I thought long and hard about this review. I knew the book didn’t draw me in as completely as Ms. Bradley’s earlier books had, but the reasons for that had me stumped. There were a couple of problems in the plotting and characterization, but that still didn’t account for my overall lack of engagement in the story. Part of me thought it was because this was just the latest in an increasingly long line of what I am now calling the Regency Spy subgenre of romances (that’s Bond as in Street – not James). But the more I thought about it the more I realized it’s these words, and these characters, and this story. Seems obvious doesn’t it?
Collis Tremayne is determined to pass his training and become a full member of the Liar’s Club. His uncle, Lord Etheridge, is one of the men in charge of the school for spies and assassins, so Collis should be a shoe-in, but there are a couple of obstacles in his way. One is the war injury that made his left arm all but useless and the second is fellow student and competitor Rose Lacey. Collis is afraid that if he fails to best the woman he calls Briar Rose, he won’t get the job. Complicating matters tremendously is the strong attraction he feels for this very comely rival.
Rose, a former housemaid recruited by Lord Etheridge’s wife Clara (The Imposter), is as unwavering as Collis. She will do anything to keep from having to return to her old life as a maid at the mercy of anyone who employs her. Every minute of Rose’s training and work gets her that much closer to her goal and she won’t let anything stand in her way. Not even if he’s as handsome as the devil. The problem is that she’s been assigned to work with him on a test case. If they can’t make their partnership work, Rose isn’t sure she’ll be allowed her dream of becoming a Liar.
What worked: The set-up is nicely done. Rose and Collis have genuine reason for fearing each other – even if much of their fear is self-induced because they each lack in self-confidence. Because of their very real fears, their competitiveness and sparring is natural and unforced. This isn’t ‘I hate you, let’s go to bed’ writing, and that’s a big plus. The writing as it pertains to the anxieties this hero and heroine have about their individual futures is well-done. Who wouldn’t root for each of them individually? Or long for them to figure it all out and triumph as a pair?
What didn’t work: The scenes that set them off on their first case and what they do with the investigation. Though the reader is told that these are two intelligent people, every action they take as they begin belies that fact. Rose takes the wrong folder, they challenge each other to a contest to see who will be in charge, and worst of all to my mind was the inclusion, by Collis, of the Prince Regent into their investigation. I certainly enjoyed the fact that Ms. Bradley wrote this perennial Regency figure in a different light than the norm, but his presence took me out of the story with every appearance.
In the turnabout you don’t often see, the treasonous plotting works better than the romance, that is, until the story’s rushed and unbelievable climax. What’s worse, those last, fast scenes actually detract from the romantic relationship. When they appeared initially, Rose and Collis were pretty original. Their insecurities if given enough space would have made for interesting conflict. As it is, the hunt-the-traitor plot takes over for a good part of the book and their personal conflict only shows up again in those last scenes, and then they are dealt with in a shallow and unsatisfying manner. The Charmer has all the elements – but somehow the result is more like a picture you buy at one of those starving artists’ sales for $39.95 than a one-of-a-kind original.