Wicked Lies is a book I’d characterize as flawed, but intriguing. It manages by turns to be both convoluted and thoughtful, and the characters are fairly likable – when their actions and motivations can be believed. While I’d probably consider it too flawed to warrant a recommendation, at least I wasn’t bored while I read it.
When Catherine Bellamy’s brother is too drunk to deliver a message one night, she finds herself alone on a dark Virginia road, waiting for someone named Merlin. When he shows up, the two have only a few minutes together before they are ambushed and taken captive by a band of British soldiers. “Merlin” is beaten within an inch of his life, but the two of them manage to escape while they are manacled together. And so begins the complex and passionate journey that will bring them together.
Catherine is a widow who until recently ran a newspaper (yes, in 1772; I had trouble believing that too, but it’s a plausible scenario). Her press was destroyed when her husband was killed, and it’s all she can do to squeak by and support her step-family. She has a wild younger brother who is involved in something nefarious, a step-mother who is not “all there,” and a few more assorted siblings who depend on her. She has been trying to find her dead husband’s brother, a lord and captain in the navy, in the hopes that he will help them get back on their feet.
“Merlin” actually is the brother in question, but while they are chained together neither of them knows about their connection. Merlin is apparently a blockade runner for the rebel cause who has connections to the Sons of Liberty. He would really like to know the identity of the woman chained to him, but she’s not answering any questions. Nonetheless, he is impressed by her pluck, and when she turns to him in longing one night, he doesn’t say no.
Eventually, they each return to their respective homes. Catherine doesn’t expect to see Merlin again, but when she discovers that she is carrying his child, she goes to meet her brother-in-law, Julian Lambert (Lord Blackmoor). Catherine has heard that Julian has ties to Merlin, and she wants to apply to him for financial help and perhaps information. Julian didn’t even know his brother had married, so he is skeptical of Catherine’s story. Nonetheless, he recognizes her immediately as the woman he was chained to for nearly a week. For some reason, Catherine doesn’t recognize him.
I imagine this sounds pretty convoluted so far, but it’s only the beginning. Before their happy ending, Julian and Catherine will be in and out of boats, cottages, and houses (so many that I had trouble remembering where they were living at any given moment). They will interact with so many different people that it’s hard to keep them all straight, and they will both be attacked by the real villain after both being charged with various crimes such as sedition and murder. Somewhere in the middle of this they manage to fall in love with each other in a way that’s surprisingly credible considering everything that’s going on.
The complicated nature of the plot is both a strength and a weakness. On one hand, the subject and setting are incredibly ambitious. Most books that tackle a Revolutionary War setting tend to stick to the basics, with the standard smuggler/spy hero or heroine who think they have conflicting loyalties until they discover they are on the same side. Renken, on the other hand, has a British naval officer who sympathizes with the colonists and is not entirely sure where his loyalties lie, and a heroine with standard patriot leanings but a disaffection for the current rebel leaders who are using politics as an excuse for indiscriminate crime. I found this all very interesting, but the problem is that no one’s motivation is examined or explained adequately, and at the end we’re left wondering why exactly the characters made the choices they did. When I closed the book, I still wasn’t really sure.
The prose has a descriptive, almost epic style. At times, it’s really evocative; you can feel the fear of the heroine in the vast woods and see the streets of Williamsburg and Yorktown. Unfortunately, there are also typos and poorly-worded sentences throughout the book that pull the reader right out of the story. Just two examples:
“He smelled of crisp starch and wool and English Imperialism.” What does English Imperialism smell like, exactly? Tea and gunpowder? Sweat of the oppressed masses?
“Aye, loyalty and friendship were a leapfrog affair that had a way of burning him to death when he looked the other way.” I’m still trying to figure that one out.
Probably the biggest flaw of the book is Catherine’s failure to recognize the man she was chained to for days – the same one with whom she spoke and made love. It’s explained that Merlin/Julian had been beaten, and had a beard which he later shaved off. To be quite honest, I almost always have problems with the hero/heroine in disguise plot; I always wonder why they aren’t recognized by people who have stood in the same room with them, let alone slept with them. It all makes Catherine seem like the most spectacularly unobservant person on the planet.
But somewhere beneath the confusing plot and the occasional contrivance, there is a good story just dying to break free. Catherine and Julian share some dialogue that’s quite memorable, and the love scenes are all very affecting. Even when their story didn’t make much sense, I couldn’t help rooting for Catherine and Julian. I hope that Renken is an author who will persevere and improve over time, perhaps with the help of a capable editor. While I wouldn’t particularly recommend this effort, I would not be at all adverse to trying her again a few books down the road.