The Golden Leopard
I love adventurous romances. Books that feature danger at sea, exotic locales, battles of wits, and perilous quests always make me happy. It doesn’t have to be probable, but it does have to be well done: nothing’s more annoying than an action plot that doesn’t make sense in terms of its setup, or one that seems tacked on as an afterthought. The Golden Leopard by Lynn Kerstan is a very good example of a passionate love story that is also an adventure story. It features a stolen treasure, a cruel Eastern potentate, several mysterious foreign assassins, and a man with webbed hands. I loved it.
Lord Hugo Duran is an extremely disreputable Englishman who, as the book opens, has been imprisoned in a remote Indian kingdom. It seems that a politically-important artifact – a jewel-encrusted golden statue of a leopard – was stolen by another Englishman. Duran is to pay the price for this crime by submitting to the Trial of a Thousand Screams. Duran manages to talk his way out of this, or at least partly. He has one year to find the leopard, which is assumed to be in England. As he returns to England, he is accompanied by Shivaji, an assassin (posing as his valet), whose job is to ensure that Duran does search for the statue, and who will kill him without compunction at the end of his year, whether or not Duran succeeds in finding it.
Six years before, Duran had a passionate affair with Lady Jessica Carville, an extremely unconventional woman who declared her intention to never marry, and cemented that intention by sleeping with Duran. He has never been able to get her out of his mind. As luck would have it, Jessica has further defied her noble family by becoming a dealer of antiques and rare artifacts. She might well be in a position to help Duran – except that he broke her heart when he left six years ago, and she’s not amenable to doing him any favors.
Jessica is a ferociously independent, rather not-historically-likely heroine, who is determined to earn a living and make her own way in the world without the help of her loving but stiflingly conventional family. Duran’s presence puts all that in jeopardy. Jessica considers Duran a master manipulator. She thinks that everything he says is a lie, every show of emotion calculated to control those around him. The wonderful thing is that she’s right. Duran is a real scoundrel.
The way the sparks fly between Jessica and Duran is delicious. He sets about attempting to get Jessica to do what he wants, but she is no longer the besotted innocent he once knew, and she stands up to his attempts to manipulate her. Jessica’s reaction when he tells her his story is so priceless, I hugged myself with delight. Then I read it again.
I liked Jessica and Duran, and the spicy love scenes they share, but the real thing that tickled me about this book was the adventure. I’ll not soon forget one suspenseful, beautifully-written sequence, told in flashback, in which Duran attempts to escape from Shivaji.
I also absolutely adored Shivaji, the Hindu assassin and valet who watches over Duran. You might think it a flaw – for a secondary character to be so charismatic that he almost overshadows the hero – but believe it or not this works. Shivaji’s personality – serene, driven, implacable – is balanced perfectly against Duran’s cynical, deceitful nature. Shivaji is the still center around which the entire improbable plot orbits; if he weren’t so compelling, the whole thing would collapse. Another intriguing character is Jessica’s secretary, Helena. She is rarely present and has no lines. Nevertheless, her extraordinary actions behind-the-scenes made me want to know much more about her.
Though I enjoyed the adventure plot, it contributed to the slowdown of the book’s pacing during its last third. By that time, the story is being driven entirely by external concerns, and not by the relationship. The conflict between the hero and heroine is not resolved but put on hold for the time being, and I found the book a little put-downable at that point than I had in its earlier chapters.
In spite of that small quibble, The Golden Leopard is an extremely fun book, one that left me wanting more. Those of you who enjoy adventure should definitely give it a try. As for me, I’m thrilled to discover a new-to-me author. I’m going to try to find more books by Lynn Kerstan – if they’re at all like this one, they’re just my cup of tea.