble way, but she is no pushover when it comes to men. She knows how men work, and she isn’t above using her femininity to try and manipulate guys a little to get things done her way. Poppy is a pretty memorable heroine – she is capable when she has to be, and she makes a great adventure partner with Sebastian. However, the story never seems to be anything more than a self-indulgent fanservice effort to tie up things with the author’s previous series. Poppy’s awesomeness often comes up conveniently, mostly because she’s related to the awesome cast of characters in the author’s Lady Julia Grey series. In fact, by the last page of this book, everything about the story turns out to be one giant ball of tangled happy coincidences and orchestrated machination to induct Poppy into the Legion of Awesomeness that refuse to stay contained in that other series. The whole “Poppy is part of the family, so is Sebastian, so is this fellow, that fellow, that other fellow – well, not these fellows, they are the bad guys and they are all mostly dead, whatever – everyone else – we are all related to Lady Julia Grey, her awesome husband, their awesome family, and so, WE ARE ALL AWESOME SO LET’S BEGIN THE BEAUTIFUL INBREEDING TO PROPAGATE MORE AWESOMENESS!”
And as someone who is introduced to this author through the few books that are not part of that series, I find the whole incomparable superlative state of those people too over the top to be believable. They are too clever and cunning to play by stodgy rules of the more conventional British Intelligence people, so they are allowed to form a more special division where only those with the biggest swagger get invited to join! The criteria to procure an invitation is, apparently, having that special something that only other people with that special something can detect and appreciate, and Poppy has that something.
At the end of the day, I’m so happy that Poppy gets her superhero badge and she also gets to have a fellow superhero beau in the process. But her getting there is a story that feels more appropriate when shelved next to titles like The Mystery of the Pantomime Cat and Five Go To Smuggler’s Top: her success seems to come due to a combination of blind luck, watchfulness and behind-the-scene protection from mysterious benevolent guardians, intrinsic abilities and intrepidity that are apparently inheritable (if the father is a top spy, the daughter must also be a natural top spy too), and plot armor stemming from the fact that she’s related to every awesome people in previous books. All these stuff are fine if we are talking about a story meant for kids, but I prefer something less far-fetched when I open a book that is supposedly fiction for older folks.
Night of a Thousand Stars is very readable and perfectly fine as a beach read, but I’ve been led by the author’s previous books to expect a little bit more from this book. So yes, I’m disappointed, what a pity.