The Book of the Seven Delights
While The Book of the Seven Delights is a charming and enjoyable romance, it’s also a book with a supremely entertaining first half and a second that is far less so. Add in the less than combustible (and almost completely off-stage) love scenes along with the inevitable comparisons to Loretta Chase’s Mr. Impossible, and Betina Krahn’s latest merits a recommendation – if a bit of a qualified one.
Heroine Abigail Merchant is a member of the proud profession of librarians, a calling dominated in America in the late 1890’s by pioneering women. Unfortunately, when Abigail applies for a position at the British Museum, the stodgy gentlemen in charge don’t look quite as favorably on career women as their American counterparts and Abigail is reluctantly – and only very reluctantly – given a low-level cataloging assignment solely because of the influence of her estranged father. Anxious to prove herself, though understandably resentful of her lowly status, Abigail digs in and sets out to show her doubting supervisors the value of her capabilities.
Soon enough, Abigail stumbles across gold. Literally. In the papers of a gentleman bequeathed to the museum, Abigail discovers tantalizing clues that the now dead scholar may have been on the verge of a great discovery: Priceless ancient manuscripts saved from the fire that destroyed the Great Library at Alexandria. Not surprisingly, stalwart Abigail decides that taking up where the scholar left off will provide her with the perfect opportunity to prove her value to both the British Museum and her father, while also delivering a great discovery to the world.
Armed with maps and clues left behind by the scholar, Abigail’s adventure is off to a less than auspicious start when she succumbs to a virulent attack of seasickness while on board the freighter carrying her to Morocco. Fortunately – or, unfortunately, as Abigail sees it – help in recovering arrives in the form of handsome Apollo Smith, a man Abigail is convinced is a feckless and untrustworthy rake. Despite the assistance he offers her, the ailing Abigail is less than gracious.
Of course, Apollo is a man with both secrets and an agenda of his own. Because of those secrets, instead of arriving with the rest of the passengers, Apollo dives over the side of the freighter and stealthily creeps into the Moroccan port just in time to see Abigail’s trunks stolen by street thugs and the young woman herself fall under the spell of a dastardly villain pretending to come to her aid. Determined to rescue Abigail himself – especially since he hid belongings of his own inside one of her missing trunks – Apollo soon finds himself more involved than he’d like to be in her quest.
On the positive side, the first half of this book works very nicely. The dialogue between Abigail and Apollo sings, the story is intriguing, revelations about the characters are artfully revealed, and everything moves along at a satisfying pace. But when Abigail and Apollo undertake a desert journey – I won’t reveal more for fear of spoilers – at the very point in the story in which the momentum should be building, the exact opposite happens. The chemistry between the characters fizzles, the dialogue loses its zing, and the story itself seems a bit…well, d-r-a-w-n out.
And, yes, due to some significant similarities in both plot and setting, I couldn’t quite put Mr. Impossible out of my mind as I was reading. Frankly, even though Apollo is charming, he’s not nearly as charming – or as funny – as the redoubtable Rupert and, even though Abigail is a likable and intelligent heroine, she comes up short when compared to the determined Daphne. Both Abigail and Apollo, quite honestly, seem both a bit lackluster and far less real when compared to their counterparts in Loretta Chase’s fabulous book.
I have to mention, as well, that this book is far more tame than you might expect for one with the title The Book of the Seven Delights since everything even remotely delightful takes place strictly off-stage. It’s hard not to feel a little bit cheated.
Still, there is much to like here, including the author’s always intelligent prose and irrepressible sense of fun. If all that works quite a bit better in the first half of the book, The Book of the Seven Delights is still far superior to the vast majority of historical romance these days, not to even mention that it largely takes place somewhere other than London in a time that is decidedly not the Regency. Ultimately, if the author’s new “romantic adventure series set in the high-spirited Victorian age” isn’t off to a perfect start, it is, nevertheless, a promising one.