REVIEW: Scoundrel by Zoe Archer
Dear Ms. Archer:
This review is testimony to the strength of the second half of Scoundrel. A strong beginning plus a strong ending almost eclipses a somewhat muddled middle of this romantic adventure. Still, the unique and well-described setting (Greece), likeable characters, enjoyable and fun adventure tale, and the interesting fantasy aspects of the book made it a relatively strong read for me.
Bennett Day is, undeniably, a scoundrel. When we first meet him, he is careening through the narrow streets of Athens, trying to dodge an angry husband. As a Blade of the Rose, Bennett spends his life working to defeat the Heirs of Albion, an organization of men that seeks out and uses magic to preserve the international dominance of England and the English. The Heirs pursue magical "Sources" around the world with which they can subjugate non-English peoples and countries, while the Blades try to keep these Sources safe from the Heirs.
The Blades might be characterized as the humanitarians, and Bennett took seriously his love for fellow humans, especially female humans. Bedding the wife of an Heir while searching for a hidden document was, as far as Bennett was concerned, a benefit of an otherwise dangerous job. Although once the husband barged after him, Bennett indulged in another carnal pleasure, that of showing off his athletic prowess. For as a Blade, Bennett could use no magic not gifted to him or possessed by him naturally, so he had to rely on his agility, intelligence, and, sometimes, brute strength, to keep him and the Blades' work safe.
London Edgeworth Harcourt could certainly appreciate Bennett's charms, even though as a proper English lady and a widow just coming out of mourning, she could only look on as Bennett defended her against a dishonest vendor of fake Greek antiquities. London knew the pottery shards were fake because she had mastered, in her solitary life as an unhappy wife and a restless widow, numerous ancient dialects, some of which were known to only a handful of men and her. While her father views her as largely ornamental and groomed for life as a noble wife, London is not so keen on going back to an unsatisfying existence as some man's accessory. For the first time London feels a vitality that makes her yearn for more, even if she cannot conceptualize or articulate what that might be.
The reader, of course, knows that "more" is partially embodied in Bennett Day, who is instantly impressed not only with London's exquisite beauty, but also with the spark of intelligence and independence he perceives in her, not to mention "an air of untapped carnal potential." Between them is a "hot current" of energy that becomes absolutely explosive once Bennett realizes that London is the daughter of one of the most powerful Heirs – as well as the widow of a man Bennett killed. Is London a tool of the Heirs planted to trick and seduce Bennett, or is she an innocent victim of her father and late husband's nationalist obsessions? There is only one way to find out, if only Bennett can get London away from her father for a short while.
Before London's abduction, she knew nothing of her father's life as an Heir, never suspected such an organization – or its counter-force – existed. The shock of hearing everything Bennett had to tell her, and her natural resistance to anything this lying stranger tried to tell her, forces her to find out for herself what her father is about. And much to her chagrin, she finds out far more than she ever wanted to know about who Joseph Edgeworth really was and how he viewed London, namely not as an intelligent woman of burgeoning independence. Edgeworth's obvious plans to marry London off to another one of his boorish Heir cronies force London to make a terrible choice – remain the possession of a man who has no respect for London as a person or team up with her captor and his cronies, whose promises of safety and humanity London has no impersonal way of confirming.
Roughly the first half of Scoundrel is adventurous romance. The Heirs seek the magical Source of "Greek Fire," which would serve as a powerful weapon in their agenda to preserve England's world domination. Bennett, along with Greek witch Athena Galanos and veteran seaman/ship's captain Nikos Kallas, must unlock the mystery of Greek Fire's location on a remote island before the Heirs can do the same. London is, understandably, dazed, confused, and almost disbelieving of her father's true identity and occupation. But she is also deeply attracted to Bennett and hesitantly optimistic that she will not have to go back to an isolated domestic life where she would be, once again, "like a specter haunting her own marriage." The thought of being able to use her language skills and live a fuller life buoys her up against the clinging fear of what will happen to her once her voyage with Bennett and the Blades is over.
Bennett does not share London's ambivalence, but he is shocked at the strength of his attraction to her. Bennett understands himself as a somewhat cynical man who is nevertheless able to love "'every woman [he's] with. Some of them [he] doesn't even take to bed.'" In other words, he's the classic rogue:
"You know women, that I'll allow," Athena said, "However, even you can be played false by a pretty face and a lovely bosom, Day."
"No doubt I've been lied to," he agreed cheerfully. "'You're only the second man I've been with, Bennett,' "My husband's not at all jealous, Bennett,' "I like it gentle, Bennett' – the usual games and tricks. Sometimes, I even believe them. But London Edgeworth is as beautiful as she is innocent."
"No woman is truly innocent," Athena said, "Especially not the beautiful ones."
"That's why I love them."
What seems to set London apart in Bennett's mind and heart is her bravery and intelligence, her plucky determination to leave everything she knows and that keeps her safe to accompany Day on such a dangerous journey. More than a few times I was reminded of the way Rupert Carsington admires Daphne in Loretta Chase's Mr. Impossible, and indeed, the bluestocking/rogue match is a venerable Romance tradition. If you’re one of those readers who still enjoys watching the hero discover that he’s deeper than he thought, while the heroine discovers she’s stronger than she thought, you will likely enjoy Bennett and London, who are somewhat classic but still well-drawn examples of those genre archetypes.
I have to say, though, that despite a very entertaining and fast-paced beginning scene, the romantic build-up in the novel presented several issues for me. First, I really, really, really have grown frustrated with the instant lust device. As a reader, I can completely trust the happy romantic union of a couple who do not have all sorts of burgeoning, tightening, slickening body parts upon first sight of each other, and that includes Bennett and London. Related to that is the way their romance is chronicled through what must be nearly every lusty thought they have about each other, at every moment they have it. Yes, I'm exaggerating (probably), but I felt there was a great deal of telling during this section of the novel, which competed frustratingly with the pace of the adventure plot.
I think I was even more sensitive to this because of London's previously untroubled relationship with her father. Within a matter of hours, London went from clueless but protected and wealthy woman with an illicit linguistics hobby to a refugee with an uncertain future and revelations of familial evil to absorb. And while there are several moments where London does demonstrate awareness of this disconnect and worry expectedly about where her life is going and how confusing her relationship with her father now is, I felt that London was just a bit too resilient for her circumstances. And the mutual lust she shared with Bennett threatened to minimize the trauma even more.
Fortunately, once the initial romantic bond is forged between Bennett and London, the adventure plot can proceed more prominently and smoothly, and it is at that point the novel really takes off. While it took me days to get through the first half, it took me mere hours to get through the second half. All of the things I liked most about the book – the Greek setting, the cultural and mythological references, the nationalistic v. humanitarian conflict, the way the magic blended with Greek history and myth – started to sync together nicely as Bennett and London struggle to find and save Greek Fire from the always-on-their-heels Heirs. And while I have not said a lot about Athena and Nikos, they are actively engaged with Bennett and London in figuring out and facilitating the Source’s location and safety, helping to keep the story and action dynamic.
Despite the plethora of paranormals, good, rollicking adventure-themed Romance seems to me in somewhat short supply. Scoundrel is sort of “Indiana Jones” meets the The Odyssey meets pirate Romance, and one of the book's real strengths is that is makes good use of Greek literary history and myth, from the massive Colossus of Rhodes to the Nereids to the whole concept of the mythical quest. The magic, contextualized in this way (as well as a vaguely steampunk science way), does not come across as corny or forced, and there were a number of sections that were quite cinematic. One of the other things I appreciated was the self-conscious humor injected into some of the more swashbuckling scenes. For example, when Bennett and London enter a hidden temple in pursuit of the Source, Bennett reminds London to be careful because there's "'[n]othing the ancients love more than booby traps.'" Of course there's nothing adventurists and adventure books and movies love more than booby traps, as well, which is wryly acknowledged in Bennett's observation that touching the source could trigger just such a trap, because that "'[h]appens a lot in this situation.'" That indication that the author is winking just a little as her characters are working out the puzzle she's created for them is one of the nice touches in the book.
In fact, for me it was the adventure aspects of the book that worked best for me and seemed most fluidly written. The humor was both sharper and lighter, the romance more naturally expressed, and the political issues between the Heirs and the Blades more meaningfully contextualized. The whole "women are fragile flowers or ruined whores' mantra of the Heirs, especially London's father, was pretty heavy-handed, as was the "the Blades are democratic – we let women into our club' counter-message. The political conflict was actually very interesting and I would have loved a bit more nuance in the way it was developed.
Still, the buoyancy of the adventure plot, the ways in which London was an integral member of the Blades team and an essential component in obtaining the source (hint: she's an Oracle based on her own language skills), the nice way the romance and quest arcs dovetail, and one of the most fun declaration of love scenes I've read in Romance novel in a very long time, Scoundrel ended as a solid B read for me. I especially look forward to the next two books, one of which features a Native American hero (Rebel), and the other a Black hero (Stranger). Hopefully there will be a lot more adventure ahead.