Thursday, February 26, 2009

"Second Sight," by Amanda Quick

Alternate Title: Keeping Up with the Joneses

The Chick: Venetia Milton, a.k.a. "Venetia Jones." A struggling but talented photographer whose family depends on her income, when her latest wealthy client dies after paying her a kingly sum (and sharing a night of passion with her), in tribute to him she takes on his last name to start up her own photography business as a respectable widow.
The Rub: She's less than pleased when said client (Gabriel Jones), comes back from the dead and tells the public he's her long-lost husband.
Dream Casting: Lost in Austen's Morven Christie.

The Dude: Gabriel Jones. As a member of the Arcane Society -- a club of sorts for paranormal enthusiasts (and those with paranormal abilities) -- he faked his own death to flush out a thief who tried to steal a valuable alchemical formula from him. When Venetia's inopportune name-change foils his plans (supposedly), he declares himself Venetia's long-lost husband in order to protect her from those who might want to use her to get to him.
The Rub: Venetia refuses to listen to his perfectly rational, controlling demands! Also, he possesses psychic abilities he's not entirely comfortable with.
Dream Casting: Christian Bale.

The Plot:
Gabriel: You take great photos.

Venetia: Love me! Love me, you impetuous fool! *glomp*

Gabriel: Uh ... sure.

One Day Later

Gabriel *dies* (*OR DOES HE?*)

Venetia: Wow, that sucks - might as well use his name for respectibility, though. Hi, everyone! I'm Mrs Jones!

Gabriel: *back from dead* Hi, everyone, I'm her husband!

Venetia: Um, WTF, dude?

Gabriel: By taking the name Jones, you put yourself in great danger! You basically told the world you were my widow!

Venetia: I thought I was telling the world that I had one of England's most popular last names, actually.

Gabriel: Take a tip from me - you're prettier with your mouth closed. Let me do all the manly protecting and work!

Evil Killer: *bitten by snake while Gabriel gets ass kicked*

Evil Killer's Evil Girlfriend: *tricked by Venetia then pushed off a bridge by random secondary character*

Venetia: Yeah, you're sure doing a lot of protecting, all right.

Gabriel: Shut up and marry me.

Venetia: Okely dokely.

Romance Convention Checklist:

1 Fake Widow

Various Psychic Abilities

2 Counts of Muuuuurder

1 Alchemical MacGuffin

1 Bout of Car Sex (Victorian Equivalent)

Several Sweet Tranvestites

1 Duplicitous Solicitor

1 Evil Whore

2 Precocious Siblings

The Word: Second Sight opens with a prologue in which Gabriel Jones, our hero, and his cousin unearth the tomb of an ancient alchemist who, incidentally, founded the Arcane Society - the Victorian England Psychics'R'Us club that both the Jones boys are members of. Inside, they find a heavy strongbox with only an aged notebook inside that supposedly contains a formula capable of heightening psychic abilities. The Jones cousins don't get a good look at it, as almost immediately the book is stolen.

Sometime later, Gabriel Jones hires Venetia Milton, a budding photographer, to take pictures of some of the important Arcane Society artefects at his secretly secret isolated estate. While the gal takes good photos, she's secretly planning how to get into Gabriel's pants, for yes, she's one of those everyday, run-of-the-mill Victorian virgins who believe it's perfectly alright to have no-strings-attached sex with a near-complete stranger with no consequences. Where do romance heroines get these ideas?

Anyway, Gabriel finds nothing amiss about his Victorian virgin photographer's attempted seduction and promptly tumbles her. However, after a good bout of mattress dancing, Gabriel spots some intruders on his property and hustles Venetia out a secret passageway while he deals with the criminals himself. Venetia opens the paper the next day and discovers his death notice.

Thanks to Mr Jones' admirable habit of paying his photography bills in advance, Venetia now has enough cash to start her own studio. Deciding to pose as a widow to appear more respectable, she enters the London photography scene as Mrs Jones, as a subtle tribute to her deceased deflower-er.

She soons becomes a smashing success, but her plans go awry when the formerly-former Gabriel Jones re-appears in public, perfectly alive, and happily telling reporters that he's Venetia's husband. Reunited, he explains that the thieves who broke onto his estate tried to steal the strongbox (the one from the prologue). Since the notebook with the formula in it was already stolen, he assumes the box (or, more likely, the bizarre recipe carved onto its lid) is still somehow relevant to the formula. After moving the strongbox into storage, he faked his own death in an attempt to flush out the thief, but then someone had to impersonate his widow and ruin all his plans and now he has to force his way into her life to protect her and find the thief at the same time.

In a nutshell, he believes the dudes who came after him for the strongbox will now go after her - either to get to Gabriel himself through their marital ties, or to snatch any photographs she may have taken of the box.

This was the aspect of the plotline that threw me the most. First of all, Venetia never explicitly proclaims herself as Gabriel Jones' widow. She just calls herself Mrs Jones, never giving a husband's name, thinking (rightfully), that Jones is a popular, commonplace last name that really only carries a special significance for her. Gabriel, however, immediately jumps to the conclusion that she's intentionally posing as his widow. He then assumes that every villain will identify London's newest Mrs Jones as his widow as well - again, despite the fact that Jones is an exceedingly popular name, Venetia isn't even part of Gabriel's social circle, and their business interactions were confidential.

Secondly, I was bothered by the fact that Gabriel's plan to pose as Venetia's husband doesn't leave her with an exit strategy. Venetia is a talented photographer, but she's also a woman in society, and even the tiniest smudge on her reputation could damage or even cripple her career. Once Gabriel's business is finished, there's no way he can explain away posing as her husband (and moving into her house) that won't ruin her reputation. When he's actually questioned about this by a relative of Venetia's, Gabriel explains, "Oh, well hopefully she'll marry me for real." Which just plained bugged me, because essentially from the outset he leaves Venetia no other choice but to marry him, if she wants keep herself and her family out of ruin and poverty. Hawt.

Thirdly, Gabriel bemoans Venetia's thoughtlessness in drawing the villains' attention upon herself by claiming kinship with him by taking his name, and yet never thinks that he's doing the exact same thing (only much more effectively) by publically coming out as her husband. I mean, think like a villain: which would convince you more that Venetia is the wife of Gabriel Jones - the fact that she now has the last name Jones, or the proclamation Gabriel makes in the newspapers naming her as his wife? I mean, really. It's like Gabriel caught Venetia playing with matches in a wooden building, and decided to burn down the building to keep her from setting fire to it.

Once I recovered from this whoppingly contrived set-up, however, the progression of the mystery isn't that bad. Amanda Quick goes into some interesting detail about late nineteenth-century photography and introduces it into the setting and Venetia's lifestyle without resorting to infodumping. During the course of Venetia and Gabriel's search to find the thief, a lot of Venetia's photography expertise comes in handy.

That being said, I'd more categorize this novel as inoffensive than actually good. Venetia and Gabriel, once they finish their convoluted and unrealistic actions that introduce the story, aren't annoying or brash or irritatingly anachronistic - but they're not that interesting, either. When they're not explicitly furthering the plot, they're kind of blank.

In Venetia's case, she's supposed to be the sole provider for a family that's always been threatened by scandal. Venetia and her younger brother and sister enjoyed a normal life until their parents died and it was revealed her father was a bigamist - he already had a wife and kids squirrelled away elsewhere, meaning Venetia and her sibs were legally illegitimate. Not only that, but their dad's evil solicitor ran off with their inheritance and there wasn't a thing they could do about it without revealing their true status and socially dooming themselves. The only thing that kept them from poverty was Venetia's photography.

However, this never came into play with her character - I expected someone in her position to be more stressed, more dedicated - and particularly, more restrained. I never bought her anachronistic "I-deserve-one-night-of-passion" bullshit at the novel's beginning - this was before she even had a studio and still worked freelance, for Pete's sake! Given her situation, she had way too much to lose (like her family's entire financial future) by throwing herself on Gabriel, and what's worse is that her seduction of Gabriel is premeditated so the whole "spur-of-the-moment" excuse doesn't work either.

As well, the whole bigamist storyline seemed kind of pointless - there are a myriad ways to lose a fortune in 19th century England that are less flamboyant than this, and there seemed to be no particular use for it. You'd think the heartbreak of learning her father's marriage to her mother was false would have some sort of effect on how Venetia deals with her own pretend relationship with Gabriel, but it never comes up. I think I was more annoyed that Quick added the bigamist past and didn't make use of the obvious conflict than the fact that she employed a bigamist past in the first place.

The only real result of the bigamist storyline seems to concern the poorly-developed character of Venetia's little brother Edward - a boy we are told is ten but acts and is treated more like he's six (he thinks Daddy's a "big mist" - isn't that cute for a kindergartener?). Edward's sisters and aunt won't let him play with other children for fear he'll blurt out their secret uncontrollably (what, does he have 19th century Tourette's?), which proves to be a valid reason as he does blurt out his secret to Gabriel after about five minutes. But his loneliness allows Edward and Gabriel to bond, which immediately marks Gabriel as Good Husband Material.

Also, we have the whole plotline of paranormal abilities that, while it never bothered me, never appeared particularly important. Venetia can see auras and Gabriel, uh, can "smell the psychical spoor of violence," but both abilities are essentially window dressing. The characters don't really need them to solve the case and the instances where they do use their powers rarely give them any extra insight or advantage.

Gabriel's power ("violent spoor smelling"?) in particular is poorly developed - it's weakly hinted at the beginning that Gabriel is ashamed of his powers and thinks they're evil, but he never employs them enough to really explain why. He doesn't think of his powers that often, and he explicitly uses them all of four times in the entire novel, so the 11th-hour revelation that Gabriel considers himself a monster comes off as a paltry ploy to milk some angst out of an otherwise whitebread character.

However, all things considered, this book turned out much better than I was expecting. I didn't know precisely what it would be like reading Amanda Quick (a.k.a Jayne Ann Krentz), but my last experience with a romance novel by an author with a huge backlist purchased from a remainders bookstore didn't go so well.

Second Sight
was well-written and moderately interesting, and full of interesting historical detail. I enjoyed reading it - its flaws mildly irritated me, whereas more annoying problems would have had me throwing the book at the wall (or, in my head, arguing, slapping, and beating some sense into the characters). Still, the characters came across more like blank slabs of clay shaped and coloured by how the plot had to progress, rather then as characters in their own right with distinct personalities and abilities that moved the plot forward naturally with their realistic motivations and decisions. B-.

No comments:

Post a Comment