The last week has been BUSY here in the land of books and festivals… and Book Festivals. My last post was a huge hint as to what I have been reading for something frothy and stress free-smut. Over the last week I escaped a bit with The Orchid Affair, The Betrayal of the Blood Lily, and The Temptation of the Night Jasmine in that order- the wrong order as it turned out.
The general premise of Willig’s series is Eloise, a young woman in contemporary times, is researching espionage of the Napoleonic Wars in a world where the exploits of The Scarlet Pimpernel were real. As her research unfolds, she discovers more spies with a nom de fleur (as it were). Each entry in the series tells the tale of another plot and the resulting unintended love match with patches of Eloise and her own love life interspersed.
Willig’s degree in History takes these from typical “historical romance” fare to something a little more engaging. As I said, I was not paying attention and read these three in reverse order but I will present them in the proper sequence.
The Temptation of the Night Jasmine
The romantic stage is set for Charlotte Lansdowne and Robert, Duke of Dovedale in the fifth entry into the series. Charlotte fell in love with Robert, her cousin (distant, we are assured), while she was not yet a teen before he abruptly left the family estate for India. Years passed without much word of her knight errant until he unexpectedly reappears on Christmas Eve. There is a prolonged make-out session before Robert splits to pursue vengeance unbeknownst to Charlotte, who is left to wonder where her hero has gone.
The intrigue in this one revolves around the betrayal of Robert’s mentor and father-figure in India. His killer, the Night Jasmine, is a flowery spy for the French who is plotting against the English monarchy by kidnapping “mad” King George. Aiding the French traitor is the Hellfire Club, a secret society of noble men who could hardly be called such.
This was my least favorite of the three and does not rank high in the series as a whole for me. Still, the characters are likeable and the plot is cleverly based on historical record, so I had no trouble finishing it. The return of some familiar characters was a fun addition that was well executed. The romance was so-so. A childhood crush and some kissing with a lot of misunderstandings might work for many romances, but I have always liked Willig for making the drama more about the rich historical plots not over-emotional characters.
The Betrayal of the Blood Lily
Penelope, who is actually introduced in Night Jasmine, has ruined her reputation and finds herself Lady Fredrick Staines. As the story opens she has just arrived in India with her foolish, idle, and debauched husband Freddy. In Freddy, Willig has created a truly detestable character- which is great because she also introduces his perfect foil, Captain Alex Reid. The romance between Alex and Penelope builds slowly and is very well written. I really enjoyed this plot. The love triangle (maybe entanglement?), the non-traditional locale, and the very tricky emotions involved were deftly handled by Willig.
Penelope, due to Freddy’s position, finds herself embroiled in the messy politics of Colonial India. With native and British factions fighting to different ends, Pen quickly sees what her thick, spoiled husband does not. She reluctantly learns from Captain Reid, who was born and raised in India, the English vision of India isn’t quite reality. Unfortunately, the stakes are high and men will fall before the traitor is outed.
Props to Willig for creating a complicated relationship and placing it in any other part of the British Empire than the British Isles- especially for choosing India. If it was not for the appearance of Charlotte and Robert stopping in for a visit near the end, it could almost be forgotten this was part of a very English series. I also appreciate the way Pen’s character develops from a hard but lost young lady to a tough, mature, and independent woman.
The Orchid Affair
Laura Grey, former governess, is a recent graduate of the Selwick Spy School. Her first assignment? Governess to the children of Andre Jaouen, aide to Gaston Delaroche, Bonaparte’s minister of police, to uncover whether factions in France are attempting to restore the monarchy. Though positioned behind enemy lines, at first the most she has to fear is losing her patience with the children. As factors lead her to suspect Jaouen, Laura also finds herself struggling to believe the man she sees at home he is an enemy. As events unfold, Laura and Jaouen must escape from the ruthless Delaroche and warn the royalists and the English.
The romance and espionage combine wonderfully in this entry. I found Andre’s character especially well thought-out. Neither historical nor modern lit often look at disillusioned revolutionaries, of which there must have been many. Andre, a lawyer who believed in “liberté, égalité, fraternité”, fought for the revolution only to watch as his republican ideals were laid to waste by cruel and power crazed men like Robespierre. I found the “ever after” in this one particularly happy and fitting.
In regards to the series as a whole, there is one aspect that bothers me. The Eloise plot lines have become an unwelcome interruption. Willig’s historical characters are usually interesting enough and well placed in exciting situations. She then douses the reader periodically with cold water in the form of Eloise, who is constantly worrying about her boyfriend, who is actually perfect except for his spoiled family. At this point, I skim these pages to have a general idea of whether she and her boyfriend are still together and get an idea of what his family is plotting this time around.
Complaint aside, Willig is one of my favorite romance writers publishing today. Who are some of your favorite romance writers?