I feel like I liked this book better when I first read it, although sometimes just the sheer excitement of having a new JQ novel can do that to me. On revisiting — well, I don’t hate it. I actually like half of the premise quite a bit. But the other half is odd and silly and never pans out properly, the whole thing takes quite a while to get going, and then when it does get going, the last act sort of comes out of nowhere.
I do like the characters, and they’re probably the reason this book gets even a middling rating. Sir Harry Valentine is a son from a troubled home who escaped his embarrassing drunk of a father and his emotionally deadened mother by going into the army. Thanks to a ferocious Russian grandmother, he’s quite proficient in languages besides his own, which made him valuable to King and Country. Even with the wars over, he continues to work for the War Office, mostly translating documents — and somehow these circumstances lead to rumours swirling around him possibly having murdered his fiance? It’s very odd, because nothing ever explains how those rumours came about, nor why Olivia becomes so fixated on them that she feels compelled to spy on him after he moves in next-door. The eventual confrontation over that is the part of it that comes to nothing — it just sort of feels like an odd plot device that belonged somewhere else. The better part of the story involves Harry feeling the need to protect Olivia from the attentions of a visiting Russian prince, Alexei, whom the War Office has asked him to keep an eye on. Except even there there’s a bit of a muddle, because the potentially dark and serious plotline gets totally derailed by ludicrous literature. Harry bizarrely ends up reading Mrs. Butterworth and the Mad Baron to the Prince, and then his cousin Sebastian and younger brother Edward start up a staged reading, and it all goes distinctly odd from there.
All of these details and plotlines and detours sort of get in the way of Harry and Olivia’s love story, though. Which is a shame, because they’re both pretty interesting characters. Olivia is forthright but charming; Harry is observant and snarky. Each is a lot of fun, individually. But they sort of go from outright disliking each other to serious involvement in rather a hurry, and while I’m perfectly willing to believe in love stories that move at lightning pace, I need to at least feel it happening — and I couldn’t, here, and I think it’s because of all the other clutter in the book. The story elements never quite fit together in the right way. It’s as though they’re all jostling for attention, and as a result, anything deeper gets totally lost.
In the last forty pages of the book, Olivia gets kidnapped by the Russian ambassador — a villain who I don’t think ever even gets a name, which should give you a good impression of his general importance to the plotline. This could have been better done. We needed some hints beforehand, beyond the vagueness of Harry’s instructions to watch the Prince. He’s not much of a convincing red herring, especially since there’s nothing really to red herring for. The ambassador just wants his cousin to fork over some cash. That’s it. That’s all. Despite having a hero in the War Office and introducing all sorts of exciting foreign elements, JQ doesn’t really do anything with them. There’s no espionage, no scheming, no sinister plots. Olivia just gets kidnapped out of the blue, and I found it quite odd and jarring.
So, on the whole, this was a pleasant enough read, but it never really came together in a way that I found satisfying. Not one of JQ’s worst, but not one of her best, either.