As someone who reads many (many, many, many, many) European Historicals simply because I love them, I can often be entertained by a familiar story in the hands of a skilled writer. But what a pleasure it is to come across a book that features complex characters who are anything but formulaic and a setting that’s truly unique.
Jarrett, Lord Derring, the hero of Dangerous Deceptions, is a genuinely good man who doesn’t know it. Forced to survive primarily by gambling, he is stunned to be recruited by a super secret group called the Black Phoenix to aid them in a mysterious plan. Jarrett’s reason for accepting their offer is hardly altruistic: The expense money he will be given will provide the impoverished nobleman with the funds he desperately needs to survive for a few more months. Soon enough finds himself at Paradise, a notorious resort with an unsavory reputation, where he is told he will be contacted by a fellow Black Phoenix recruit with further instructions.
That fellow recruit is Gaetana, a “gypsy dancer” entertainer at the resort. Her opening moves are decidedly unique: She publicly humiliates Jarrett during her performance, then introduces herself as a fellow Black Phoenix member by stealthily entering his cabin and waking him with a knife at his throat. Jarrett must, she says, manage to win an auction to be held on the morrow offering her exclusive services for one week. The jaded guests at Paradise will relish the prospect of the man Gaetana humiliated “owning” her and punishing the jade for her presumption.
With the auction won and Kate (Gaetana’s real name) believed to be in his power, the stage is set for the unlikely alliance of actress and nobleman to assist Black Phoenix in discovering the truth behind a series of horrendous crimes.
One of the greatest pleasures of the book is the way the author slowly and carefully peels away the layers so that the reader discovers along with Kate and Jarrett the real truth behind their assignment. But, while the mystery is intriguing, the setting and characters are even more so. Paradise – it struck me as story of an extreme 19th century version of Hedonism – specializes in catering to every perverted taste of its exclusive clientele and it does make for a unique setting for a romance novel. It also owes more than a small debt to Samuel Taylor Coleridge in that it features both a Xanadu and a Pleasure Dome.
Jarrett is recruited by Black Phoenix to go undercover in Paradise for the precise reason that a more upright character would be viewed with suspicion. But Jarrett is a better man than his fellow denizens at Paradise know since his reputation is far worse than his actual behavior. (As Jarrett puts it, his stay at the resort will allow him the rare opportunity to “live down” to his reputation.) It is, in fact, Jarrett’s redemption and discovery of a true sense of purpose for his life that provide much of the novel’s enjoyment. Jarrett isn’t a faux rake – he is, instead, a man forced to do whatever is necessary to survive and who, though he has a hard time admitting it even to himself, is none too proud of much of it.
Kate makes for an intriguing character, as well, though for much of the book we know far less about her than we do Jarrett. Intelligent, dedicated, and willing to do whatever it takes to complete her mission, she is a strong and stalwart heroine and an equal and powerful player in the Black Phoenix mission.
Some readers, however, may find portions of the book disturbing. Jarrett and Kate must convince their decadent fellow guests at Paradise that they are engaged in an affair more than a bit tinged by BDSM and, in pursuit of that goal, Jarrett says and does distasteful things here that caused me to wince a time or two at the coarseness of it all. Still, this is a different kind of book in an entirely unique setting and the fact that the author doesn’t pull her punches is one of the factors that really makes this book work.
I did, however, have one big quibble. Frankly, the book would have been a better one without the additional and decidedly anticlimactic conflict tacked onto the book after the conclusion of the action at Paradise. Of course, there must be obstacles to Kate and Jarrett’s HEA, but I would like to have seen it all wrapped up long before it is.
Ultimately, Dangerous Deceptions offers much to the reader of European Historical novels looking for something a little different. Lynn Kerstan (and this was my first book by the author) has a unique and powerful voice that I’m very much looking forward to exploring further.