The de Valery Code
This is the first in a new series of books from Ms Burke, under the title of Regency Treasure Hunters, and it’s a fast-paced mixture of adventure and romance, very much in the mould of Romancing the Stone or Indiana Jones. But with more sex!
The story opens with Miss Margery Deringham and her two great aunts searching their attic for things of value that they can sell in order to stave off financial ruin. When they stumble across an old, illuminated manuscript storybook entitled The Ballads of Sir Gareth, Margery is spellbound. Her aunts tell her that they remember the book from their childhoods, and that it contains stories of bold knights, beautiful damsels and derring do.
The ladies decide to have the book valued – they can’t afford to be blinded to their precarious monetary situation by sentimentality – and write to Alexander Bowen, widely known to be an expert on medieval manuscripts to request his assistance.
Margery travels to meet with Mr Bowen and is surprised to discover the elderly scholar she had expected to meet is in fact a much younger man – Mr Rhys Bowen, the scholar’s equally knowledgeable son. Not only is he younger, he’s gorgeous – but Margery finds his rather commanding manner off-putting and senses that he is not telling her the whole truth about her book.
When Margery turns down Rhys’ more than generous offer for the manuscript, he realises that the only way he is going to be able to study it at any length is to share some of his knowledge with her. He tells her that her book is one of two written by the medieval poet Eugene de Valery, that the other book is in the possession of his cousin, the dissolute Earl of Stratton, and that the books are worth far more as a pair than individually.
What he doesn’t tell her is that the books together are rumoured to contain a code which, when broken, will lead to a great treasure. Rhys has no idea what the code is, how to break it or what the treasure is – he is more interested in the scholastic value of said treasure than in any monetary gain, and in the challenge presented by the need to find and then break the code.
Thoroughly intrigued by the history of the manuscript and by the prospect of seeing another like it, Margery is not about to give her book into Rhys’ charge and insists on accompanying him to his cousin’s estate in Leominster, a day’s journey away.
On their overnight stop, Margery awakens to find an intruder in the room she shares with her companion – an intruder who threatens violence if she doesn’t give him the book – and it becomes clear to her that there is something more at stake here than an historical interest in a couple of old manuscripts. Rhys has to tell her the truth about the code, and they come to the realisation that their treasure hunt could prove dangerous.
The de Valery Code is a cracking yarn that moves at a swift pace with a sensual romance developing alongside. I enjoyed the story, and while the idea of a secret order pledged to seek out Arthurian treasures and prevent their use for evil is perhaps a little far-fetched, it’s no more so than those featured in countless other books which tell similar stories.
The book is well-plotted and written, but the characterisation is a bit uneven. Rhys is a charming beta hero, a knowledgeable antiquarian and scholar whose air of authority and confidence in his abilities is seen by Margery as arrogance and pig-headedness, and that’s a big stumbling block for me, because he’s neither of those things. Margery is lovely, intelligent, and discovers a real passion for history and its secrets as she and Rhys pursue their goal, but she refuses to trust him, citing those lies of omission from when they barely knew each other as the reason why. She lies to him, tries to trick him into thinking she’s gone back home when she’s really trying to head off on her own, and justifies her actions by reminding herself that he’d lied to her once. He never gives her any other reason to mistrust him, saves her bacon on several occasions and makes it clear that he has every intention of sharing his discoveries with her, and yet she still won’t trust him. In the romance department, there’s terrific chemistry between the couple, but Margery persists in pushing Rhys away here, too, and although Ms Burke tries to explain Margery’s attitude towards the end of the story, it isn’t enough to justify the hurt she causes. She actually initiates the first two sexual encounters – and yet afterwards, she leaps out of bed like it’s on fire (which it may have been, because the sex scenes are nicely hot!), tells Rhys she doesn’t want anything more from him, puts on her clothes and bolts from the room without so much as a “thank-you”, leaving Rhys wondering what the hell went wrong!
While the characterisation of the heroine does leave something to be desired, the story as a whole flows well and Margery does redeem herself somewhat towards the end.
I did notice a few errors in the copy I read – some were those pesky Americanisms that appear in almost every historical I read (“gotten” is not a word we use in the UK – we just say “got”), and I was somewhat confused when one of the secondary characters – Mr Digby – was referred to as a “peer” and addressed as a “lordship”. If he’s a Mister, he’s neither a peer nor a lordship.
But otherwise, it’s an engaging – if slightly derivative – read and a good start to the series.