I adore Regency romances because the time period is so fascinating. The early nineteenth century shaped a country in a state of flux, one that was either experiencing the Napoleonic Wars or recovering from them, and the whole nation was poised on the brink of an industrial revolution which would change the world, to say nothing of Great Britain itself. From a writing standpoint, social strictures were still a little looser, a hold-over from the more licentious period of the late 18th century, which has fortunately given authors more wiggle room for creating interesting scenarios that allow romance to flourish in a compressed period of time for our hero/heroine.
But as much as I love Regencies, I’m really picky about the writers I love. Not like – I like plenty of Regency authors – but really love. You know, love, love. The majority of novels in this sub-genre are kind of, well, “meh” for me. It’s writers like Stephanie Laurens and Sarah MacLean that have me forking over full price for both the ebook AND the print version of their books. Most other authors just don’t get my steam engine running on all cylinders even though I still enjoy the immersion into the time period.
Months ago, I saw a contest on Facebook for Avon Books about proving how enthusiastic an Avon reader you were by filling out this long survey. I purchase Avon books constantly and had enormous fun writing the little responses and talking about my favorites. I didn’t hear anything more and totally forgot about it, until I got a package in the mail about 8 weeks ago that held two Avon books. *doing happy dance*
One of them was A Secret in Her Kiss by Anna Randol, a book I was so interested in reading that I had already purchased it in ebook form. With other reading more pressing, it made its way to my back burner, until the other day when I had the need of a marathon bubble bath. iPads and baths don’t go well together, so I perused my paper to-reads and my Avon freebie leapt into my hand.
I was riveted, to the point of shooing my husband away when he wanted to catch up on the latest Mad Men episode (which is usually a solemn occasion in our house). Never have I read a Regency romance which manages to convey the customs of its time period yet paint such an evocative sense of place (in this case, the Ottoman Empire). There isn’t a ton of reliable information about this time period from a Western perspective, but Randol has some lovely historical information that is so seamlessly interwoven through the plot that you just swallow it and say “yum” afterward. I think this is the mark of great historical fiction.
I worry when my female protagonist is described by other reviewers as “empowered” or “non-traditional” simply because my disbelief can only be suspended so much. In a desperate bid for a new slant on the Regency heroine, we get authors making women into pirates or bohemian artists who have slept with a bunch of lovers yet miraculously never gotten pregnant (but they have no fertility problems after marrying the hero). Really, people?
In the case of A Secret in Her Kiss, our heroine is unique and strong for her time period, but the reader buys it, hook, line and sinker. Strikingly beautiful Mari Sinclair is the daughter of a damaged archeologist father, who has raised her in the heart of the Ottoman Empire, leaving her to her own devices. A talented artist, Mari has become a naturalist painter with has strong personal ties to the local Pasha, but she has been coerced by the British into using her drawing to spy on local fortifications. The reason for this is not her loyalty to the British Empire – she has none for the country that she feels rejected her and her mother – but rather due to her imperative to keep resources near the Greek rebels trying to throw off the yoke of the Ottomans. Mari, you see, is the daughter of a Greek slave, a beautiful and intelligent woman who her father fell for and freed prior to marriage.
Major Bennett Prestwood, son of an Earl, is fresh off the battlefield where over the years he has both won honors and witnessed atrocities all in the name of the King. While admired for his golden good looks and military prowess, Bennett has a total focus on duty – to King, country and family, in that order. When he hears that his sister has returned to her abusive husband, he buys a ticket for England immediately to save her, but his plans are derailed when he receives urgent orders to head to Turkey to guard a female spy for England. Bennett is stuck with the job because his cousin is the British ambassador, offering him unobtrusive cover for his assignment.
Bennett promised to keep his sister Sophia’s secret when she left her husband last time, so he doesn’t feel alerting the rest of the family to the gravity of her situation is within the boundaries of his oath to her. He resolves to finish this assignment as quickly as possible so he can get home and save his sister further abuse. Always a soldier and an excellent spy himself, he rapidly assesses the political landscape in which Mari is at the center. Fascinated by her despite his feelings of urgency, they both experience attraction and the usual misunderstandings as they grow to understand each other’s character. Bennett helps Mari be a better spy, even though he wars with the desire to protect her from everything, and Mari helps Bennett understand that a blind sense of duty which fulfills oaths while ignoring the larger good might not really support the honor that makes up his core sense of self.
While this book would only fall about midrange on the sensuality scale in terms of content, Randol does an excellent job at letting the reader feel the incredible sexual tension and attraction between the couple. Mari, surrounded by Turks, is more than cognizant of the intimacies between men and women and has even read the Kama Sutra (in the original Hindustani). Rather than be offended by Mari’s innate sensuality and knowledge, Bennett accepts it as part of her exotic upbringing. It simply makes him even more attracted to her while she finally gets to see what a reliable and honorable Englishman looks like, and it’s an compelling sight.
Randol is to be applauded for her outstanding writing. It’s hard to believe that a novel with such three-dimensional characters is a debut author’s effort! Bennett, who secretly writes poetry, is a true heart-breaker of a damaged hero and any reader will be moved reading about Mari’s neglected childhood. I feel that the location of the Ottoman Empire is so well drawn that it is another protagonist, moving the plot along and lending depth of understanding to the hero/heroine’s actions.
I cannot wait for more from this author, and luckily, I won’t have to be patient for too long. Although not yet in the Amazon database despite a June 26th release date, the enovella, A Most Naked Solution, Bennett’s sister Sophia’s story, is in the works (why can’t I order this anywhere?). I’ve already preordered Randol’s next novel, Sins of a Virgin, even though I have no idea what it is about, simply based off Randol’s writing and the kick-ass cover – seriously, who is she giving a supply of chocolate to at Avon to get these amazing covers????
People looking to get more from Anna Randol can keep up with her on Facebook or on Twitter as well as periodically check her website. I was interested to discover the collaborative blog on which she posts, The Dashing Duchesses, comprised of other historical romance writers and have added this little gem into my Google Reader.
It’s thrilling that in a field of standard Regency romance writers I can find an author who can put a fresh spin on a favorite time period. Anna Randol has shattered the Regency mold with her debut book and the whole genre is a little better for it.