Here’s the premise: Joanna Feniton’s parents are dead, so she lives with her grandparents, and at the story’s opening, they are visiting Joanna’s friend Kitty. Joanna is writing a letter one evening alone in a room, when she hears a suspicious noise outside. Instead of doing the sensible thing and ringing for a couple of hefty footmen to deal with the problem, she throws open the french doors and goes outside, where she meets a very suspicious man indeed. Again, instead of summoning help, she invites him into the house to hear his story. Then, when she discovers he is injured, and he tells her that he can’t actually explain what he’s doing, she calmly binds his injured arm, hides him when someone comes looking for her and then doesn’t mention his presence after he’s gone. She even gets up early to wash away the blood from the carpet. And all she knows of him is his (probably fake) name, Captain Jackson.
Now, I’m usually quite prepared to give any book its basic premise, however unlikely, but this one pushed me a little too far. I get that Joanna is intrepid and courageous, and all the rest of it, but there’s a difference between intrepid and foolhardy, and she’s frankly a little too much on the foolhardy side. There are several other occasions when she decides to do something herself instead of sensibly leaving it to those better able to tackle it, and gets herself into all sorts of hot water because of it. Combine that with her propensity to trust anyone with a glib story, or even no story at all, and she’s getting perilously close to too stupid to live territory.
Another big problem with this book is that there are far too many characters who have important roles but aren’t given names, only numbers or the shadowy title ‘my lord’. Again, I get what the author is trying to do, and I suppose if I’d been paying more attention (or had been taking notes, perhaps) I’d have worked out everyone’s identities eventually. As it was, I was left completely confused, and the last few chapters threw me completely. At one point, Captain Jackson is bopped on the head by the bad guys and held captive. Then he seems to have been arrested and imprisoned by the good guys. And then he’s on a ship helping the good guys defeat the bad guys. Was this all the same Captain Jackson? Maybe I missed the connecting story that explained all these disparate sightings.
And then there’s the big reveal of who Captain Jackson really is. All I can say about that is — no. Just no. I don’t believe for one single minute that she could not know that, and no, telling us that she always met Jackson in poor light and therefore didn’t recognise him elsewhere just doesn’t cut it. So that’s a huge fail.
On the plus side, the writing is beautiful, as always with this author, and nothing struck me as inauthentic. There were some nice side characters. I especially liked Joanna’s grandfather, who would have lived in his library if he could and was only half attending to anything else outside his books (a position with which I have total sympathy). The side romance between Kitty and her betrothed was well drawn, too, and the main romance had its share of good moments, although I’m not keen on heroes who seize a kiss that wasn’t actually on offer. The whole smuggling/spying/adventure plot left me cold but that’s just me. I’m not a fan of that, especially when it takes up so much space that the romance is effectively squeezed out. I did guess the identity of the villain, so there’s that.
Other books by this author worked really well for me, but this one was a pretty spectacular fail in the credibility department, and I didn’t particularly take to either of the main characters. For anyone who enjoys this kind of spy story, however, it might work better. As it is, I can only give it two stars.