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Victorian era

REVIEW:  Always a Stranger by Amara Royce

REVIEW: Always a Stranger by Amara Royce

Dear Ms. Royce,

I decided to try Always a Stranger, the second in your Victorian Era set historical romance series, because it sounded unconventional and different. The fact that I enjoy your Twitter presence did not hurt either.

Always-a-StrangerSet in the 1850s against the backdrop of the Great Exhibition which was held in London’s Crystal Palace, Always a Stranger begins with the performance of a fan dance. The dancer is a graceful Japanese woman. Observing her is Skyler, Lord Ridgemont, and as he watches her he forgets to breathe.

Sky has only recently inherited his earldom, following the deaths of his father and brother, and as a second son, he never expected to become earl, nor does he feel suited for that position. He also wasn’t expected to inherit by his family members, and they are having difficulty accepting this, as his cousin the Marquess of Bartwell reminds him.

Bartwell lusts after the same fan dancer who has caught Sky’s attention, and he tries to insist that Sky introduce him to her in his capacity as an official representative of the Royal Commission which oversees the Great Exhibition, but Sky refuses, since the exhibition must remain above reproach.

After Bartwell departs, Sky looks for the dancer—he needs to ask her where he can find the troupe’s manager so the latter can sign a contract—but she disappears. He sees another performer, a boy who bears a family resemblance to her, but the child appears unable to answer his questions in English.

Sky has another near miss with the dancer, and another encounter with the boy following a disturbing knife-juggling performance by the child. He is starting to despair of ever being able to speak with the dancer when he meets her at one of his eccentric aunt Lady Devin’s dinner parties.

The dancer introduces herself as Miss Hanako Sumaki. She is not just a talented performer, but a good translator, possessed of an unusual facility with languages and fluency in twenty of them. Miss Sumaki explains to Sky that she serves her employer, Mr. Broek, as a translator on his travels, and is present at the dinner to translate for a man named Mr. Jarlsberg.

Jarlsberg insists that Miss Sumaki’s employer told him she could be engaged for additional services; Miss Sumaki insists otherwise.

What Sky doesn’t yet know is that Hana, as she is called, is working for Mr. Broek under duress. Broek is not only her employer, but also her guardian—and that of her ten year old sister, Takara.

Broek runs a human trafficking operation, with women brought from the Far East to England to be raped by Mr. Broke’s clients. Broek plans to auction the women, including Hana who alone among them has remained a virgin (in order to drive up her price, though given the other women’s status, this read a bit contrived).

Broek has promised Hana that no harm will come to Takara as long as Hana obeys him, and by holding her sister’s safety over her head, he forces Hana to go along with his plans.

Immediately following the dinner party, Mr. Jarlsberg and Hana leave the room. Sky finds them in an altercation. Before he decides whether to intervene, Hana defends herself very ably. He behaves inappropriately in Hana’s presence, and Hana chastises him for not stepping in when he had the opportunity. Later, grateful for his help, she kisses him on the cheek but he turns his head and their lips connect.

They rejoin the party, and at the end of the evening Sky’s aunt, Lady Devin, asks him to see Hana home. Hana is angered when Sky inquires about her age, and she proceeds to give him a wonderful setdown in which she calls him on his double standards:

“Tell me, Lord Ridgemont, how often, in casual conversation, do you ask ladies of the ton their ages, as you just asked me? Do you regularly, in their presence, insinuate that they are no more than concubines or courtesans, as you did the first time we met? Do you question, directly to their faces, both their brains and their morals? I would hazard a guess that such inquiries are exceeding rare in polite society.”

To his credit, Sky realizes she is right and offers her a sincere and unqualified apology which Hana appreciates and accepts. But she evades his company and attempts to return home on her own. Sky manages to follow her on her way home, but by then she is dressed as a boy, and he realizes she is the “child” he encountered at the Exhibition—as well as a few other performers.

Sky is fascinated by Hana, and Hana finds herself attracted to him despite the danger such an attraction poses. As they encounter each other again, she longs to trust him with her secrets, but the danger is too great. Broek is not only capable of violence, but known to beat Hana or the other women when they displease him. If Sky, a royal commissioner, grows suspicious of Broek’s operation, great harm could come to the other women, for whom Hana feels responsible—or worse, to Takara, Hana’s ten year old sister.

One of the things I liked best about Always a Stranger was Hana’s character. She is a lovely person, honorable but forced to practice deceit, brave in the face of untenable circumstances.  Though greatly vulnerable, Hana possesses a core of strength, one that doesn’t allow her to forget the respect with which she and those she strives to protect deserve to be treated.

I also liked a great deal that the strain of being viewed as a foreigner was depicted with complexity and nuance through Hana’s POV. Some people welcomed Hana while others did not, but even those who were more accepting were curious or saw her as exotic at first. That this took its toll on Hana felt authentic to me, and I appreciated the sensitivity with which her experiences as a newcomer to England were portrayed.

Truth to be told, I was less interested in Sky. Although it was refreshing that propriety was important to him, initially he did not come across as a layered character, and seemed more concerned with appearances than deeply honorable.

Sky’s personal conflict, one of feeling ill-suited to the role of earl, was told more than shown at first, so I didn’t connect with it until much later in the book. But I liked that when called on his privilege by Hana (this happened more than once) he always owned up to it.

Sky’s interest in Hana was very strong before he ever got to know her as a person, and for a long time he was uncertain how much of what she showed him was her true self. The fact that he didn’t really know her made his love of her feel shallow and a little immature for a good part of the book.

Consequently, the external plot conflict with Mr. Broek and his human trafficking operation was more compelling than the romantic relationship. I read on to see what would happen to Hana, her sister Takara, and their fellow captives, for whom I felt a great deal of anxiety, but I also felt a bit detached from the romance.

I empathized with Hana’s hesitation to trust Sky with her secrets. Even with Hana’s inner strength, her position as Broek’s captive and Sky’s far more powerful status made the balance of power in their relationship feel too uneven at times. At the end of the book, I still wasn’t completely sure that Hana had the agency to choose Sky from a secure enough position that it was a free choice.

Characters from the previous book in the series, Never Too Late, played an important role in this book and for a while I was confused and thought their storyline was being set up for a resolution in a later book. It wasn’t until I finished Always a Stranger and reread Sunita’s review of Never Too Late that I realized their story had already been told in the prequel.

I was pleased to find that Always a Stranger was indeed a fresh story, and it reminded me a little of some of Courtney Milan’s work in that its underlying message was one of social justice. I appreciate that this was pulled off in a way that did not feel heavy handed, though there were points in the story in which the number of English aristocrats unconcerned enough with their reputations or positions to come to the women’s aid stretched my credulity.

For the most part though, the book felt true to the time period, and I liked the way the Great Exhibition was described. I also liked the prose and especially the descriptions — some of the dialogue was a little stiff. Although not a perfect book, Always a Stranger deserves attention from readers looking for something out of the usual mold. C+.



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REVIEW: The Marquess of Cake by Heather Hiestand

REVIEW: The Marquess of Cake by Heather Hiestand

Dear Ms. Hiestand,

I was having a rocking good time with this book until exactly the 58% mark, at which point it seemed to jump some sort of storyline river, where extra development should have been or was and then got massively cut. It annoyed me so much I noticed the rest of the inconsistencies in characterization throughout the latter half of the book more than I would have otherwise.

Note: I first read this book some months ago and wrote most of this review then (and forgot I had), but I couldn’t help feeling like I had exaggerated the annoyance I felt. So I decided to read it again (I never re-read) to see if I had been unfair. I hadn’t. I feel exactly the same way on re-read as I did then. But I didn’t know how to grade this then and I’m still not sure.

Coffee . . . tea . . . or a pastry chef sweeter than any confection . . .

Scotch trifle fit for Queen Victoria, scones with clotted cream . . . Alys Redcake knows the way to a man’s heart. Yet she is unaware that with each morsel—and flash of ankle—she is seducing the handsome marquess frequenting her father’s tea shop. Unmarried at twenty-six, Alys’s first love is the family business. But thoughts of the gentleman’s touch are driving her to distraction . . .

With his weakness for sugar, the Marquess of Hatbrook can imagine no more desirable woman than one scented with cake and spice. Mistaking Alys for a mere waitress, he has no doubt she would make a most delicious mistress. And when he finds himself in need of an heir, he plans to make her his convenient bride. Yet as they satisfy their craving for one another, business and pleasure suddenly collide. Will Hatbrook’s passion for sweets—and for Alys—be his heart’s undoing?

Alys’s father has climbed his way to wealth from the pits of poverty via pastry, to the point he has been granted knighthood by Queen Victoria. Part of his method was to work his oldest three children in his fledgling factory beginning at the age of 8. As a result, they are not given an education. The oldest child was physically weak and perished, leaving Alys and her twin, Gawain, behind. Once the family achieves some wealth, their father sends Gawain to India and along come two more girls to the family, both of whom, because of the family’s newfound wealth, get educations and finishing school so that they might attract the attention of a noble in need of funds and not particular that it comes from the merchant class. Because Alys has always worked in her father’s factory and then in the storefront bakery he later opens, and is uneducated and unrefined, she is seen as an object of derision by her younger sisters.

All that aside, Alys loves her occupation as a cake decorator and her gift for charming nobles into spending money on her confections. Because of an event that happened years before, she does not want to marry, but at twenty-six, she really has no reason to think she is in danger of such a state. Until her father decrees that, as the eldest daughter of a newly minted knight, she is unfit to work at her chosen occupation and fires her, breaking her heart and putting her future in a flux not of her choosing.

In the meantime, she has met Michael Shield, Marquess Hatbrook, who is a sugar addict with a bad case of either hypoglycemia or early-onset diabetes type 2. I don’t know where I read this tidbit, but it’s the reason I picked up this book because not all disabilities revolve around ones people can see. He is unreasonably aware of and craving different pastries almost nonstop, it seems. In fact, he is initially attracted to Alys because she smells like cake.

Her body pressed against him. He scented that delectable perfume of hers. Eau de Redcake’s.

The writing is lovely. There are many little sections that I found clever, particularly when it comes to Michael’s attention to pastry:

Michael [toyed] with Theo’s plate. It was covered with crumbs and he wondered what Theo had been eating. It looked like a red, seedless jam had been involved.

Michael’s illness is handled very well, especially for the time period, as Alys is observant and insightful, and, with good ol’ common sense, can put two and two together to come up with a decent meal plan to help him (and his mother, who has the same problem). I would not be surprised if the author has some close experience with hypoglycemia and diabetes and its progression.

The characterization is consistent and I really feel for the position her newly knighted craptastic father puts her in. Alys is no-nonsense and Michael is a sweetheart. The sex scenes were lovingly drawn.

But then we hit the part where Alys has a personality and/or motivation transplant, and a previously smart and pragmatic woman does something out of character, and then compounds that by turning stupid.

She has sex with Michael, which would be fine and all, but it was at an odd place in the story, as if someone had said, “We need a sex scene at 58%. Put it in.” And to do that, Alys’s previously bad experience and subsequent inexperience, and all her previous ruminations about what she wants out of life, has to get tossed by the wayside on a moment’s notice.

Then, when circumstances change so that Michael feels he should offer her marriage, this previously smart and pragmatic woman says no, for no good reason. She has a reason, but it’s flimsy at best. It was as if someone said, “Now that they’ve had sex, make her refuse his offer of marriage because reasons.”

Michael is a good communicator. He tells her exactly what he wants from her and why (because he’s very attracted to her and she’s smart and he likes that), but she refuses to believe it. Instead, she decides he must want A, but then she thinks he must want B, but then she thinks he must want C, and none of them are what he flat-out told her he wanted at the 58% mark. And she’s doing this for no reason I can tell. It’s as if someone said, “And I want a Big Misunderstanding here.”

After the 58% mark, the rest of the book was an exercise in frustration and I may have acquired whiplash from all of Alys’s back-and-forthing. Because up to that point, everything was progressing logically and I was seriously invested in the story (as in A-grade invested), I was that much more frustrated with the rest of the book.

I’ve read the book twice now, months apart, and my opinion didn’t change. A for the first 58% and a D for the rest of it for needless trope mongering. C+