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?
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-