Avon, $5.99, ISBN 0-06-057531-X
Historical Romance, 2006
The premise of Winds of the Storm itself is enough to justify picking up this book: it is not one usually encountered in a Western historical. Set eight years before the Great Exodus of 1879, when thousands and thousands of African-Americans migrated from the hostile post-Civil War South to hopefully greener pastures in the North, the South is in turmoil. The furious Redemptionists and the KKKs, which unfortunately comprise too many of the white folks of the South in that time, are on a bloody rampage on the recently “freed” black folks to avenge their defeat and the destruction of their life, homes, and all during the war.
It’s 1871 and our heroine Zahra Lafayette was a spy during the war, and a good one at that. I like this story already when Zahra sneaks in and rescues our hero Archer Le Veq while his Confederate captors are having a July 4th party. Having a hero being the one in distress and the heroine rescuing him with delightful efficiency is my idea of a great way to start a story, I tell you. But that is the prologue. Cut to 1871, a year later, where the spy known as Butterfly is now Zahra who is a simple laundress. Archer, whose family is a rich and influential one in New Orleans, has hung up his uniform and he now helps his brother Raimond (you will recognize him if you have read Through the Storm) run the family hotel, while hoping that he will never become the high-handed know-it-all like Raimond is.
When President Grant personally sends Zahra’s former superior to ask her to carry out one last undercover mission for the government, Zahra reluctantly agrees if only for a more covert reason: with the information she can get on the plans and movements of the Redemptionists and the KKKs in New Orleans, she can relay the information to her superior and the other relevant folks to help make the Exodus a reality. She knows very well that President Grant is merely trying to find an excuse to withdraw the Union soldiers from the South and therefore abandon the black people of the South to the mercy of the KKKs and the Redemptionists, so this is one mission that she does not intend to fail. Her mission involves her opening a brothel so that she will have access to the important men in the city. She will be the madam known as Domino due to the mask she always wears in public to hide her identity from anyone who may recognize her from her days as Butterfly, not that she intends to offer herself for sale, of course. Alas, being in New Orleans also means that she quickly crosses path with Archer again. He was weak when she saved him a while ago so now he doesn’t immediately recognize her, but attraction flares between the two of them nonetheless. While Archer is a good ally to have in this troubled time, Zahra is on a mission and she doesn’t intend to let Archer get under her skin. Oh no, what will happen to our intrepid twosome now?
The premise itself is one so full of promises of breathtaking bravery and exciting romance mixed with a hint of thrill at the danger around the characters, but unfortunately, pacing is the biggest problem with Winds of the Storm. A huge pity, indeed, that, because Zahra is one of the rare breed of heroines in the genre: she’s very good at what she does and while she’s not exactly Mata Hari when it comes to her sexual experiences, she doesn’t let her lack of familiarity with the sexual excesses in a brothel turn her into a stuttering idiot. She adapts, she learns, and she plays along – just like a good spy would, bless her! Archer is a decent mix of roguishness and reliability, which makes him an attractive hero indeed, but the poor fellow’s personality is overshadowed by Zahra’s larger-than-life persona. Still, he tugs at the heartstrings very well when at the end he actually lets his guard down and tells her that he needs her in his life and I want to cheer when he decides to actively not let Zahra walk away from him.
I believe some readers may not be happy by the fact that Zahra places what she believes to be the greater good over love since this is, after all, a romance novel, but I find that aspect of Zahra’s personality appealing, as a matter of fact. She is at the end of the day a spy with a mission to help her people find a better lives for themselves and I find it admirable that she will stick to her principles and goals. Of course, at the end of the day she also believes that, as a mere nobody, she is out of Archer’s league and she doesn’t want to be his mistress and watch him marry someone else as befitting a man of his pedigree, but Zahra isn’t being a complete martyr here – she really has her own things to do, such as reporting her findings to her superior and finding some long-needed closures in her life that doesn’t involve Archer. I am so thrilled beyond words to find a heroine who for once doesn’t base her life and expectations solely around the hero, I could have given Ms Jenkins a big hug if she is standing right before me when I close the book.
But yes, let’s talk about pacing. This book has a huge sagging middle that does not seem to belong to the same book as the turbulent first quarter and last quarter portions of the book. This middle portion has Zahra overseeing the brothel like it’s nothing more than a cozy soiree house with the prostitutes with hearts of gold giving the place a happy vibe that is way too Brady Bunch-like for my liking. The story slows to a snail’s pace as descriptions of furniture, the lazy repartees between Zahra and Archer, and the predictable demonization of Archer’s mistress all contribute to my sense of ennui as I slough through these chapters. I find myself wondering why Ms Jenkins aren’t doing more to further the exciting plot of intrigues that she has set up. Where are the intrigue, the espionage, the furtive adventures of Zohra the Kickass Spy? Why am I getting the Happy Adventures of Madame Domino of the Gentlemen’s Club Playing Footsie with the Town Playboy?
Winds of the Storm ultimately has a great premise and the main characters have plenty of potential to be larger-than-life and wonderful, but the way the story is executed has me feeling that perhaps the plot is too big for this story. There should be more drama and excitement, I can’t help feeling, and when the story flattens into a lazy kind of idyll towards the middle of the story during which this story could have taken place easily without the whole Big Plot that sets up the story, it is perhaps inevitable that I feel cheated a little.