Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Sheikh, The Courtesan, And An Insurance Claim

I was involved in a brief discussion on Twitter the other day about lack of communication between romantic couples. As with most things in my life, it was likely my sheer dumb luck last year that I hit a string of books (in a row) where everything would have been great if the hero and heroine would just have TALKED to each other like GROWN-UPS already. That was pretty much my reaction to Kismet, the latest historical romance by Monica Burns. Reading this book gave me a serious case of whiplash.

Allegra Synnford was raised in a brothel, eventually rescued from that life by her late benefactor. Under his tutelage, she transformed herself into a proper mistress, and his untimely death gave her the notoriety to become a much in demand courtesan. She chooses who she takes as a lover. She calls the shots, and she answers to no man. She's in Morrocco to attend a friend's wedding when she has an encounter with the most fascinating and dangerous man she's ever laid eyes on.

Sheikh Shaheen of the Amazigh has been in hiding, having fled England after being betrayed by a courtesan (yeah, we all know where this is going right?). So even though he's really a Viscount, he's happy playing Sheikh in the desert. Then he spies Allegra, and whamo! , he must have her. Like yesterday. They're both massively in lust, but they're also both so prideful that verbal sparring ensues. These two are at a stalemate, until an old enemy arrives on the scene to force their hand.

I was talking this book up at a recent So. Cal. Blogger gathering saying how much I was struck by the characters - specifically Allegra. This is no "fake" courtesan. No silly little virgin girl playing dress-up. This is a hard woman who has made the best out of life with the cards she was dealt. And believe me, she was dealt a pretty shitty hand. Her entire existence revolves around her lifestyle being about choices. She chooses her lovers. And because she chooses, that somehow elevates her above what she really does for a living. Frankly, it's splitting hairs (a prostitute is a prostitute - no matter how well you're paid). But it's easy to understand her feelings on the subject, given the choices she's had in her life. What wasn't as easy to understand was how the woman could be so smart and perceptive one moment in the story and so colossally brain-dead during others.

Shaheen is pretty much old-school hero all the way. He blames himself for a past tragedy and ran away to lick his wounds. He was betrayed by a courtesan, so therefore when he meets Allegra he immediately assumes she's also a traitorous slut because she shares the same profession. He holds on to this belief, even as Allegra continually surprises him by having some scruples. Then, naturally, after Allegra does something smart, she has to turn around and do something colossally brain-dead - which means Shaheen then has to bail her out, all while not explaining to her why he's doing what he's doing - thereby causing more misunderstandings because of lack of adult communication.

The problem with this story, ultimately, is that both Shaheen and Allegra are so frackin' proud that as the reader you just want to throttle them after a while. Neither will give an inch. Both of them play games. And both of them sling hateful words at each other to "protect" the other - because golly gee, they certainly can't tell the other one the truth! It probably wouldn't have been so frustrating if the author didn't give us tantalizing glimpses of moments when these two did behave. Did talk to each other. Did treat each other like adults. But then Allegra falls back to manipulating, Shaheen falls back on saying hateful things to Allegra in order to "protect" her, and I wanted to smack the crap out of both of them.

What this story does well, and in spades, is deliver an interesting setting, a mountain of compelling conflict, intriguing secondary characters, a seriously creepy villain, an old school vibe, and a good grovel at the end.

Which leaves me with what?

Yeah, whiplash.

Just as I would settle in and think, "Yeah, I care about this couple. I want them to be happy." One or both of them would do something so infuriating that I would be left feeling like they both deserved each other...and not in a good way. Ugh.

Final Grade = C-


azteclady said...

Oh dear... I had been wanting to get this one. The library is looking better right now, though.


Renee said...

Bummer, Wendy! You were so excited about it last week.

It's funny, cause this (the non/mis-communication) is one of those typical romance plotlines that drives me nuts.
It's why I love Loretta Chase so much. I come to a scene where I think, "this is where they are going to miscommunicate," and then they actually talk!
Well, it's a beautiful cover, anyways.

JamiSings said...

UG! Lack of communication was something I was whining about to Sarah of SBTB in an e-mail recently. Though my whine was a bit different. I was whining about the fact that when the character has self esteem issues (like they're fat or something) they NEVER TELL the hero (or heroine) about it! Drives me crazy. If I was in a relationship you can be sure there would be at least one moment I'd break down and cry and tell him "I'm so fat and ugly I'm not good enough for Jack The Ripper!"

Granted, not really communication but heck, how can you get past such things without him knowing it bothers you and you're worried he just feels sorry for you or something.

HOWEVER - I know how you feel about "woowoo" stuff but I read a steampunk novel that actually DID have the heroine saying exactly why she thought the hero shouldn't be "forced" into marrying her (after being caught in a risqué embrace) right in front of him. (Her father was Italian so her skin was "too dark" and "nose too big" for him.) It's called Soulless by Gail Carriger. If you can put aside your feelings about vampires and werewolves - ghosts are mentioned but never really make an appearance - and a woman with no soul so she can negate supernatural powers I really recommend this one. Considering that outside of The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen I really do NOT like steampunk (can't make sense of it 99% of the time) says how much I like this book when I'm telling others to go read it.

Doesn't hurt that Gail herself is incredibly nice. I love it when authors are nice. I sent her a thank you e-mail for having Alexia actually communicate her self esteem problems and she sent the nicest e-mail back. Nice authors are AWESOME. Snooty ones can kiss my fat butt.

~ames~ said...

I'd seen some positive buzz in blogland for this book but I wanted a review from a source I knew well before I bought it. So thanks for your review!

Communication is so key in relationships. It's become one of my major pet peeves in reading when there is none (on top of secret babies and amnesia LOL).

SonomaLass said...

I've been looking forward to this book because of the setting. I'm going to go ahead and read it, because I love an honestly experienced heroine. I'm sure the communication issues will bug me too, especially if it's that old school type.

I know that in real life, many couples communicate badly or not at all. But there are some reasons I can believe a lot more readily than others.

Janet Webb said...

I've been thinking a lot about couples between the pages of rom that communicate. One of my faves, Devil's Bride, strikes me as a great example of a couple that never stop talking to and with each other.

A REAL courtesan can be found in Jo Beverley's Rogues series. You know the one: Lucien's former mistress Blanche Hardcastle. She choose her men but really, she had to sleep her way out of poverty. You really sense her sadness in Dangerous Joy when she talks about having to give up her baby girl.

Great topic. Not sure if this book appeals though.

Wendy said...

AL: I was so conflicted while reading this book. One moment I'd be lovin' it, the next I was frustrated.

Renee: I was so intrigued by this romantic couple early on - hence my excitement last week. But the more pages they spend together, not talking, it just drove me crazy.

Jami: I need to give steampunk a go - because even with the "otherworldly" elements I think the sub genre will appeal to the Victorian Ho in me.

It's funny you bring up lack of communicating self-esteem issues - because I'm reading an older Silhouette Desire right now where both characters have issues....and I think they'll be talking about them in the next few chapters :) I'm reading it for a TBR Challenge I'm doing, so a review will be forthcoming.....

Ames: The book has a really great old school vibe to it, but what I really appreciated was the "risk" the author took with her heroine. Also the setting is really well done. But dang - TALK already!

SonomaLass: Great use of setting, and I really, really appreciated that the author didn't pull a bait and switch with the heroine. Fake courtesans annoy me more than virgin widows. This chick is ALL real - and has the back story to prove it.

Janet: Same sort of thing here. Heroine dealt shit hand, and is destined for life in brothel when she's rescued by first benefactor. It's after that when she finds herself with the ability to make her own choices when it comes to men.

And I really need to read Devil's Bride!

Janet Webb said...

You have never read Devil's Bride? Oh my goodness -- should I stage an intervention? LOL but it really was such a seminal hahaha book, imo!

Leslie said...

Thanks Wendy - you just saved me some money. This is one of those plot lines that drives me nuts too, so I'll pass on this one.

And you really should read Devil's Bride. Have you read any Stephanie Laurens?

JamiSings said...

Wendy - if they actually talk about self esteem issues then I want to read it!

I'd also love to read a romance where the woman doesn't like sex due to medical issues. But that's another story.

Lyndee said...

THANK YOU, Wendy! I totally agree. Guys may be startled at first, but I've been known to sit a guy down and be like, "I look scary with no makeup on. No, I seriously do. My brother recoils in horror when I wake up. Also, sometimes I will get in a crabby, PMSy mood and you don't want to talk to me during these times. Do you still want a relationship with me?" It's so stupid that these adults in these books are so immature about it.

Jami - I totally agree about the insecurities. I don't know how many times I've sat down with a boyfriend and been like, "I just feel ugly sometimes, and like nobody understands me, blah blah blah." Honesty is a good thing. I've had guys do that with me, too.

On the other hand, how old are the characters in these books? I know in some books the girls are over 21, but in some they're like, 16. Which would explain why they act like babies.

Wendy said...

Janet and Leslie: Stephanie Laurens is one of those authors I've just never gotten around to. Plus the sheer size of Cynster series makes my brain freeze up. But I know MANY readers who consider Devil's Bride a classic - and yes, it's in the TBR. I snagged a reprint copy at a conference a couple years back. Maybe I need to dig it out for the TBR Challenge this year?

Jami: Well, it's looking promising. Either way, review will be going up on Thursday.

Lyndee: There's always been non-communicative couples in the romance genre. What I can't figure out is if they're on the rise, or my patience is just wearing thinner with age and they're annoying me more. Another mystery to ponder while I'm stuck in traffic....

joykenn said...

Ah, Wendy, how sad that what could have been a keeper has turned into such a downer. In a way you feel sorry/mad for the writer who obviously has a lot of talent but somehow wasted all that effort cause she couldn't come up with a plot device to keep them on edge but one of the oldest, most shopworn ones. She triumphed over the obvious--whore with a heart of gold, virgin mistaken for whore, etc. etc.--but then was tripped up when it came to the basic noncommunication=discord device. Sigh!

Kati said...

I *totally* missed this review for some reason.

Sorry the book didn't work better for you, Wendy. I loved the old school feel of it, and I think that Monica does an excellent job with the angsting. But then again, I'm not exactly impartial.

I'm glad you gave it a try though! And you've got to admit, if nothing else, the cover is stunning. ;o)

Wendy said...

Joy: That was what was ultimately so frustrating for me. The heroine's character was a risk, a refreshing one at that - but then to have the conflict revolve around them not communicating? Ugh.

Kati: The setting, the Old School feel, I think these were the biggest draws to the story for me. It didn't have that "saga" quality to it (IMHO), but any reader who misses that Old School vibe in historicals? Yeah, they need to get this book, like yesterday.

Monica Burns said...

Wendy, I really appreciate you giving me honest feedback on what you didn't like and what you did like about the book. I'm sorry the book didn't work as well for you,as I would have liked, but I definitely appreciate your reading the book.