Romance, Historical, Contemporary, Paranormal, Young Adult, Book reviews, industry news, and commentary from a reader's point of view

Sherry Thomas

Dear Author

REVIEW: My Beautiful Enemy by Sherry Thomas

Dear Ms. Thomas,

Given the current (rocky) state of my relationship with historical romance, I approached your latest book with a certain amount of trepidation. When I’m in a slump, I’m always afraid that my mood will extend to the next book and jinx it somehow (while of course simultaneously hoping the next book will *break* the slump). I did have some hope in this case, though. If my issue with historical romance is at least in part that it all feels so same-old, same-old, I thought I was in safe hands here; a Sherry Thomas book is never boring.

The story opens with an action-packed prologue set on a ship crossing a storm-tossed ocean: Catherine Blade is waiting out the gale in her cabin when she hears an unusual noise, goes to investigate and finds an acquaintance, Mrs. Reynolds, bloodied and beaten. Mrs. Reynolds implores Catherine to go after her sister, Mrs. Chase, who has fled their attacker to the deck.

Catherine, who is more adept at dealing with mysterious assassins than your average Victorian heroine, vanquishes the villain on the deck and saves Mrs. Chase. In the course of a cinematic battle involving flying doors and improbably high vertical leaps, Catherine recognizes the attacker as Lin, an enemy whom she holds responsible for the death of her daughter. Catherine had believed Lin dead – beheaded – years before. Lin disappears over the side of the ship, presumably swallowed by the sea. (Am I spoiling anything if I add a skeptical “yeah, right?” Probably not.)

The next scene is marginally less dramatic, at least on the surface. Mrs. Reynolds and Mrs. Chase are being met in London by Mrs. Chase’s daughter, her daughter’s fiance and the fiance’s brother. Catherine is with them when she recognizes the fiance, Captain Leighton Atwood, as someone she’d known years before – a man she believed dead because she thought she’d killed him. (The first chapters of the book really give the impression that Catherine is really bad at knowing when people are dead, but it’s just a coincidence, I guess, that she happens to encounter two such people in quick succession.)

The story then switches to flashbacks. When Catherine and Leighton first meet, she is known as Ying-ying, though she does not actually give him that name or any other. Both are pretending to be someone else when they meet in a desert oasis in Chinese Turkestan. He sees through her male disguise and finds himself intrigued and attracted; they travel together for a short time, in spite of her wariness of him. They part, then meet again, eventually giving into the devastating attraction between them. But the differences between them and the secrets they keep from each other lead to distrust, a resolve on Leighton’s side that they must part, and finally Catherine’s admittedly somewhat rash decision to try to kill her lover.

Catherine began life in China as the illegitimate daughter of a Chinese woman and an Englishman who died before she was born. She is raised by her amah after her mother dies, and eventually by Da-ren, her stepfather and a high-ranking member of the Chinese royal family. She is in England (in the present storyline) on behalf of Da-ren hunting for two jade tablets, part of a triptych that are believed to contain clues to a hidden treasure (I wasn’t hugely fond of this rather silly aspect of the story). Catherine has been trained in certain arts that make her well-suited to the search. Further, the last possessor of one of the tablets was her beloved, murdered English tutor. She hopes to connect somehow with her memories of him while in England, as well as fulfilling her stepfather’s wish. She never expects to meet a ghost (never mind two) from her past.

As with most (all?) of the Sherry Thomas books that I’ve read, My Beautiful Enemy switches back and forth between two time periods, in this case 1883 and 1891. I recall being surprised to learn that many romance readers don’t like this device (of course, I was also surprised, once upon a time, to discover that a lot of romance readers HATED first-person narratives; I rather like them, at least if I like the narrator). I have to say, I’m not sure I quite get what the objection to flashbacks is. I think they function well in intertwining the meatiest parts of a story with the more prosaic parts, so that there aren’t many lulls in the dramatic tension. I don’t know; flashbacks usually work for me, especially the way this author does them.

The prologue of My Beautiful Enemy put me off slightly, for a couple of reasons. For one, I felt dumped into a chaotic scene with very little context (which may well have been intentional on the author’s part): we are introduced to a heroine who is unusual, to say the least, and shortly she encounters a mortal enemy whom she’d thought dead and we find that she’d lost a child in a horrendous way. It was a lot of pretty heavy information to have dumped on me as a reader before I’d gotten my bearings (and before I felt any connection to the characters). Also, I really didn’t love the martial arts fight Catherine engages in with Lin; it felt stagy and unrealistic, more suited to a fantasy-tinged kung fu film than to the sort of romance I favor (dramatic but rooted in reality). As well, it felt a little stereotypical: our heroine is (part) Asian; of course she’s trained to kill a man with her bare hands and her ingenuity.

But I came to realize that even if Catherine has some elements to her character that somehow manage to feel to me both high-concept and clichéd, she really is a unique and fully realized character. She was born into a world where her sex marked her as worthless, and her whole life is about proving her worth to those she loves: her mother, her amah, her tutor Gordon, Da-ren, Leighton. She has as strong a sense of duty as any romance protagonist I can think of. Once she was willing to give up everything for love, and that ended badly for her and it’s marked her life ever since.

Leighton feels a bit less finely drawn for much of the book; he’s closed up in both his past and present incarnations and even when we get his perspective it’s pretty opaque. For this reason, and a couple of others, I was firmly Team Catherine when they parted for the first time (even if her trying to kill him was clearly an overreaction).

One aspect of the story that I found strange was the role that Catherine’s racial heritage does (or rather doesn’t) play. There is no indication that Ying-ying’s being half-English/half-Chinese has any effect on her status in the household that she grows up in in China. I know nothing about that time/place/culture and so can’t say for certain that it would or should have been an issue, but it feels odd that it’s never even remarked upon. After her arrival in England, as far as I could tell, none of the people she meets are even aware that she’s half-Chinese, which again, struck me as odd. I sort of wondered – why make her biracial and then do nothing with it?

While we get plenty of flashbacks between the earlier meeting and the present day story, the details of both characters’ pasts only come out in dribs and drabs and really sort of have to be put together by the reader in the end; even then some holes remained. I have mixed feelings about that; on the one hand, I appreciate not having everything spoon-fed to me (when there is a bit of an info-dump concerning the reason for Lin’s enmity towards Ying-ying, it felt awkward and out of place). On the other hand, sometimes it almost felt like My Beautiful Enemy was a sequel to another book that better explained the h/h’s pasts. For Leighton, there is a lot of business having to do with his father, mother, uncle and brother, and I think I only ever understood half of it. For Catherine, there’s her relationship with her mother, her mother’s relationship with Da-ren, her amah (who apparently had some unique talents and a violent death that I didn’t really get), her tutor (his death was similarly murky), and an evil, lecherous stepbrother whose actions actually play a rather large part in Catherine’s life but who is otherwise only barely referenced a few times.

My Beautiful Enemy had some strong parallels to one of my favorite Laura Kinsale books, The Dream Hunter. Both concern an English hero in foreign lands meeting a heroine disguised as a boy, and switch back and forth between the past and a present in which the h/h must reconcile their misperceptions of each other with reality.  For reminding me of the Kinsale book (and not paling terribly in comparison), it qualifies as a strong success. My grade for this book is an A-.

Best regards,

Jennie

AmazonBNKoboAREBook DepositoryGoogle

REVIEW:  The Luckiest Lady in London by Sherry Thomas

REVIEW: The Luckiest Lady in London by Sherry Thomas

Dear Ms. Thomas:

I was intrigued to learn that this Victorian Era romance is a prequel to Private Arrangements, one of my very favorite books, and hoped that the story might coincide with a past incident mentioned in that. My wish was granted!

Luckiest Lady in London Sherry thomas

Recommended by Willaful ( A | BN | K | S | G) * Historical

Louisa Cantwell, the ordinary looking, penniless daughter of a failed fortune-hunter and Lord Wrenworth, an excessively wealthy and handsome lord, have a surprising amount in common. Both have a scientific bent, both are shrewed planners, and both are carefully presenting a charming facade to society. Louisa is doing everything in her power to appear likable and attractive, in hopes of making a decent match; Felix’s motives are a more complex reaction to his loveless upbringing. (Today, I think he might be diagnosed with an attachment disorder.) They’re twin souls, and they know it:

You, sir, are a scoundrel.

As if he’d heard her thought, he glanced her way. Their gazes held, a pair of miscreants recognizing each other in a roomful of upstanding people.

It lasted only a moment, but the sweetness of that secret communion lingered: a joy that was also an ache in her heart. They were two of a kind–she wished she wouldn’t need to always guard herself from him.

There are two other important qualities they share. They’re ferociously attracted to each other — and when that attraction eventually leads to marriage, they’re each determined to have a good time, while carefully guarding their hearts.

The first half of the story is thrillingly tantalizing, as Louisa and Felix engage in a battle of wits imbued with sexual tension. Wanting to make her his mistress, he tells her unpleasant stories about the men she has hopes of marrying; she gains the upper hand by describing, quite truthfully, erotic dreams she has about him. But they’re both far too careful to risk anything beyond illicit conversation:

She set her fingers on the handle of the walking stick, still warm with the heat of his hand.

“Very fine specimen you have here,” she said, a little shocked at both her words and her action.

She was caressing the part of him that he had chosen to extend to her person, her fingertips exploring every nook and cranny of the handle. His gaze, intense and heavy-lidded, traveled from her face to her uninhibited hand and back again.

Since there’s no legitimate plot reason for them to not just go ahead and get married, I was pleased when they did. The story then becomes about their fear of having real feelings for each other, especially for the deeply messed-up Felix.

As in other Thomas books such as Private Arrangements and Not Quite a Husband, sex is used here as kind of a barometer of an unhealthy relationship. It’s fierce, and sometimes ugly, and provides a very effective weapon for a Victorian man to use against a well-schooled Victorian woman. But despite hurt and humiliation, Louisa is a match for Felix even in this arena.

(This is the section of the book that overlaps with part of Private Arrangements. I found it a little disappointing, because what happened sounds so excruciating when Gigi mentions it and we don’t actually see much of her feelings here. But on reflection, it makes sense to keep Gigi’s angst out of this story and focus on Louisa and Felix — and the event does provide a great trigger for drama in their relationship.)

Felix and Louisa aren’t always the most likable people, though Louisa is fairly sympathetic; she’s not ruthless or avaricious, just trying to provide for herself and her family, and to protect herself from the man she quite intelligently distrusts. The emotional journey is largely Felix’s, as he discovers the limits of his charm and learns what it means to actually care for another person.

I very much enjoyed the clever structure of this story, and its effective heart-wrenching. One aspect that disappointed me was the primarily off-stage character of Louisa’s sister Matilda, one of her primary motivations for marrying well. At one point, Louisa thinks, “It would never have occurred to her to disparage another debutante for her own competitive advantage, not even with an epileptic sister as an excuse.” That sums it up pretty well — Louisa’s sister does come across as more an excuse than an actual person, and Louisa thinks of her in a condescending, pitying way that’s grating.

Although I wasn’t as powerfully swept away by this as by some of its predecessors, I can’t be unhappy with elegant writing, a good battle of wits with well-armed opponents, and a juicy jolt of vicarious suffering. B

Sincerely,

Willaful

AmazonBNSonyKoboAREBook DepositoryGoogle