4.5 out of 5 stars
Cut to the Chase:
This is a book full of details: the art, the poetry by Byron (down to his inconsistent spelling style), the Italian, the politics around divorce, the fuller-than-full list of supporting characters. At its heart beats a well-drawn, but thoroughly unlikely pair of protagonists: a disgraced divorcee who now lives the life of a courtesan, and a spy-like man who wishes he could retire. Ultimately, they’re two people who are both prostitutes… one who’s turned to the life as a way to free herself from the hypocrisy of the London life she once led, and another who does everything (and sometimes, everyone) under the auspices of serving his country (though without the sometimes more formal recognition a soldier might receive). They are hardened cynics who battle with their wits and sexuality — not at all a story I expected to enjoy, but expertly done and often quite enthralling (and even surprising: a twist I wouldn’t have predicted, and an independent female who is TRULY independent).
The beginning of this book drags a little. Not because it lacks action — there is PLENTY happening, right from the get-go — but because the protagonists we’re introduced to at the beginning aren’t really the most interesting versions of themselves. They’re bored, they’re cynical, they’re whoring themselves for jewels, patriotism, and sometimes, jewels in the name of patriotism. There are emeralds, and lots of people speaking Italian. There are thieves, their henchmen, gondoliers, discussions about Venice in the summer, princes, their affiliated counts, ex-husbands, politics, and all manner of other things.
When you think about a historical romance that is THOROUGHLY grounded in a setting that feels fleshed out, with a full cast of characters, this is really a sterling example.
But, especially in the beginning, our main characters (because they’re just so busy being jaded and either discontent (James), or bored (Francesca), with their lot in life) don’t necessarily seem deserving of such a set-up.
It’s interesting, and you’re definitely intrigued enough to keep reading, which is key, because both of our protagonists gradually, believably, develop into something more than the series of masks and disguises they put on the rest of the world. There is, of course, the overwhelming physical attraction they feel for one another, which seems necessary given the setup, but there’s also a series of battles of wits, a healthy amount of skepticism on both of their parts that poetic ideals like love even exist, and a lot of fun asides (like when our heroine debates with herself whether she really needs a new, satisfying lover, or if she should just get a nice, loyal dog).
What’s more, Francesca is a female character who REALLY has spunk. We’re often told (especially in historical romances) that a woman has spunk or character, only to see her get swept up by a dashing hero. Not so our dear Francesca, who’s made her bed and laid in it — with several men. She’s a woman who knows that she’s made mistakes, but doesn’t let herself become too maudlin about it, and is determined to push forward, making her own way in life when everyone expected (and some even planned) to watch her seemingly inevitable downfall. She’s sometimes smarter than everyone around her, and sometimes susceptible to human folly, but she’s wonderfully drawn, and she, ultimately, is the heart of this story — that even a hardened cynic who’s been burned by love, has a ghost-girl’s worth of belief, not that there is such a thing as a happily-ever-after, but that love (beyond the between-the-sheets part of the affair) might, perhaps, be worth another gamble. It’s an eyes-wide-open historical romance that is well worth the read, despite small bits of lag (especially at the beginning).
Comparisons to Other Authors/Books:
This is only my third book by Chase, though I definitely have quite a few lined up to read. Chase is good at carrying out tropes well, which makes sense since this was a RITA winner. She’s not afraid to get into the nitty-gritty of her character’s cause or passion, which is very Lisa Kleypas and Sherry Thomas-like (where the characters often have careers, purposes, things that are really driving their actions). Also, she’s a master at creating super strong female characters, who sometimes come from loving, supportive families (very Julia Quinn in terms of having that super-strong and supporting, will-always-be-there-for-you family), and often have friends and/or relatives who always, always remain loyal. I preferred her Lord of the Scoundrels (definitely a five-star book), but this one is very close to five stars for me.