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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

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REVIEW:  Beauvallet by Georgette Heyer

REVIEW: Beauvallet by Georgette Heyer

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Dear Readers,

If you’ve never read anything by Georgette Heyer beyond her Regencies, or you’re not interested in prissy Regencies, preferring action and adventure, then do yourself a favor and try this one. It might be that because my introduction to Heyer was through her Georgians and Beauvallet that this is where my preference lies but, honestly I think it’s because these are just darn good books.

What’s the plot? Doña Dominica de Rada y Sylva is on her way back to Spain with her ailing father from his administrative post in the New World. The captain of the ship taking them home spies a vessel he knows is captained by English privateer Nicholas Beauvallet and, unable to resist trying to bring this most hated man in Spain to justice, he orders his men to open fire. Never one to turn down a challenge, Nick and his crew respond and the battle is on. Unfortunately for the Spanish captain, the fight is short, the English win and he and his crew are put in lifeboats and advised to sail to the nearest island.

Dominica is no shrinking violet and loudly states her opinion of Nicholas and the English. It’s not pretty. But Nick laughingly dismisses her tantrums and sees that she and her father, as well as her duenna and their belongings are transferred to his ship. What are his intentions, he’s asked – or is challenged depending on who’s doing to speaking? Why, to carry them both back to Spain. Doesn’t he know he’s a wanted man in Spain? Yes, but he’s not going to let a little trifling like that stop him.

As they sail across the Atlantic, Dominica pouts, sulks, flirts with others and generally tries to act as if she doesn’t care. Something that is negated by the fact that she can’t stop asking Nick’s valet and first lieutenant about him. He, on the other hand, is bluntly open and honest about the fact that he’s in love with her and wants to marry her. It’s only in the finale of the voyage that Dominica is honest with herself as well. But what’s to do? Nick has promised to set them down on Spanish soil and he’s a man of his word.

He promises to come back for her before the year is out but Dominica is a realist at last and knows his chances are slim to none that he could pull off getting her out of a land which wants him dead, dead and then a little more dead. She doesn’t count on three things. One – he doesn’t turn down a challenge. Two – he’s a man of his word. Three – his family motto is “Reck Not!”

This book really needs to be read while listening to a soundtrack by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Something dashing, with lots of trumpets blaring to stir the blood and make you think swashbuckler-y thoughts then a switch to lush violins for the romance. Warner Brothers should have made this in a movie as it’s packed with derring-do, panache, boldness, cunning and laughs.

Okay first let me list some reasons you might not like this book and get them out of the way. Nick calls Dominica “child” a lot and there’s an obvious difference in their maturity levels. This is slightly off putting to me but not as much as it would be in a more contemporary novel. Dominica is headstrong as is the case with a lot of historic Heyer heroines and worse, she’s a high spirited aristocrat though she doesn’t annoy me as much as Leonie from “These Old Shades.” A lot of time is spent early in the book detailing the Beauvallet homestead in Hampshire with lots of noblesse oblige and brow knuckling servants who are just damn happy to please the Quality. None of this lasts long and the book is soon off and soaring into high adventure but I thought I’d mention all this and the fact that it’s soon finished in case anyone thinks they’re going to get bogged down in it for the duration.

Now for the good stuff. Nick is bursting with energy and vitality and goes straight for what he wants. What keeps him from being overbearing is by being easily cowed by some of Dominica’s whiles and stratagems – though others he sees through and chuckles at. When he tells her that he loves her, he means it and no second guessing.

By the time the action moves to Spain, Dominica begins to show some spirit that I can actually admire instead of her highstrung antics aboard the Venture. She sharpens her wits on the situation, displays herself better and shows herself a worthy woman whom man like Beauvallet would find a satisfying life with. Pretty only goes so far.

For Nick “failure is not an option” not because he’s going to push past anything and triumph against all odds – he just doesn’t ever think he’s not going to come out on top and with what he wants. “Can’t, won’t, unable” are words that aren’t in his vocabulary – he cheerfully can’t conceive of them. His daring escape from prison in Madrid will make your blood sing with excitement. I can feel the sheer joy of it leap off the pages as Nick improvises and charges headlong at all obstacles. Reck Not! indeed.

Still though Nick is usually devil-may-care about most things, when something stands between he and what he wants – he will buckle down and do what he must – such as when he told Dominca’s Aunt Beatrice had she been a man, he would have killed her if she continued to try and thwart him.

There are two secondary characters I have to mention as well. I had forgotten the character of Nick’s valet Joshua Dimmick – what fun. I love his running monologues as he talks to himself, using great language. Is it period or just made up? I had so much fun reading it that I don’t care. At least then you could still get good family retainers and valets. And I almost admire Senora Beatriz who has the wit to admire her foes when they act bravely, display courage and almost beat her. I pity her her weak husband and indolent fool of a son. What she could have accomplished without them as millstones around her neck.

A good pace is maintained throughout. There’s tension where it’s needed and high spirits anon. The fights are more hinted at but there’s enough to follow what’s going on and add color to the narrative. The romance is stirring and the ending will keep you glued to the pages. I do think Nick acted wisely in not telling his Queen his true reason to head to Spain, though. If you’ve only read the Heyer Regencies, treat yourself and give this one a try. A-

~Jayne

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