The Book of True Desires
The early sections of The Book of True Desires set up a premise so tantalizing I actually experienced a giddy rush of anticipation. But while Betina Krahn takes readers on an interesting journey in this romantic adventure, I ultimately couldn’t help thinking that some better company would have improved the trip.
In order to fund an expedition in Africa, explorer Cordelia O’Keefe turns to her long-lost grandfather, wealthy tycoon Samuel Blackburn. Years earlier Blackburn disowned her father when he married her mother. By contacting him, Cordelia sees a way to not only get the money she needs, but also his eventual acceptance of her as his granddaughter. But the ever wily Blackburn challenges her to do something for him first to prove her abilities. He wants her to find an ancient Mayan treasure known as the Gift of the Jaguar and bring it back to him. If she does, he’ll split the profits with her fifty-fifty, allowing her to fund her expedition.
To her dismay, he insists on sending Hartford Goodnight, his English butler, with her. Goodnight’s job is to watch over the money and report back to Blackburn on her activities. He isn’t really a butler though. A chemist by trade, he signed a business contract with Blackburn that forced him into servitude to work off his debt when the pharmaceutical research he was working on didn’t pan out. He doesn’t want to be traipsing along on a jungle adventure any more than Cordelia wants him there. But Blackburn offers him a deal as well. If he can bring back a plant that will cure Blackburn’s gout, he’ll be released from his contract. The idea of being freed from his servitude, as well as discovering new species of plant life, is too good for Goodnight to refuse.
It’s always welcome to see fresh, unusual settings in a romance novel, particularly a historical, and Krahn transports the reader to several exotic locales. The journey takes the characters to Cuba, where they encounter the turbulent political situation embroiling the country and soon gain a nemesis who wants the treasure for himself. With him on their trail, they travel across the Caribbean and into southern Mexico. From lush forests to isolated villages, the author gives a vivid sense of place, really bringing the settings to life.
The story is always interesting, but seldom as involving as it should be. The biggest problem is that the characters are rather flat. I really like the idea of a strong, adventurous heroine and amusingly persnickety, intellectual hero, but I never warmed up to these particular characters. I kept waiting for them to be deepened beyond those first impressions. They never were. Their development is perfunctory at best, with Cordelia and Hart never achieving more than two dimensions. As a result, the characters aren’t as engaging as they should be, so their adventures aren’t either. Everyone else ranges from the nondescript, like Cordelia’s aunt (which prevents her subplot from having any impact), to one-note, like the cartoonish villain. The romance also felt forced, little moments popping up every once in a while without picking up much power on the whole.
The plot is seldom as exciting as might be expected from this type of story, mostly because the pace is more of an amiable trot than a rip-roaring gallop. The story also loses some tension once the characters arrive in Mexico. They mosey along, conducting their search with no real sense of urgency. The author occasionally shows the villain in pursuit, but those brief scenes felt more obligatory than truly suspenseful. Still, there are some good action moments and things pick up once the heroes and villain inevitably collide. More importantly, the subject matter is intriguing, so while the characters’ search may lack excitement for much of its early stages, it’s still fairly cool, especially with some of the discoveries they make and places they go.
If a great adventure romance allows readers to feel like they’re living the story with the characters, The Book of True Desires felt more like being stuck on a tour bus, watching the cool scenery pass by without being able to experience it for myself. The lack of connection with the characters led to a lack of connection with the story. Readers with a taste of armchair adventure may find this generally well-written, better-than-average book has something to offer. It was a pleasant enough read that I didn’t mind. I just can’t call it more than that.