A Scandalous Adventure
This third book in Lillian Marek’s Victorian Adventures series takes place in the small – fictitious – German state of Sigmaringen and is basically a gender-swapped version of Anthony Hope’s classic, The Prisoner of Zenda (which the author acknowledges as her inspiration). In that book, an English gentleman traveller who could be the twin of the King of Ruritania Is asked to impersonate him during his coronation as the real king is temporarily indisposed. In this one, a missing princess could spell disaster for the state of Sigmaringen – but salvation is at hand in the form of a young English lady who agrees to act as a temporary decoy.
Lady Susannah Tremaine has accompanied her friend, Lady Olivia de Vaux, and her elderly Aunt Augusta on a trip to the German spa-town of Baden. While the ladies are out for a stroll, they are accosted by a very large, very handsome man in uniform who proceeds to address Olivia as “princess” while he tries to drag her away with him. Susannah is having none of that, telling him that Olivia is not a princess and, when he refuses to believe her, trying to beat him off with her parasol – but that doesn’t work either. It’s only when Lady Augusta arrives on the scene that the man – who introduces himself as Count Maximillian von Staufer, captain in the Royal Guard of Sigmaringen – is persuaded that perhaps Olivia really is an English lady after all.
Not long after this strange encounter, the ladies receive a visit from General Otto Bergen, who apologises for Max’s mistake, but then realises that perhaps here is the solution to a very big problem. He and his men are escorting Princess Mila of Hechingen to their capital at Nymberg in order to solemnise the marriage between the princess and Prince Conrad, but the princess has run off. The resemblance between Olivia and the princess is remarkable, and the general asks for her help. If she were to accompany them to Nymberg and impersonate the princess for just a few days, that would buy his men enough time to find the princess and return her without her father discovering the truth and doing something stupid such as declaring war on Sigmaringen.
Susanna is appalled at the idea and even moreso when it seems that Olivia is actually considering it. She has been sent on this trip with Olivia and Augusta to rein them in, not tumble headlong into some ill-conceived scheme, but with both of them eager for the adventure, Susanna has no choice but to agree to it. And she can’t deny that the opportunity to spend some more time in the company of the handsome captain of the guard is a very attractive prospect.
Max is just as smitten and just as keen to get to know Susanna, whose spirited defence of her friend both amused and impressed him. He recognises that she possesses a keen intelligence and a great deal of courage, in spite of her reluctance to agree to the impersonation plan, and as they travel on to Nymberg they fall naturally into talking and sharing confidences with each other.
Things go well upon their arrival. Olivia’s similarity to the missing princess is such that nobody questions her identity, until, that is, they encounter the prince’s chief counsellor, Baron Herzlos and his two children, Hugo and Helga, both of whom seem extremely surprised to see her. When news reaches the castle that it seems the princess didn’t run away but was kidnapped, Max realises that there is more going on than meets the eye, and that continuing the deception will put the ladies in great danger. He tries to persuade them to leave, but by this time they are determined to stay the course and continue the charade until the princess is found. The fact that Olivia and Conrad can’t keep their eyes off one another is another reason why perhaps sticking around isn’t the best idea, but they are not going to abandon Sigmaringen now.
I’ve got to say straight out that A Scandalous Adventure is far more of an adventure yarn than it is a romance, and if that’s what you’re looking for then all well and good. It’s light and frothy, there’s no overblown angst, the plot is easy to follow and overall, it’s a well-written, undemanding read. One key point of the story is the way in which Prince Conrad comes into his own and finally takes up the reins of power and while it’s a little clichéd, you can’t help but fist-pump the air and say “yes!” when he finally stands up for himself. But if you’re looking for a larger helping of romance with your adventure, then I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed, because the romance between Susannah and Max pretty much arrives fully-formed on the page. They each acknowledge an attraction to the other, there are a few sparks between them (or so we’re told) when their fingers accidentally brush, and later they share a passionate kiss or two, but their relationship isn’t really developed at all; we go from zero to sixty before the half-way point of the book, and hey-presto! they’re in love.
Speaking as someone who does look for a sensual, well-developed romance in a story marketed as an historical romance, I was disappointed. I know when I read an historical mystery by, say, Lucinda Brant or Deanna Raybourn that I’m going to get a mystery with a just a dash of romance, and I’m prepared for it. But here, I wanted a bit more; there is no sexual tension between the couple, no real chemistry and truth be told, they’re both rather nondescript. The same is true of the other characters; the villainous Hugo and Helga are cartoonish, Olivia is insipid, and while Aunt Augusta had the potential to be one of those good-hearted battle-axes so beloved of the genre, she was off screen re-kindling her youthful romance with General Bergen most of the time, so she doesn’t play much of a role in the story.
Oddly, the mystery wraps up well before the end of the book, so the rest of it is devoted to the visit by Lord and Lady Penworth (Susannah’s parents) to Sigmaringen and their mistrust of Max and his feelings for their daughter. I remember them from the previous book (Lady Emily’s Exotic Journey) as being a rather progressive, enlightened couple for the 1860s, whereas here they come across as staid and humourless.
Ultimately A Scandalous Adventure is neither good nor bad; it’s just an okay book I read and won’t read again. Props to the author for moving away from Regency/Victorian England and for the interesting background regarding the politics of the region (most of the smaller German states would be subsumed in the unification of 1871), but that isn’t enough to balance out the blandness of the storyline or characters.