Must Have Been the Moonlight
Lawrence of Arabia meets Sylvia Pankhurst? Though this is the Victorian rather than the Edwardian era, the idea of a be-robed English soldier and fiery suffragist falling in love in Egypt is undoubtedly an intriguing one, and one ably executed by Melody Thomas.
Brianna Donally, a photographer, and her sister-in-law, Lady Alexandra, a renowned archeologist, are researching a book on ancient Coptic ruins when the caravan with which they are traveling is attacked. They manage to escape though all else die, and wander the desert for four days until they are found by Michael Fallon, a major in the British Army. Because he is dressed in long Bedouin robes, he is mistaken for one of the caravan attackers and conked on the head.
Eventually Michael will bring the women to safety, but not before many adventures: a sandstorm, encounters with assassins, disguises, narrow escapes, and a few heated kisses. These are some wonderful opening chapters with a great sense of urgency and a good feel for place; my mouth felt almost gritty as I read of Michael and Brianna huddling beneath a blanket during the sandstorm.
Michael, the younger son of a ducal family, left England in disgrace twelve years ago to join the army. He is a hardened, cynical and dangerous man, a legend in Egypt for his fight against the slave and hashish trades. He is a gorgeous, reckless, larger than life figure (and brought to my mind images of a more virile Peter O’Toole standing out on the dunes, eyes squinting into the sun, on the alert for danger, his long, flowing robes whipped by the wind and molded to his body… ahem.) Michael’s very good friend had led the caravan, which was transporting a gold shipment. He intends to find the leak in the army offices that lead to the attack and the death of his friend.
Brianna is an independent and reform-minded woman who spent jail time in England for her suffragist cause. An accomplished practitioner in the new art of photography, her last illustrated pamphlet on the plight of London’s prostitutes caused a scandal, prompting her parents to send her to Egypt in the care of her brother, the Minister of Public Works. She is outspoken, brash and impatient with the confines of her sex. She has a great enthusiasm for new experiences, and one of the new experiences she’d like to try is having an affair with Michael. She even has her own stash of French lettres brought from England.
Michael returns her sexual infatuation but he also likes her, particularly her sense of adventure and unconventionality. Just as importantly, he likes Brianna’s brother and tries to resist her allure, but Michael is doomed and they become lovers. Just as they embark on their relationship, Michael receives word from England that his brother has died; he is the new duke, and well, you can guess what happens next if you’ve read just about any European Historical.
Michael and Brianna are very unusual historical romance novel characters, as both have occupations and callings and both have some very unattractive qualities to go along with the attractive ones. Michael is too close-mouthed and manipulative, while Brianna definitely has a temper. But it is their imperfections which make them perfect for each other and interesting to read.
I loved the Egyptian setting and this part of the novel was well-executed and evocative. With the return to England and its more stultifying and restricted atmosphere, the novel became less interesting and more conventional. There were also several instances of anachronistic language which pulled me out of the narrative, the most egregious being when Michael admires Brianna’s “moxie”. (The word “moxie” is derived from the name of the first carbonated soft drink invented in the United States in 1884 – not something I’d envision the son of a duke saying, even if it had been invented yet.) But all in all, it is an engrossing read and I do recommend this book for its unusual setting and characters.