A nineteenth-century exotic locale, a handsome officer and a feisty heroine make for archetypical romantic fare, but Lauren Willig’s new novel The Betrayal of the Blood Lily is anything BUT a conventional bodice ripper embellished with historical detail. In her sixth novel in her “Pink Carnation” series, Willig exhibits once again that she is an accomplished raconteur as she weaves an intricate and lively tale involving spies, espionage and romance during the Napoleonic Wars between Britain and France. Whereas the previous novels have taken place in England and France involving a set of interrelated characters, Willig has taken a bold leap in introducing a new ensemble cast and intriguingly transported the narrative to exotic India.
Our new heroine Penelope Deveraux, who we met briefly in the previous novel The Temptation of the Night Jasmine, is as bold as brass. Her unpropitious behavior had always set more than a few fans fluttering and tongue’s wagging in London society, but she never thought a little kanoodling would force her into a hasty marriage with the dissipated Lord Frederick Staines. To avert scandal, the couple is quickly packed off to India where Freddy has accepted the position as Governor General Wellesley’s Special Envoy to the Court of Hyderabad. Married life is more than a bit disappointing as Freddy’s diversions tend toward gambling away her dowry and dalliances with the local bibi, the Indian equivalent of a mistress. One would think that Lady Penelope would be at odds in this strange new world far and away from the tempered drawing rooms of England, but she can ride and shoot and talk politics with the best of the big boys. This is more than a bit disconcerting to Captain Alex Reid who is escorting Lord Staines and his adventurous young wife to Hyderabad. She is a willful, flipant and an opinionated aristocrat. He is a disciplined, by-the-book, level headed solider and more than alarmed by her unconventional behavior. Their sharp banter is reminiscent of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler on a bad day. Unfortunately, he frankly does give a damn. Pen is a married woman and her overt flirtation and unguarded behavior is sorely testing his honor. The political situation in India is just as tumultuous as the British and French jockey for control after the end of the Maratha War. In the court of the Nizam of Hyderabad, power and deceit go hand-in-hand fueling rumors of a French flower spy the Marigold. Gold and guns are missing which could turn the axis of power back into French hands. Somehow Penelope is connected to the Marigold and Captain Reid reluctantly accepts her help to uncover a dangerous spy, save British interest in India and thwart Bonaparte. Oh, and along the way, a few buttons get popped.
As with all of the previous novels in this series, the parallel plot with contemporary scholar Eloise Kelly prompts the historical story as she conducts her own research into the enigmatic British flower spies during the Napoleonic wars. Her investigation into the Selwick family papers has uncovered more than just primary source material for her doctoral thesis. After a tentative beginning Eloise and Colin, the Selwick family scion and possible modern spy, are a steady item. Since Eloise’s love life is on track she decides to match make for Colin’s younger sister Serena. Like Jane Austen’s famous misapplying heroine Emma Woodhouse, she is clueless about what attracts people to one another and why her choices are so wrong. Eloise’s social insecurities and endearingly flawed personality is what makes her both vulnerable and attractive to us, and Colin. Like the brash over confident Lady Penelope Staines, she does not realize yet that her weaknesses are her greatest strengths. Throughout the novel, Willig proves again and again that she is a nonpareil in the delicate art of characterization supplying an array of personalities whose foibles and strengths rival those penned in classic literature. Queen of the poignant adjective, Willig’s witty dialogue sparkles resplendently with humor and delight. I couldn’t have been more content being back in her world.
A superior addition to the “Pink Carnation” series, readers of The Betrayal of the Blood Lily will be as crestfallen as I when they finish the last page and realize that they must wait a whole year for the next book.
5 out of 5 Stars
The Betrayal of the Blood Lily, by Lauren Willig
Penguin Group, USA (2010)
Hardcover (401) pages
Cover image courtesy of Penguin Group © 2010; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2010, Austenprose.com