Sunday, June 09, 2013

Tainted Angel by Anne Cleeland

Synopsis: Goodreads Amazon

Recommended for: people who like romantic spy adventures, Regency/Georgian/Napoleonic period

When starting a new book, context plays a big part of getting into and staying into a story. So without detracting from the importance of a killer opening paragraph, it probably doesn't bode well that I kept wondering if I was reading a sequel of a series where a lot has already happened. Let me make this easier on ya'll who are looking at this fresh: this is a stand-alone where the characters have a lot of common backstory that you won't ever really know in full. Armed with this knowledge, the many references to the Flemish mission can be just so much chatter in the background. In addition to not being a sequel, Tainted Angel doesn't appear to be a beginning of a series either, so you can sink into the plot knowing the resolution is within reach. It's a refreshing change from all the trilogies and endless series that every new author seems obliged to put out.

Vidia Swanson is very, very good at her job as an "angel". Angels are covert agents, usually female, whose purpose is to inveigle secrets via pillow talk and the like. (Others in the spy genre call them valentines, honeytrappers or femme fatale.) Her assignments for the British Crown make the most of her insanely good looks so all business she conducts is high-profile. Her current target is a financier who is playing a double cross game with the help of Vidia. Another agent, Carstairs, seems to be caught in the crosshairs and Vidia feels a net closing in - a net she can't bring herself to resist. The plot pretty much revolves around whether, how, and why Vidia is playing that double or triple or quadruple cross. Her spymaster believes she has been compromised, or "tainted", and someone is either right behind her to arrest her for treason or is a step ahead of her anticipating the next move that might show her hand. Stakes are high when the mere appearance of guilt means the gallows.
It is no chore wading into Vidia's adventures. Our heroine is supremely confident but unfailingly human. She is unapologetically strong and effortlessly charming. It sounds Mary Jane-y, but she totally isn't. Vidia is a wonderfully feminist and wonderfully feminine character - a very rare bird. Her sympathetic character owes a lot to her self-awareness and sense of honor. Sometimes she seems a shade too loyal and tolerant at times to survive in the high stakes game of espionage. She decides to trust a man that she admits she shouldn't. She also treats her fellow agents better than a pro in her position would. This situation, like nearly every plot point in the book, is she-knows-they-know-that-she-knows-that-they-know. Occasionally your head will feel like it's taking a spin but Vidia is a natural gamester. She is always just ahead of her pursuers, with a wink and a smile. Also, like any good card shark, she plays a close hand with her secrets. Unfortunately, sometimes the author drops hints that pretty much takes away the element of surprise for some key events. It's not clumsily done, but it detrimentally relaxes the narrative tension after a good build up of action. One enormous plot point drove me nuts in both its foreshadowing and its improbable timing, but it is only one in a book full of plot points.

Plots thicken abundantly in this story. It's clear Vidia's past burdens her and allusions to it wind around the narrative like English ivy. Her history is indeed harrowing and warrants justice, but the revelations and her motives for this job become unnecessarily tangled in the end. I felt like the author lost her train of thought and tied a couple important threads around the climax after laying all that groundwork for multiple, unrelated revenges. Rationally and broadly speaking, a single wrong is righted so that one comes out in the wash, but on an emotional and personal level it doesn't ring true - unless the author is planning to use that unresolved vendetta for another book. (Yes, please! I know I said this is a stand-alone novel, but I would revisit Vidia forthwith.)

While the conclusion is a little wrong-footed, getting there presents no such issues. Anne Cleeland has a deft touch with words. Her style is descriptive but straightforward and nicely succinct. The book leads off well and the pace hardly falters. Paragraphs, chapters just breeze by, but still reads satisfyingly. The pace is brisk without being frenetic, which is a nice demonstration of the author's control over a sprawling plot and a lot of smart moving pieces. In fact, the book improves on re-reading when the previously random information slides nicely into place. It's not common to find a lovely, entertaining book that stands up to repeat readings - and that may tell you everything you need to know about this book.

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