A Question of Honor by Nita Abrams
(Zebra, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-8217-7326-7
****
Iíd like to nominate a new sub-genre: Egghead Romance. These are books in which the plot is complex enough to force the reader to think her way through the book, rather than just reading it on autopilot. A worthy title for this new category would be Nita Abramsí impressive debut, A Question of Honor, the first in a series of five novels centered around the activities of a Jewish family during the Napoleonic Wars. The engrossing plot, cleverly constructed, will absorb the reader even as romance blossoms unexpectedly.

Richard Drayton, heir to a title and Captain of the 14th Light Dragoons, is summoned by the head of military intelligence and offered an assignment as a ďcourierĒ, or spy, ahead of Wellingtonís advancing army. Englandís most trusted courier has been killed in action, and Richard is a likely, though inexperienced, candidate. Richard sees in this a chance to redeem his honor, as he joined the army only to watch out for his beloved brother Harry and was then unable to save him in battle.

Richard completes his assignment, but due to his own carelessness, is wounded in the back and in sent home to England to recuperate. He decides to visit his sister, Lady Sara Bennett, who is caring for Harryís children. Richard is now their guardian. He arrives at the estate in Kent to find that his little niece, Caroline, has a new governess: one Rachel Maitland Ross. Sara explains that Rachel isnít really a governess, but rather an old friend who is visiting and is merely assuming some governess duties while she is there. Richardís suspicions are aroused when he views Rachelís unconventional teaching methods. Just who is this woman?

Rachel is really Rachel Roth Meyer, niece of Eli Roth, one of Englandís richest bankers and a confidante of Wellington himself. Rachelís younger brother James is himself a courier for the government, and Rachel promised her father she would look out for him in her fatherís absence. But Uncle Eli wants Rachel to marry a cousin and go to Italy, and Rachel needs to hide out for several months, until her father returns. Sara has agreed to help.

Rachel and Richard clash in a battle of wits, but must soon unite when they are kidnapped and locked in a ruined church overnight. Someone wants to force them into marriage, but who? They manage to escape the marital trap, but then Richard catches Rachel returning from a midnight ride to the local village, where she has been passing French money to her brother. When Richard is informed by his superiors that a spy is working the coastal areas of Kent, he is sure Rachel is the culprit. But how can he arrest her when he is falling in love with her?

The action moves from Kent to London to Dover to France, and Richard and Rachel are caught up in the machinations of spies, counter-spies, and traitors. Rachelís brother James, code-named Nathanson, plays an important part in the last third of the story and is no doubt destined for his own tale. And Richardís best friend, who may or may not be a traitor, seems destined for a follow-up tale of his own.

Rachelís characterization is outstanding. Resilient and resourceful, from the outset sheís honest and forthright to those she trusts. And she is eminently sensible, acting as a contact for her brother when there is no other option, but well aware sheís not the best choice. This is one of the few books Iíve read where the heroine dresses in menís clothing and rides off to save someone, and I simply nodded my head and thought, ďYep, sheís gotta do it.Ē

For all that Rachel is Jewish, we never see her practicing her faith, which felt odd because itís this very background which provides the conflict between Richard and Rachel. Richard wants to marry Rachel, but she refuses, time and again, because her Jewish heritage would make them pariahs to the ton and to their families. She also tells Richard she would never convert. This was laudable. Yet if her faith is so strong, why do we as the reader never see it? Nevertheless, the author does an excellent job of detailing, through Rachel, the difficulties faced by an interfaith couple in Regency England.

Richard is portrayed as a man who is a bit of a neíer-do-well, with the twist that he knows it and wishes to make something of himself. His relationship with his estranged father is powerful in its awkwardness, and felt completely realistic. Kudos to Ms. Abrams for showing her characters as people of many facets, rather than as cardboard cutouts. Even the high sticklers are ultimately human. My only quibble was Richardís leap in illogic when determining that Rachel must be the spy feeding information to the French, based on one incident - which Rachel has already tried to explain. Since sheís the only person he can think of who might be hiding something, she must be the guilty party. This act of thickheadedness on Richardís part was necessary to push the plot forward, but he certainly lost some sympathy in the doing.

A Question of Honor is an absorbing, satisfying read. Nita Abrams puts her own unique twist on this romance, and itís a welcome twist, indeed. This one is definitely worth hunting for. Iíll be looking for the next installment!

--Cathy Sova


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