Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Always a Stranger by Amara Royce

Note: I received a NetGalley ARC in exchange for an honest review
My Experience:   A-
Synopsis:  An international affair, London's Great Exhibition has taken the city by storm. As its newest Royal Commissioner, Lord Skyler Ridgemont must ensure the performers are properly contracted. Among them is the delicate and graceful Hanako Sumaki. Draped in vivid silk robes, Hanako's exotic Japanese fan dance captivates Skyler--and he longs to learn more about her. . .
But Hanako's enigmatic employer keeps his exquisite charge very close. The consummate artist, she shows the handsome nobleman many faces, but never her true heart, which holds a desperate secret. When Skyler learns the real reason Hanako has been brought to London, he will risk his entire world to win her trust--and save her from losing both body and soul. It's a feat that will require the type of courage only love can give. . .

Framed by the Great Exhibition, Skyler Roderick, Earl of Ridgemont, and Hanako Sumaki confront the prejudices of the time as well as those within themselves.  Comfortable as the second son, eager to embrace his gifts of architectural vision, his lordship struggles to fulfill his new obligations and still remain true to his own nature.  Hana juggles the knives of a horrifying situation while admitting "one can only climb so high before running out of mountain."  Like embroidered silk, these characters and their story dazzle even as it snags at your sensitivities.

I devoured Always a Stranger in under five hours.  The story drew me in, gently enticing me to turn the page then compelling me to continue.  Evocative writing, characters with many dimensions and genuine development held me throughout the story.   The dialog was believable, humor very subtle, the historical accuracy impressive and Ridgemont's mother's temper tantrum entirely credible.  Secondary characters were well drawn and essential to the story without usurping the narrative.  The villains were despicable but not over the top and the conflicts felt genuine.  Hana's ability to swallow her fears and reach out for help was a moment to cheer; that it didn't turn out perfectly was a twist I applauded!

Be warned, this is not a light and fluffy read, not a glittering ball or giggling debutante to be endured.  The rake is a villain (yippee!) The hero is disgusted by the thought of brothels, the risk of disease and the facts of degradation engender by both the whores and those that use them (more yippee!).  The heroine is trapped by her manipulated sense of duty, family ties and poverty. There are mature themes that do not bear glossing over.

I felt Ms. Royce handled the reality of the times with regard for a romance reader's general expectation.  She does not shove prose down your throat but allows her characters to give you a glimpse of what it felt like being exotic property without a voice or ability to believe in more than rare moments of peace.  The psychological contradictions of being "held" by a protector that manipulates everyone with hints and suggestions then fists, and ultimately abandonment in the middle of no and where, were a bit too realistic at times, but made this story a unique romance.

Considering the times, I felt the characters were in a hopeless situation then an improbable one.  However, as I considered the fact Lord Ridgemont spent several years in America and must have been somewhat influenced by the differences of society, improbable faded to possible.  Due to family dynamics, he comprehended the outsider feeling in spite of his wealth and position, knew what it was to be an alien in a foreign land and someone in his youth had cultivated his sense of looking at the world through another's eyes.  Where he was challenged by understanding utter dependence, poverty and hunger, his heart was able to fill in the blanks.  If only this enlightened age could bother to do the same.  Skyler was a man with an uncomfortable awareness of what was expected of him and what he felt to be right that was finding his way.  I liked him.

Hana was heart breakingly honest, sad and brave.  She teetered dangerously near the Mary Sue zone on several occasions (Twenty languages? A mistress of disguises and the only public performer for the Exhibition?) and that is my only complaint.  For the most part, despite her many talents and abused sense of duty, she was a determined woman with touching foibles and endearing contradictions.  Her desperation to foil the villain's plans and have one happy memory mutates to absolute terror with a post coital crash that was, in my jaded old biddy opinion, entirely believable.   And yet ... I was touched by both Hana and Skyler's very different fears.  No story momentum was lost as they came to grips with afterburn instead of afterglow.  Frustrating as that was, I appreciated that sex didn't comfort her as she expected and Skyler floundered and questioned not only her, but himself.

There is no magic wand in this story, rather a steady pace to reach the acceptance that being together is worth enduring what is and will be.  I don't generally like epilogues and this one was not an exception for me.  However, I think most folks like their romance secured by a bow and a dangly piece of foil wrapped chocolate and this one should please them. Always a Stranger was a rare read for me because it held my complete attention from start to finish.  I'm not sure I will ever have the stamina to re-read it.  Some tales are like that, so thoroughly disconcerting at first read, you close the book with a shaking hand and dazed re-entry to real life.  I highly recommend this book for those looking for more than the usual 'Earl and unacceptable love' story.

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