my library's upcoming literary event, although Anna Randol is an author I've had filed away under "I really need to get caught up on review obligations so I can try one of her books" since her debut novel appeared back in early 2012. Sins Of A Virgin came out last fall and is the start of a trilogy. I'll admit it, reading the back cover blurb, seeing the title, my eyes may have rolled back in my head just a wee bit. Oh silly, silly Wendy. Getting thwarted again by preconceived notions and your own prejudices. I am so glad I read this story, it is by far one of the nicest reading surprises I've encountered in a long time.
The story opens with Madeline Valdan and her two compatriots getting unceremoniously dismissed by their employer. All saved from the gallows, there were trained up and used as spies during England's war with Napoleon. Napoleon now being defeated, their services no longer required, they're given a pat on the head, a pardon for past sins, and a one-time pension check that is paltry to say the least. Madeline knows what it's like to grow up in the midst of poverty, as a woman with limited (OK, no) options at the mercy of others. So she decides to take that meager government pittance and use it to secure a bigger score. She's going to play the coquette, a scandalous whore who turns out is.....a virgin? And she's going to auction off that virginity to the highest bidder. She's sexy, charming, a virgin and nothing like their wives. Yeah, the men of the ton start lining up to make their wagers.
Entering into this fray is a Bow Street Runner, Gabriel Huntford. Born on the wrong side of the blanket, his mission the last several years is to find his twin sister's murderer. There's been another murder in London, similar in modus operandi to his sister's, and now his superior is yanking him off the case (he's too close dontcha know) to guard Madeline Valdan. Madeline is anything but stupid. She knows appearance is everything, and having a watch-dog gives the impression that she has something to protect. Also she wants to make sure that the men bidding on her have the means to pay, and she needs someone to look into their financials. Gabriel is all set to tell her to bugger off when he gets a look at the bidding ledger. Some of the names listed there are some of his prime suspects in his sister's murder.
I read a female spy novel last year for the TBR Challenge by an author who excelled at prose, but whose characterization of the heroine I found utterly unsatisfying. Randol's prose doesn't sing like that author's does, but oh, her creation of Madeline hits all the right notes with me. This woman.....this woman is a spy. She's calculating, manipulative, and a cynic. She's the kind of person who immediately sizes up an entire room of people. She's the sort who never has her back to a door, always knows the nearest escape routes, and can tell you who is the immediate threat and who is the slobbering puppy dog not worth her concern. She uses any and all weapons at her disposal, her charm, her abilities at seduction, even a good knock on the head with a heavy object. She can save herself, but likes working with a team - and matching her with a hero like Gabriel really allows her to shine. I also loved her dichotomy. The question very early on is how could this woman possibly still be a virgin? Hell, is she even a virgin at all? The way the author addresses that mystery is one I found satisfying, and actually believable (go figure).
Gabriel is your classic wounded hero with an ax to grind and a mission driving him forward. His sister's death not only haunts him for the obvious reasons, but also for those last moments they spent together - the words he said to her that he now regrets. He should have listened. Why didn't he listen? He resents the hell out of being forced on Madeline's assignment, but he's smart enough to know that it's the closest he's going to get to having access to so many on his suspect list. Because after all? You simply cannot storm into a peer's home and start questioning the man. It simply isn't done.
The suspense angle here is very solid. Besides the identity of the murderer, someone starts threatening Madeline and her life is endangered more than once. I had the murderer pretty well pegged, but the author does a lovely job of putting in twists, turns, red herrings, to keep you happily moving along in the story. The romance here does take time. Madeline isn't the sort to pour her guts out to anybody, even a handsome anybody like Gabriel. Likewise, Gabriel is a professional investigator, he's not going to spill his guts to Madeline even though he deduces pretty quickly that she's not just a pretty, flirtatious face. There's way more to her story than she's letting on, and he knows it.
I really enjoyed this story immensely. I loved the characters, it kept me entertained, it was just an all around fun read. With countless spy stories populating the romance landscape, this one was a nice treat - a breath of fresh air thanks to the author's characterization of the heroine. I liked that she was smart, resourceful, and strong. That she could unravel herself from sticky situations, but wasn't such a lone wolf that she couldn't see the benefit of team work. Really, a very good show indeed.
Final Grade = B+