May 2008, European Historical Romance (Early 1800s [Georgian] England)
Berkley Sensation, $14.00, 336 pages, Amazon ASIN 0425221369 Part of a series
Thanks to the online reader community, I don’t often choose the books I buy these days using the old-fashioned bookstore test. But, since publishers and authors tell us over and over again that online reviews and buzz don’t matter a whit when it comes to sales, I’m going to predict that Claudia Dain just might be in a heap o’ trouble with regards to The Courtesan’s Secret. Why? Because nineteen – count ‘em – nineteen characters, give or take a few, are introduced in the first two chapters of this book. It adds up to one dizzying cacophony of names and plot details and, for any reader road-testing the book, not a single reason to buy it. Most especially at the steep trade paperback price.
As bad as that might sound, the entire book, in fact, feels as if it the author never decides whose story she wants to write, because the central romance never becomes…well, a central romance since the author focuses her attention almost equally on a number of different sub plots. Equally problematic, this book feels as if it’s the second half of the previous book in the series – a book I haven’t read, by the way – and the author cuts virtually no slack for new readers. The reader is told over and over again about something to do with a pearl necklace and how the courtesan of the title manipulated three men into offering for her daughter and somehow, someway we are supposed to keep all those men straight, plus about a jillion more. Not to even mention the future heroines who are introduced at an equally dizzying pace.
The main – and I use the term loosely – plot concerns Lady Lousia Kirkland requesting the assistance of Sophia Dalby, the courtesan of the title, in getting back a pearl necklace from the man with whom she’s long been in love. It seems that he purchased the necklace from Louisa’s unloving father in the previous book to present it to Sophia’s daughter. Of course, Louisa also wants the man who bought the necklace, only the all-wise Sophia knows there is a better man for her. But just when I started to get just a teensy bit interested, it's back to the pearl necklace stuff again. If you find as I did that you don’t give a rat’s ass about what happened in the previous book, then you’re out of luck because the events of that book are referenced over and over (and over and over) again. Along with about 65 other plot threads involving the man who loves Louisa, the man Louisa loves, Sophia, a man who loves her, Sophia’s brothers, two dukes, and a whole mess of other characters.
Still, somehow despite the haze of confusion surrounding me while I read this book, the fact that Claudia Dain has a pleasing prose style somehow managed to come through. In this particular book, however, all that proficiency is wasted on an unfocused and uninvolving story. Though it seems as if this should be blazingly obvious to any novelist, readers have to know enough to actually care about a character before they can even begin to care about numerous complicated plot details.
Not to even mention those nineteen characters (not including the butler) introduced in the book’s first nineteen pages.
-- Sandy Coleman
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