Monday, April 16, 2012

A Secret in Her Kiss by Anna Randol

The greatest draw for Anna Randol's debut novel is her setting -- yes, it's a Regency piece but it's a Regency piece that is set in the Ottoman Empire.

Major Bennett Prescott has completed another tour of duty and is set to go home to England to take care of some unfinished business there -- but that business will remain unfinished as he is called by the British Empire to do a most uncustomary service: protect a half-British artist who is completing some surveillance drawings for the Crown. And the artist happens to be female.

Bennett is caught in a quandary: he will delay going home and saving his sister from an abusive relationship in order to save another woman from being discovered as a spy.

But, ever the soldier, and trained to do as he is ordered, Bennett Prescott accepts the mission.

Mari Sinclair has also had an unusual training -- she can recreate rooms and spaces from memory and is able to embed such information into her intricate and vibrant art. She is valuable to the British because of her talent -- but she feels no loyalty towards them.

Duty and loyalty are tested and questioned as secrets are revealed and trust is betrayed -- and in the midst of all the lies and deception, Bennett and Mari learn love and passion.

Plus (+) points:
1. The setting and the time: I wonder if it was the author's intention to have Mari and Bennett's relationship flourish in contrast to the decline of the Ottoman Empire. It made the lovers' relationship more meaningful. Things around them were falling apart and they struggled to determine who to trust, but, in spite of this, their love for one another was growing.

The setting also contributed much to Randol's story about intrigue: it made the danger for Mari and Bennett very real. The Ottoman Empire, at its height, was the most fearsome and powerful empire in the world -- it conquered and expanded ruthlessly. It also maintained control within its territories with the same ruthlessness -- and I could imagine the dread Mari and Bennett felt as they lay their lives on the line for their own country.

2. The characters: Major Bennett Prescott is all about rules and following orders. He is content just following where others lead and he sees things as black and white, right and wrong with no middle ground. It makes for an uncomplicated life -- which I can understand, considering the complication that he left in England, involving his sister Sophia and her unhappy marriage.

Being with Mari is a challenge for Bennett. She is like the butterflies that she studies and draws -- she is British but hasn't been back home in a long time. She lives in Turkey but sees Turkey as the enemy of her mother's home country. But she also has very strong convictions and fights (in her own way) to help Greece gain its freedom. She is also fiercely protective of the people she loves and sacrifices herself to make sure they aren't hurt.

What I love about Mari is that she embraces her sexuality completely -- she isn't prudish about it or hypocritical about it. She knows she is attracted to Bennett and she isn't ashamed about it.

"Prude or wanton, you would undoubtedly slap me when I lowered my lips to your breasts." His finger traced the edge of her bodice but made no move to follow through with his threat.

"What if I begged you instead?"
- p. 86

3. The politics: A huge chunk of the novel exposes the inner-goings of diplomacy and politics -- the British government is on "friendly" terms with the Turks, but they also maintain a small cell of agents who are doing intelligence work within the Empire.

But the British also have agents who are working towards their own agenda: Mari and Nathan are examples. Mari has never been to Greece but she is relentless in her pursuit for Greek freedom. But she also has loyalties to the Turks -- Esad Pasha, is like a father to her and she would die first before she would let anything happen to him.

It is a complicated layering of deals, duplicity, money and loyalty -- truly a tangled web woven out of deceit --

Which leads me the the minus (-) point for this novel:

It is a convoluted web of relationships and one would need to write down a map/chart in order to sort out who is friends with who. Even the term "friend" would be problematic since, like in real-life politics, there are no permanent friends or allies, only permanent interests.

Therefore I say that it is a narrow policy to suppose that this country or that is to be marked out as the eternal ally or the perpetual enemy of England. We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.
(See Lord Palmerston.)

Randol takes a lot of time developing the spy aspect of her story, pitting people against each other that I don't feel she really developed the love story between Mari and Bennett. The two lovers are playful about their love -- but it becomes a bit too jarring in the context of all the intrigue.

For example:
Chapter 13 (the interaction between Mari and Bennett after Mari's visit to Esad Pasha)
Chapter 29 (the conversation between Mari and Achilla)

The story is too dense in the last third of the book -- which causes a bit of an imbalance in the story. As late a Chapter 33 (the story is 35 chapters total), the author presents more twists and complications in the story -- so that, when the story finally ends, the resolution dips too sharply and too abruptly.

This was okay for a debut novel -- and the story was good enough for me to be curious about Anna Randol's next book.

She has an e-novella coming out in June (about Bennett's sister) and a novel coming out in August. See author's website.



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