Desert Isle Keeper
Uncovering the Merchant's Secret
Uncovering the Merchant’s Secret is a lot more tough-minded than the last two Hobbes novels I’ve read – and a lot darker. It’s also very entertaining, with the most fascinating heroine I’ve read about recently, and is set in a period I’ve not often come across in historical romance. While I didn’t quite feel the romance as strongly as I did in the author’s two previous novels, the story was so compelling, I had to give it DIK status.
Captain John Sutton has been trying to get out to sea for weeks, but no shipmaster will risk his vessel in the icy, stormy ocean until past March, a wait he finds intolerable. Exiled from a French homeland he misses very much, and no longer the aide to the French King’s Lieutenant after disgrace befell him, he has become a simple merchant, Jack Langdon.
Sutton’s stubbornness results in his obtaining a berth on the ship of a smuggler – and a shipwreck when the vessel is dashed aground against the rocks thanks to a false welcoming beacon. His life at the mercy of fate, he welcomes death, hoping to be reunited with his beloved late wife.
That won’t happen if Blanche Tanet has anything to say about it. The twice-widowed merchant has ships of her own at sea – warships she has outfitted herself – and lives in a castle left to her by her first husband. It’s her beloved second husband, Yann, whom she mourns fiercely, and who died in a struggle to keep Brittany independent of French rule. She has allied herself with a dangerous, unprincipled, evil man against the French forces in order to reach their shared goal. That man, her neighbor Jagu Ronec, lit the beacons in the town church to draw the ship to its doom – an act he has taken part in more than once. In the resulting havoc, Blanche has her cousin gather the bodies and carry them to her castle for proper burial – but Jack lives on, his memory completely obliterated and his knowledge of his double life gone.
As Blanche tries to jog Jack’s memory – and figure out if he’s truly a spy for Charles de Blois – the two begin to fall in love. But what will Blanche do when Jack regains his memory – and she learns that he’s one of the French so she despises? And what will he do when he learns the truth about Blanche’s own secret double identity and what she has done to gain her own revenge?
Uncovering the Merchant’s Secret is a deep, dark romance filled with people harshly driven by their own angst. Some readers will find the story morose unto depressing, with its churning emotions, deep explorations of self-preservation, revenge and self-immolation, and none-too-gentle murderous cut-throatery going on.
But the characters and their tortured romance are compelling in ways that really make the book work.
Blanche is a fascinating, uncompromising heroine who has done some remarkable things – including selling her own body for money to fund her fleet – to keep herself ahead of her enemies and keep the flame of revenge lit. She’s fierce but not inhuman.
Jack is a less accessible character, more thoroughly dunked in his own self-pity. I sympathized with him and found him a compelling hero, but didn’t quite love him the way I loved Blanche.
Their romance is doused in suspicion and distrust for over half the book, but it was a treat to watch them find a bond and manage to attach themselves to it. Their former spouses are not forgotten, thankfully, but their memories are gradually put in a proper, reflective place.
Jagu was a great – and completely nasty and uncompromising – villain in his own right. Be prepared for scumminess of the highest order from him.
Once again, Hobbes takes a rarely written about time in European history and brings it to life. I didn’t catch any flaws in her research, and I felt like I was learning while I was watching the characters duke it out.
Uncovering the Merchant’s Secret is, as Marty McFly would say, “heavy.” But sometimes heavy is just what the reading doctor ordered.