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18th-century

REVIEW:  The Double Cross (The Spanish Brand Series) by Carla Kelly

REVIEW: The Double Cross (The Spanish Brand Series) by Carla...

double-cross

The year is 1780, and Marco Mondragón is a brand inspector in the royal Spanish colony of New Mexico. A widower and rancher, Marco lives on the edge of Comanchería, the domain of the fierce Comanche. Each autumn, he takes cattle and wool, and his district’s records of livestock transactions to the governor in Santa Fe. He is dedicated, conscientious and lonely.

This year, he is looking for a little dog to keep his feet warm through cold winter nights. He finds a yellow dog but also meets a young, blue-eyed beauty named Paloma Vega. Paloma is under the thumb of relatives who might have stolen a brand belonging to Paloma’s parents, dead in a Comanche raid. As a brand inspector, Marco has every right to be suspicious of brand thieves. If Marco has anything to do with it, Paloma’s fortunes are about to change.

Meanwhile, Marco has other challenges to contend with. An elderly ranchero named Joaquin Muñoz has set in motion events that involve the ever-dangerous Comanches and threaten the uneasy peace of Marco’s jurisdiction. Set against the mountains and high plains of northeastern New Mexico during the decline of Spanish power in the New World, The Double Cross is a story of loss and love regained, at a time when honor went hand in glove with bravery, and danger was never far away.

Dear Ms Kelly,

When I heard that your latest project was going to be a book set in 1780 in New Mexico, I was excited. I began reading your Regencies first but your westerns have always proved to be among my favorites and since the readers at DA are looking for something other than the usual settings, reading it for my next book seemed a great idea.

Brava for having mainly Latino leads and secondary characters in a setting little used in romances – 1780 pre-gringo New Mexico. There is also a sympathetic Kwahadi Comanche character who is not either a villain or a Noble Red Man stereotype. Lots of the secondary characters are priests which makes sense in a world where religion and faith are inculcated from birth and central in the lives of the inhabitants. Marco and Paloma don’t just give lip service to the Church, they are faithful worshipers who pray daily, adhere to the tenants of Catholicism and really mean it.

There seem to be two kinds of Kelly characters – the good ones and the evil ones. You usually have very little gray. I have to be honest and say that here even when some shading is added to a character, I don’t always truly feel it. Paloma is treated badly by her relations but she confounds her husband and another person when she expresses ultimate sympathy for how poorly her cousin was raised and the challenges this person faces in her new life on the frontier. Paloma has good reason to fear Comanches but after a brief period of hesitancy on her part to help one, she soon seems to become his nurse and advocate. A few references are made about how she wishes Toshua would just leave but they seem more lip service.

Still, I don’t mind that these characters are not too different from your usual ones. They aren’t. But I like reading about nice people who find love amidst their angst and issues. The main difference I find are the settings used and the way they’re used. By that I mean this is a western but not a 19th century American frontier western. The book also focuses on things new to me such as Marco’s position as Juez de campo which earns him the de facto role as lawman of the area. I’m curious as to whether or not the description of Marco’s hacienda matches an actual one of the time. Reading about its construction and the 24/7 safety precautions carried out, I really got a feel for the fear of Comanche raids under which these people lived.

Marco is a man scared by the tragic loss of his wife and children to disease. As such he’s put off remarrying for eight years. When he sees Paloma, he begins to just think about the possibility which I like much better than having him suddenly be ready to jump right into marriage. Paloma has almost given up all hope of a family of her own as she has no dowry and has reached the decrepit old age of (gasp) eighteen. Thank you for making the point that women of this age expected to marry young and including it in the story.

Also bravo that Marco is a man who likes to see a little meat on his heroine’s bones. He’s not all ‘ooh, she’s sylph-ish and slender’ he’s ‘let’s get some weight on her and fill her out.’ There’s lots of sex compared to your old Regencies. These two are like rabbits! The sex though seems to mean something to each of them and serves to bring them closer as a married couple rather than just being perfunctory.

I’m not sure about all the Comanche information. I didn’t think they ever ate dog – not that this happens here. I also wasn’t sure how a warrior would ever remain a slave but the fact that he’s apparently older and has been cast out by the tribe helps me believe it.

I saw somewhere that you hope for this to become a series. When I started it, I hoped that the book would be complete on it’s own rather than ending with untied plot threads. After finishing it, I believe you’ve left yourself some issues to revisit and possibly resolve but that the book can also stand on its own. I would enjoy coming back again to see more of these characters and especially discover if Paloma gets her heart’s wish. B

~Jayne

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REVIEW:  Palace of Spies by Sarah Zettel

REVIEW: Palace of Spies by Sarah Zettel

Palace-of-Spies

A warning to all young ladies of delicate breeding who wish to embark upon lives of adventure: Don’t.
Sixteen-year-old Peggy is a well-bred orphan who is coerced into posing as a lady in waiting at the palace of King George I. Life is grand, until Peggy starts to suspect that the girl she’s impersonating might have been murdered. Unless Peggy can discover the truth, she might be doomed to the same terrible fate. But in a court of shadows and intrigue, anyone could be a spy—perhaps even the handsome young artist with whom Peggy is falling in love . . .

Dear Ms. Zettel,

Years ago I read “In Camelot’s Shadow” and enjoyed it so much that I’ve always meant to read more of your work. Ah, the best laid plans and all that but it took until I saw this book offered on Netgalley for me to follow up on my intentions. The premise of a YA spy at the court of George I – be still my heart, not only a Georgian book but *the* original George at that – was almost too delicious to be true. The clothes, the wigs, the courtiers and the danger – “bring it” I thought.

The plot is fairly complicated with layers upon layers upon layers of dark subterfuge, confused meanings, cross purposes and hidden loyalties. Then add the usual court intrigues, back stabbings, lies and malice to achieve a foul maze that our heroine Peggy must navigate in order to save her head, avert a royal disaster and perhaps discover love.

Frankly all the convoluted, dark twists of the plot left me scratching my head at times trying to keep up with who was on what side, who had done what to whom and where it was all going. As confusing as all this is at times, it also makes a bit of sense in that Peggy is rarely told the truth by several people who are at their own cross purposes and often figuratively holding blackmail “daggers” to each others throats. The behind the scenes dealings of the high and mighty are seldom neat and clean and at this point in English history, things were mucked up to beat the band.

As the story took yet another turn and Peggy stumbled along trying to find her way, I had to keep reminding myself that no, she wouldn’t know everything, she would have to puzzle it all out and the clues she had to deal with wouldn’t be immediately obvious to her since she still couldn’t see the “big picture” so to speak. Most everything was explained in the end though, enough that I’m eager to see if she and her little band will return for further adventures.

What did delight me was a bit of immersion into life in London and Hampton Court Palace in 1716. Peggy is often at the mercy of men including her cold uncle, her slimy almost fiancé and the two men involved in her charade at court. She gains agency as she grows in confidence but it still felt period for her to frustrated in what she could realistically do and in being beholden to others. I enjoyed watching her use her mind and thrill to be in the presence of the movers and shakers of the day, to listen to the conversations held by Princess Caroline with learned men and to wish to take part in them. Peggy might not know precisely what she’s stumbled into but she’s not dumb.

Her possible romance is sweet as well. She’s no prude, as her reaction to one scene shows and as would make sense ‘back in that day’ as she explains it, but she’s also not going to jump into bed with someone just to get a sex scene in the book by a specific page count. I think teenagers actually can read this book without their parents worrying about what they might be seeing.

Still, I think a little background research into the personages and politics of the day would serve the casual reader well. Some explanation is given but, if you don’t know your Hanoverians from your Jacobites, initial floundering might ensue. I have discovered a liking for Princess Caroline and must read up some more on her as well. There is also one revelation about the real person Peggy is impersonating that had me scratching my head and trying to figure out how she would originally have gained her place at court. But, as I said earlier, I liked what I read and would definitely come back for more. B

~Jayne

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