Signet, $7.99, ISBN 0-451-21627-X
Historical Romance, 2005
From the criminally underdeveloped subplots to the tepid and obvious recycled scenes and elements from this author’s previous books, Virginia Henley’s Unmasked is a $7.99-priced lollypop for suckers everywhere. Yeah, like me, I know. That’s why I have this website, naturally, to stick the metaphorical lollypop into the blender and watch with glee as it gets crushed and minced into pieces. Sure, the book is set in a time period rarely used by other historical romance authors but everything about this book is a lesson in watered-down soggy blandness.
Set during the last days of Oliver Cromwell’s reign in England, our hero, Robert Greysteel Montgomery, friend to Prince Charles II who is trying to get back into England and restore the monarchy (with him as the king, naturally), is back in England after he and his men are set free by the Roundheads after they were ambushed and captured during a Northumberland skirmish. His freedom comes with a price: Robert is now an agent of the opportunist Roundhead General, Monck, who wants to be ready to change the direction of his loyalty if Charles II should ever regain the throne. Complicating Robert’s mission is Elizabeth “Velvet” Cavendish who was betrothed to him since she was six and he was thirteen. Thirteen years later, she has grown into a beautiful spitfire hellion (as if a Virginia Henley heroine can be anything else).
My biggest problem of this story is that Velvet and Robert are one-dimensional ciphers. Velvet thinks that she is in love with Charles II, which to me is fair enough, but at the same time the author decides to take the easy way out with having Velvet being attracted to Robert as well but she is so sure that Robert hates her. Why? I honestly don’t know. The author tells but she never shows or explains why her characters say, behave, or think the way they do. Likewise, Robert is a one-dimensional character who seems nice enough at first but soon he’s a cringe-inducing dysfunctional time bomb when it comes to paranoia, jealousy, and some truly dumb awful jumps to conclusions. The conflict of the story – Velvet is a staunch Royalist while Robert is a Royalist but is coerced into working for a Roundhead officer – is contrived to the point of ridiculousness. Velvet can break into Robert’s letter box to realize that he is writing to some Bad Roundhead Officer, for example, but she conveniently refuses to read the letter to see what he is actually writing about. And then she is quick to accuse him in his face for being a spy, which makes her reluctance to read those letters completely devoid of logic. That is, unless the sole purpose of such silliness is to generate plenty of misunderstandings and jumps to silly conclusions, of which both characters carry out with alarming regularity here. So many things in this story can be avoided if the characters will just talk or at least behave sensibly, but the author instead has them doing transparently contrived things designed to facilitate big misunderstanding issues.
If the historical elements of this story are intriguing enough, I can overlook the tepid romance. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case as well. Ms Henley’s slant is pro-Royalist, which is understandable in a way as both her characters are Royalists, but her approach here is often so simplistic and one-dimensional that the story starts to come off as absurd. For example, Robert doesn’t actually do much spying. All he does is to listen to gossips and write to Monck about them, along with some significant national matters that really shouldn’t warrant any action more covert from Monck’s part other than sending a telegram to England asking, “Yo, what’s up, dude?”, so I don’t see why Monck needs to go through all his trouble to set up such intrigue involving Robert. The set-up of Unmasked doesn’t come off as strong or even well thought-out.
If that’s not bad enough, so many scenes in this book are recycled from the author’s previous books. Am I the only one tired of every one of this author’s heroines licking a spoon under the hero’s lustful gaze? Or the heroine wanting to “tame” the hero after getting some sex advice (in this case, Velvet gets hers from a convenient journal left behind by her late grandmother)? If the characters, especially Velvet, show some consistency in their actions, perhaps the increasingly unimaginative recycling of scenes will be more palatable. As it is, Velvet swings from Charles II to Robert like the silly spoiled immature brat that she is and I really wish that the giant letters SO, SO TEDIOUS will crash down onto her head.
Unmasked may not be as vile as some of the author’s truly awful misses, but at the same time it is a truly uninspired showcase of shoddy writing, banal conversations, ill-developed subplots that rarely make sense, and some agonizing awful behavior from two characters who between the two of them won’t be able to spell “Peabrain” without using up all three helplines on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?. I think I’d prefer bad books that evoke passionate responses from me to truly boring and badly-written books like Unmasked that only makes me wonder why the author even bothered to write this book in the first place.