The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, Volumes 1 – 4
by Lauren Willig
Signet and NAL
Historical Spy Romance
Reviewed by Superwench83.
Several years ago while doing research on Ireland, I stumbled upon a historical romance about spies on a mission in Ireland. At the time, I still suffered from the misconception that historical romances were nothing but sappy dialogue and purple prose—a misconception based on one bad experience. (Yes, I should have known better.) But I figured this book might help with my research, and that the spy angle might make it interesting, so I read it. And promptly put the rest of the series on my to-read list.
Lauren Willig’s popular series about Napoleonic-era spies begins with The Secret History of the Pink Carnation and continues with The Masque of the Black Tulip, The Deception of the Emerald Ring (that’s the Ireland one), and The Seduction of the Crimson Rose. It features Eloise Kelly, an American grad student working on her dissertation. That work has brought her to England, where she hopes to uncover the identity of the Pink Carnation, an English spy who thwarted Napoleon and his men in their attempts to bring England to its knees. Standing in Eloise’s her way is Colin Selwick, the handsome but overprotective guardian of the papers she needs to uncover the Pink Carnation’s identity. Interweaving Eloise’s story through the narratives, each novel is a two-for-one: a daring adventure of spies and romance, plus another chapter in Eloise and Colin’s struggle…and their own chance at love.
The Secret History of the Pink Carnation features Colin’s ancestor, Richard Selwick, a notorious English spy known as the Purple Genitian. He is good at what he does, and he doesn’t like when people get in the way of him doing his work…which means Amy Balcourt and her cousin Jane aren’t his favorite people on the earth. Intent on becoming a spy herself, the very un-spy-like Amy causes no end of trouble for the Purple Genitian. Which is why Richard is quite surprised to discover that he’s falling for her.
The Masque of the Black Tulip brings Richard’s best friend and sister center-stage. Miles Dorrington and Henrietta Selwick love Richard dearly, but are tired of living in his shadow. They want to do their part to keep England safe from Napoleon’s minions. So when Miles’ employer finally sets him on the trail of the notorious French spy known as the Black Tulip, he eagerly sets to work. What Miles doesn’t know is that the Black Tulip has set his sights on Henrietta, for she has taken it upon herself to deliver correspondence from the Pink Carnation to a London contact. This sends Miles on a perilous threefold quest: unmask the Black Tulip, keep Henrietta safe, and figure out what to do when you fall in love with your best friend’s sister.
The Deception of the Emerald Ring features Richard and Miles’ friend and fellow spy Geoffrey Pinchingdale, who has long been captivated by the charms of Letty Alsworthy’s older sister. But when Geoff and Mary’s elopement plans go awry, Letty finds herself married to a very bitter Geoff and whisked away on an Irish honeymoon which is more than it seems. With the Black Tulip loose in Ireland, Geoff can’t afford to take time off to celebrate his unwelcome marriage. Still, as much as he might wish otherwise, Geoff finds himself in Letty’s company for long enough that he begins to see things about her which he overlooked while distracted by her high-maintenance sister.
In The Seduction of the Crimson Rose, Letty’s scorned sister Mary Alsworthy finds herself in a bit of a bind. Letty has stolen her would-be husband and is now the only person in the family with the necessary funds to find Mary another. Damned if she’ll rely on Letty for support, Mary accepts a risky but much-preferable offer from the rakish Lord Vaughn: become a double agent and help the Pink Carnation stop the Black Tulip from his latest attempt to deliver England into Napoleon’s hands. Apparently, there’s a lot of money in espionage. And a lot of risk, of course, but as time goes by, Mary begins to wonder which is more dangerous: failing to stop the Black Tulip, or falling into the disreputable Vaughn’s arms.
Both as a whole as well as in regard to the individual books, I highly recommend this series. Spies and romance. It worked for Bond, and it works for Willig’s characters. Though the protagonists change in each book, the series feels unified both because of the relationships each set of protagonists have with each other and because of Eloise, whose story is just as riveting as those of the spies she uncovers. I love the contrast between the modern scenes and the historic ones. It’s a great literary device, jumping out of one place and into another at just the right moment. A great technique for creating suspense. I also love how the author creates a vivid historical setting without bogging things down with paragraphs full of nothing but description. That’s no easy task.
And the characters. The characters are so convincing and sympathetic, even the ones you might find annoying or just plain don’t like. One mark of a good author is building a character your readers will dislike, then turning everything on its head and showing what makes the character that way, forcing readers to change their minds. Mary Alsworthy was that way for me. I liked Letty so much that I just hated Mary for being so snide, but after reading Mary’s story, I had a change of heart. And let’s not forget the humor. Witty comments and snide remarks on nearly every page are one of the highlights of these books.
The few gripes I have are very small, and related to individual books, not the whole series. I just finished The Masque of the Black Tulip and The Seduction of the Crimson Rose this month, so they’re fresh in my mind. In The Seduction of the Crimson Rose, I found the technique Vaughn used to get Mary into the Black Tulip’s service unconvincing. Entering the Black Tulip’s service just seemed too easy. As cynical as Vaughn is, I would have thought he’d find this suspicious. I know I did. As for The Secret History of the Pink Carnation and The Deception of the Emerald Ring, it’s been long enough that I can’t recall much in the way of specific qualms I had. I figure that if I can’t remember what those qualms were, they must not be any reason not to read the books.
Lauren Willig’s series is a fun and fast-paced ride through the world of Napoleonic espionage. They’re like crack for English history lovers. And best of all, there are more of them. The series continues with The Temptation of the Night Jasmine and The Betrayal of the Blood Lily, and The Mischief of the Mistletoe comes out in October. I’ll be reviewing these in the near future…but I’ll give you enough time to read these books first!
About the reviewer:
Katie Lovett, better known around these parts as Superwench83, is an aspiring novelist and published short fiction author. She blogs about writing, books, and the fantasy genre at her website, www.katie-lovett.com.