Dear Ms. Willig,
Oh, what I’ve been missing by not reading your books earlier. Now having devoured “Pink Carnation” and the newest in the series, “The Seduction of the Crimson Rose,” I’ve been sucked in by your witty style, your fun characters and the entire world of early 19th century flower spies. What I still wonder is how on earth you have time to write these books and also be a NYC lawyer? Have you cloned yourself?
I haven’t gone back yet and read “Black Tulip” nor “Emerald Ring” but one thing that really impressed me while reading “Crimson Rose” is how you don’t rehash everything that happened in those books nor drag the heroes and heroines from those stories unnecessarily into this one. I usually prefer to read a series in order so that I won’t come across spoilers in later books that will ruin the reading experience of earlier ones. Sure I know some of what will happen in the two books I haven’t read but nothing that dims my desire to actually read them.
Miss Mary Alsworthy was mentioned, and not flatteringly, in “Pink Carnation” as a Regency woman on the make. You had two of your heroes hoping that a friend would escape her which indeed he did. Now we get to see her side of the story and it’s one that probably won’t win her any heroine of the year awards. And yet, how different is she really from countless heroines I’ve read about who are only trying to secure themselves a place in their world as they know it? A Regency woman needed to either marry fairly well or accept a place as a lifelong dependent as few could live independently. Mary, as the eldest daughter of a slightly impoverished family, had always expected to marry first and be the one who supplied the means to her younger sister and brother to advance in their world.
Now her younger sister has, in Mary’s viewpoint, usurped that role and with the man Mary had planned to marry no less. Okay, she didn’t really love him and wasn’t broken up not to marry him, but she does covet the position she lost and chafes at suddenly being the one under the control of her married sister. I think you did a great job showing us the frustration Mary feels at her secondary position and how while she doesn’t really hate her sister or brother-in-law she doesn’t like the horrible thought of living with them nor accepting enough money from them for a fourth Season. It neatly sets up her temptation to fall in with the plans that Lord Sebastien Vaughn.
Vaughn is a dark character. As he said of himself, he thought once to be a wit but has now settle for being a cynic. A throwback from the just ended 18th century, he wears dark clothes, utters cutting comments and offers Mary a way out of the humiliating position of accepting help from her managing younger sister. The League of the Pink Carnation needs to discover the identity of the French spy known as the Black Tulip. Though English spies have been trying for over a decade to unmask him, the situation has taken on new urgency due to Napolean’s planned invasion of England. Due to past circumstances, Vaughn owes the Pink Carnation and agrees to lure Mary for their use. Mary negotiates a shrewd payment, she’ll agree to act as bait for the French spy in return for the money needed to pay for one last Season. Vaughn finds himself impressed by her intelligent bargaining and their association begins.
I loved listening in on Mary and Vaughn’s conversations. Each is determined to linguistically come out on top and both manage to win an equal number of times. As they interact, they discover how alike they are yet manage to ruthlessly control the desire each feels growing for the other. They know a romantic relationship isn’t possible, Vaughn has been completely honest about that from the start and sticks to his guns for reasons you disclose later, so they can enjoy insulting each other with abandon.
For a long moment, he held her gaze without speaking, simply letting the impact of his words sink in, before adding rapidly, as though he wished to get it over with as quickly as possible, “I won’t deny that you’re beautiful. No mirror could tell you otherwise. But there are beautiful women for the buying in any brothel in London. Oh yes, and the ballrooms, too, if one has the proper price. It wasn’t your appearance that caught me. It was the way you put me down in the gallery at Sibley Court.” Vaughn’s lips curved in a reminiscent smile. “And the way you tried to bargain with me after.”
“Successfully bargained,” Mary corrected.
“That,” replied Lord Vaughn, “is exactly what I mean. Has anyone ever told you that you haggle divinely? That the simple beauty of your self-interest is enough to bring a man to his knees?”
Mary couldn’t in honesty say that anyone had.
Vaughn’s eyes were as hard and bright as silver coins. “Those are the reasons I want you. I want you for your cunning mind and your hard heart, for your indomitable spirit and your scheming soul, for they’re more honest by far than any of the so-called virtues.”
These two are made for each other and indeed would over power most other characters. Often such strong people are paired with someone who is their opposite, who acts to redeem them and or soften them. Vaughn and Mary strike sparks from the beginning and in the end, are forged into something even stronger. No they aren’t always kind, often work only for their own interest but (and I say this with relish) I like them!
Another thing I actually enjoyed is the fact that not all the characters get along with the others. Vaughn and Mary actually find some of the earlier characters fairly insipid while they themselves are viewed as cynical and jaded. I found this refreshing. After all, families may love each other but that’s no reason they have to get along all the time nor enjoy the same friends.
The identity of the Black Tulip was a surprise and like Vaughn is something of a look backward to the now gone 18th century. The reasoning behind the spy’s actions does make sense as does the intelligence behind Napolean’s support for him. I don’t recall many clues throughout the book that would have pointed me in the direction needed to unmask the Tulip but to be honest, I think any would have been too many and have given the game away too easily. Also, I like that the story tries to stay mainly on the relationship between Vaughn and Mary rather than them trying to discover who the Tulip is.
As in all the books in the series, you also give us the slowly advancing modern romance between the American grad student trying to discover the indentities of the floral spies and the descendent of one of them who appears to have his reasons for not Revealing All. I’m savoring the thought that I still have two already published books left to read and hope that I can make them last until the next in this series is published. B+