Friday, June 10, 2016

The Heiress and the Spy by Julia Donner

My Experience:  B-
Synopsis:  Rich widow, Elizabeth Shelton, secretly yearns to break free from the confinements of her placid life. Her late husband died a hero in the Peninsular Wars, leaving her childless and badgered by his greedy parents. Leaping into love and a dangerous scheme to serve king and country had never entered her mind, but she’s unable to resist the impoverished and dashing Lord Asterly when he asks her to become his wife and aid him in intrigue.

A lively, character driven story, with a plausible plot and more than a few surprises along the way. The writing is smooth, there are a few typos or conversion errors, and the transitions were nicely handled.  The pacing in the first 2/3 of the book was perfect; the last 1/3 was rushed and suffered for this. There was just enough character background as the story progressed to feel like I was genuinely getting to know them instead of having their history repetitiously rammed down my throat.

Secondary characters were intriguing, dialog both enjoyable and propelling, sense of time and place well done.  The romance, despite an instant attraction, was given time to develop from interest to friendship then moved along in a way that didn't feel rushed.  The intimate moments were tastefully handled and, considering circumstances, portrayed pretty accurately.  Do not expect a detailed adventure of spy vs spy or mystery to solve; this is, as I said, all about the characters.  Enjoyable enough to prompt me to purchase 3 more of the stories in the series.
 I skipped the first because 'brat stories' just make me want to vomit.

How odd life is. It seemed impossible that one could feel so completely altered by a visit from a stranger.

The rich widow is a nice change of heroine, it is what snagged my interest when a friend mentioned these books.  Too often, we find these ladies as unsavory connections, or worse, the arrogant witch cutting a swath through the ball rooms leaving a distasteful trail of cutting remarks and ill mannered behavior leaving you wondering what the hero could possibly see in her.  I am quite sick of being fed sarcasm labeled wit and rudeness labeled a right.

I thoroughly enjoyed Eliza, from beginning to almost the end, she was a character that knew how to carry on, attend to details, and how to delegate.  No micro-manager hovering over underlings, she set the goals and depended on people to live up to her expectations. She had no chip on her shoulder, no attitude with an agenda, no fears of loving, and no hatred of marriage.  Character-wise, Eliza was a breath of fresh air in our same-ole thaing romance land.

Daughter of a cotton merchant turned banker, she is aware there is an entire world above her station as well as below.  With control of her fortune, she chooses to reinvest it and to spend it on those in need. even employing more servants than required for efficiency, instead of pursuing aristocratic society. A mature heroine, she was still vulnerable to doubts about being accepted by the ton, but even in this she kept her sense of self and perspective.  It was a small part of the overall scheme of life for most people, the ton, despite their own opinion  and the plethora of romance books that center on that unique world.  It was nifty to see that reality demonstrated in a Regency.  Eliza's world isn't poor gentility, though she possesses the blood of royalty, it is not British and therefore has no relevance to the ton.  Instead, Eliza lives in another world, one where thoughts and accomplishments matter more than blood lines and gossip.  She hosts "assemblies, [where] one might actually collide with an astute thought.” and has created her place in the world that is comfortable enough.  She's longing for excitement—something, anything—to enliven the tedium of her days but she's not unhappy.

Asterly is equally refreshing.  He admires intelligence, still holds ideals that might have been devastated by war, and longs to be more than he is.  Half in love with an image and the actions of Eliza even before he met her, after several weeks of her company he realizes there's more to his feelings and to her.  Caught up by the needs of war and Napoleon's escape from Elba, Asterly does his best to balance practical needs with emotional.  I was impressed with the way he sought to ensure her safety first, then presented the issues at hand.  He didn't keep her in the dark, except where "national security" demanded and she responded to his trust with a few thoughts of her own that made them a good working team.  His proposal was an adventure to read and it made this Olde Biddy grin, more than once.  

Although he was good at his work, his relationship with his brother was strained, his estate neglected, and was eager to begin his 'next life' after the war.  Asterly, by virtue of beginning life with leaking roofs, balanced on the edge of mortgages before going off to war was separated from the I'm a Lord I'm entitled...attitude.  Unique and quite welcome in my reading diet.  He wanted a life with Eliza and wanted her to want it too.  The easy acceptance of her wealth and how it would make that life together not only easier but more of an adventure was well done.  Having the example of her first husband before him for several years certainly helped.

The plot was plausible and well done.  Using bank correspondence to traffic intelligence totally opened up the "she's so wealthy" can of worms so Asterly knew just what he was wading in to and Eliza knew just how little he cared about the wealth in comparison to duty and her. He couldn't miss the fact that she had control and exercised it well.  Yeah, it's a stretch to think this could be so in an era where a woman could not open a bank account on her own but ::Hand Wave:: because her father was smart enough to set things up for her.  And I confess, I was willing to hand wave because it was so wonderful to have the shoes on the other feet for a change.  Wealthy Woman taking care of a men - without damaging their pride or hers.  And not pne scene where she's fitted for clothes and hates it - thank you SO much for that!

Secondary characters were not as fleshed out as I'd like but they weren't two dimensional either.  Almost all of them have or will have their own story it seems. They were not inserted needlessly in to the story.  I loved the indoor picnic scene, the little details Asterly noted and treasured in his heart and the way Eliza kept managing details without mussing her hair.  Their conjugal visits as he went back and forth were hilarious, both of them so desperate for a good grope, a snuggle and time to explore this whole married thing, while the world kept nagging at them to get back to work/ duty.

As I said, the last 1/3 of the book was rushed in comparison to the pacing established in the first 2/3 of the book.  I loved the plot, the action, and even the eventual resolution but felt they were thrown at me too fast AND Eliza behaved totally out of character both for the historical time and her previous established nature.  Perhaps if there had been a better transition or a slow down, I might have bought it or ::hand waved:: it as the author intended ... but I couldn't and I confess it soured the ending for me.

That said, I still enjoyed the book and highly recommend it.

***Spoilery Thoughts Below***
***Stop if you don't want to know***

This is your last chance ... You've been warned
Spoilery Alert .... STOP scrolling if you don't want to know

Why this is not an Olde Biddy Read - though I thought it was until I started scouring the text for Eliza's age and if anyone can find it, I sure would appreciate you pointing out where.....
I was intrigued in the sample pages by the care she took of her first husband and his men; without apology or concern for how bad this would make the quarter master corps look.  Doing a quick refresh on the Light Division, I discovered they were dispatched to Portugal in 1807, so if they married when she was 19 - giving time for Shelton and Eliza to meet and a proper courtship after she left the seminary - and the story taking place in 1814, our heroine was 26 or so to our hero's 45.  That's a mighty gap and the reason, I suspect, that Eliza's age is never actually pinpointed.  Twenty years difference might squick some readers.  Leaving the age vague for a 'young matron' was probably done with purpose and now I've spoiled it, sorry.  Since I began the Olde Biddy Quest, I pay more attention to these things than I used to.

Poor ole Aunt Olivia was used to expound on the in-laws and the nature of the trustee-ship then whisked off stage.  At least she was funny but alas, she was too obviously wearing a Red Shirt for me to appreciate the waste of such a good character.  In-laws were used to emphasize Eliza's negative experiences with the ton and neutralized far too easily to have ever been a credible threat beyond the emotional wear and tear.  I will admit though, I'd rather have this than info dump, so these pit-nicks did not interfere with my enjoyment.

The snaughty old school chum and her gossipy cronies were realistic enough to make my skin break out; not only were their voices genuine but their motives of We're Bitches Just Cause We Can Be absolutely true of the entitled mentality of nasty people.  Adolescent brats grow up to be nastier adult brats and it is why I avoid those bratty tropes like the plague.  This of course laid the ground work for Eliza to be TSTL for two or three pages.  More about that below.

I adored Crimm, Wrightie and Merrick, despite their limited roles, they were realistically pushy without ever loosing their sense of place.  It was disappointing that the story left out women friends for Eliza.  She surely had them among her acquaintances but you didn't hear about them or really meet even the envied Trivertons.  Brummel's cameo was a nice touch!  Of the much adored Cass, I had no real opinion.  She served her purpose, and wasn't heard from otherwise. Both the carriage ride and joining the men in ribald banter after the wedding, didn't impress - I would've been as uncomfortable as Eliza was - and her intention to brawl at a ball made me wonder if the woman had any comprehension of how much *worse* that would make everything.  At least Eliza did.

Brother Harry was a mixed bag of fun, loyalty, annoyance and added confusion - pretty much every sibling's description of a brother or sister close in age.  I was totally confused by the mother/ abandonment issue because it seemed like the situation of Harry and Asterly being at odds was of Long Standing but Asterly had only been gone seven years ... so not an issue from adolescence though it kept sounding like one.  Resolution of misunderstanding between them was too easily achieved for the level of distance and irritation it seemed to cause. I felt miffed that they were too stupid to talk it out sooner.  However, I can do that ::hand wave:: again and be a sexist wench and say:  MEN! with that certain tone of voice many will totally understand.  I don't like to do that but sometimes, it is necessary.

Two biggest Pit-Nicks:
Asterly became a soldier.
He was a baron, he had a responsibility to his title, lands, dependents and mother.  I got that he believed Harry would have done a better job, but unless Asterly was dead OR had given him the power to administer the estate, how was Harry supposed to do that?  It's entirely possible Asterly didn't expect to be at war so long, who did?  But the man was 38 when he went soldiering.  Overlooking the fact he probably would not have been recruited to spy at that age, he certainly had the maturity to ensure his legal heir had the ability to take care of business in his absence - but he didn't.  These things seemed out of character for the man willing to risk everything to do his duty a second time.  Or ... it may be the time line just isn't what it appears.  Maybe he was a soldier before he was a spy - though repeatedly seven years was mentioned.  Either way, I just couldn't figure out *why* he left everything a mess and no one with the authority to do anything until he married Eliza. Though I will acknowledge, he was ever so happy to leave things in her capable hands so he could focus on war; he'll probably do the same thing while focusing on politics.  She won't mind in the least.

The climax of the story was rushed so fast my eyelids have scroll burn.
Up to the rescue of Asterly, I was coping. Eliza running away just made no bloody sense.  Oh she might feel the urge, as she did after the gossips hurt her, but she turned and faced them.  The woman is pregnant, loves her husband and risked her life to rescue him but ... oh I'll sail away to anywhere because he called for his a mistress.  A mistress that received war dispatches / intelligence ... come on, where was Eliza's intelligence?  The author promotes the trite, overused, irritating, "when with child, emotions tend to escalate to an alarming degree." I wanted to bash my reader.  In all the time it surely took for Asterly to recover - and we got none of those moments or an explanation of why it took a month to book passage to anywhere - it never occurred to her to confront Asterly, to smack him a good one, to demand an explanation?!  It also didn't occur to her that she was denying her child a father and a father his child, which I just don't think she'd be willing or able to do.

And then, here's Mrs. Vernon claiming Asterly kept her spy life secret for over a decade [there goes that time line wobbling about again] and that she taught him espionage. I felt manipulated and the last few pages were barely absorbed because I was still reeling over her running away from her own house and ... and ... sheesh, it's over, their HEA is here.  Oh ... how nice.

All the pit-nicks included, this was still a good book and worth the time and money.  Next time I read it I'll know what to expect and so will skip to the end.

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