A Kiss of Spice
by Andrea DaRif
(Pocket, $6.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-7434-6349-8
Thanks to characters who play out the same couple of scenes over and over, A Kiss of Spice turns out to be blander than warm milk and slower than molasses in January.

Maxwell Bingham, Viscount Davenport and heir to the Earl of Saybrook, is en route to Saybrook Manor. A scarred and embittered veteran of the Peninsular War, Max has avoided his family home since the war’s end. When the story begins, however, he is returning at the anxious behest of his sister, Cara, who writes of troubling events in the neighborhood.

Cara’s plea for help hints that their younger brother, Kip, is involved in nefarious activities and there are references to a small statue of a Ruby Lion. Cara seems to believe that their problems stem from the fact that the Ruby Lion is cursed.

For some reason, a house party seems to have spontaneously descended onto Saybrook Manor, in spite of the fact that the Earl has left for Scotland, Max hasn’t been home for ages, and Cara, a proto-feminist of the kind beloved by some romance authors, runs the estate and isn’t interested in girly nonsense like entertaining.

Actually, the gathering is just a flimsy excuse to have Olivia Marquand in residence when Max arrives. Another unconventional female, Olivia is the “sole owner of a trading company, controlling a fleet of merchant ships that commerced in exotic spice, as well as flavored teas.” We’re supposed to be impressed, but basically she inherited the business. From a man. (Have I mentioned that sometimes I wonder if authors read their own books?)

Olivia is able to indulge her outrageous lifestyle because she has lived in India for the past seven years, where “the strictures of society were a good deal looser than in England.” Ms. DaRif doesn’t mean relaxed ex-pat British society, you understand, she means the lenient Indian society. You know, the one that invented the caste system.

Olivia and Max apparently met in a previous book by the same author and are attracted to each other. But even though Max thinks Olivia embodies a “heady combination of brains and pluck” and he admires her strength of character, loyalty and gritty courage, he can never allow his feelings to grow. Why? Because “his former fiancée was spoiled, vain and manipulative” so he can never allow himself to be vulnerable again. And with such uncanny similarities between the two women, who can blame him?

Nearly every scene in the book is some variation on these themes. Max is grumpy and bitter about the blows life has dealt him, and annoyed by his attraction to Olivia. Olivia is ticked because women are repressed and powerless, and everybody wants her to act like a girl. Which she doesn’t want to do. Except when she’s using her feminine wiles to prevail in a negotiation.

Not enhancing the book’s readability is the author’s cumbersome use of language. She peppers the reader with ‘aught’ and ‘naught’ instead of ‘anything’ and ‘nothing’ and even makes use of ‘mayhap’ – all perfectly splendid examples of period language…from the wrong period. For pity’s sake, it’s so easy to find out how people spoke in the nineteenth century; dozens of novels written in that time period are still in print.

Ms. DaRif does seem to have acquired an extensive knowledge of Regency cant, which her characters love to show off. The result is that they often, both males and females, sound like hyper schoolboys flinging slang at each other. When they’re being more serious, rather than have conversations they make multi-syllabic little speeches. (“Very well, I shall foreswear spouting any such platitudes.” If only the author would do the same.)

The secondary characters are just as two-dimensional as Max and Olivia, apparently existing only so that the hero and heroine have someone to complain out loud to, relieving the monothematic interior monologues. Cara, for example, is just a younger, sillier version of Olivia.

The plot, which could have been interesting, unfolds so slowly and with so little sense of urgency – or reality – that it’s impossible to get excited about it. My advice is to kiss off Kiss of Spice. It’s what I’d have done, given the choice.

-- Judi McKee

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