The Scarlet Spy

Andrea Pickens
October 2008, European Historical Romance (Regency England)
Forever, $6.99, 352 pages, Amazon ASIN 0446618012
Part of a series

Grade: C+
Sensuality: Warm

One of the weaknesses of the romance genre is its tendency toward recycled plots Ė secret babies and Big Misunderstandings being two major examples. For this reason, good stories need a freshness to make them stand out. Unfortunately, The Scarlet Spy by Andrea Pickens lacked in this regard.

An orphan raised by prostitutes, Sofia is taken from the streets by a lord employed by the War Department and trained to be one of Merlin's Maidens, elite female spies. Sofiaís two best friends have already been on missions - and found husbands - and now itís her turn. She poses as an Italian Contessa to infiltrate the Scarlet Knights, a group of men suspected of drug trafficking, smuggling, and murder.

At the request of Sofia's benefactor, Lord Deverill Osborne, jokingly referred to as Lord Sunshine both for his blonde hair and bright disposition, introduces Sofia to the ton. However, he is more than an affable, idle peer. As he gets to know Lady Sofia and begins to care for her, despite her seeming indifference, he notices how things donít add up, and begins to suspect that Contessa Sofia is more than she says she is.

While thereís nothing overly stereotypical about the story, it doesnít feel like thereís much original in it either. The plot is interesting and the story moves quickly. I also liked the concept of the spy school and found the minor characters to be interesting and colorful. None of these, though, are unique in the romance universe.

A downside is Pickens' mixing of phrases or words straight out of the time period with others that seem far too modern, a jarring device that makes the story read unevenly. As much as I dislike anachronisms, I probably would have preferred consistency over the authorís ability to pull colloquialisms out of Napoleonic era England.

While I liked both Sofia and Osborne, I felt there were some inconsistencies in his character. We first meet him escaping the bed of an angry courtesan, thus painting him as yet another depraved rake on the verge of being reformed. However, this scene and some forced internal dialogue are the only things that suggest this since everything else points solely to a well-liked, well-behaved, trustworthy man. Not that this is a bad thing. I prefer that side of his character far better than the womanizing (and stereotypical) portrayal the author attempts.

Overall, this story wasnít bad. Thereís nothing inherently wrong with it; there are some weaknesses, yes, but the worst thing about this book is that despite the publication date, it's already gone stale.

-- Jane Granville

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