The Betrayal of the Blood Lily

Huzzah! I'm pleased to say that I think The Betrayal of the Blood Lily is Lauren Willig's finest yet! Perhaps my enthusiasm overtakes me, as The Secret History of the Pink Carnation might still claim the number one spot as the origin of all, but I was so delighted with Willig's latest novel that I devoured it in a single sitting, knowing with every turn of the page that Willig was in top form.

This is the sixth in the Pink Carnation series and to describe it, I steal a description from the modern narrator, Louise: "It's got dash. It's got swash. It's got buckle." For those unfamiliar, the books always have two storylines going. The first is modern, dealing with grad student Eloise and her research into aristocratic and independent spies post-French Revolution. The second takes place during the time Eloise studies, following those wrapped up in the plots and intrigues of those spies and focusing on a single couple who will inevitably have a happy ending. In Blood Lily, things remain fairly tame in the modern day, where Eloise is still dating Colin, a descendant of the spies in her dissertation. Eloise harbors some faint suspicions that the "spy novel" Colin is working on is just a cover for his real job as an actual spy, but she frequently dismisses this as fancy. The more pressing issue this time around is Colin's sister, Serena, who's very sweet but has always been a bit of a mess (a beautiful mess, yet, but a mess just the same). With Colin taking such good care of Serena, it means that Eloise rarely gets him all to herself, and so Eloise has been determined to set Serena up with someone. Anyone. She and Colin clash over whether Eloise is pushing too hard and Eloise learns a bit more about Colin's complicated family, but otherwise, things are fine in modern day England.

As for the past? Well, our heroine this time is Miss Penelope Deveraux, a fiery redhead with a hatred for being told what to do and a fancy for dark alcoves. She had been repeatedly warned that her somewhat risque behavior would get her in trouble... and indeed, it did in The Temptation of the Night Jasmine. She committed a bit of an indiscretion with Lord Frederick Staines, a second son who was quite a cad anyway... and now they've both been bullied into making a match of it to save Pen's reputation. Even this isn't enough to get the scandal to totally die down, really, so they've been sent off to India, where Freddy will be a special envoy to the Nizam of Hyderabad (aka glorified messengerboy that people currently in India will see as more of a hindrance than a help). Freddy and Pen (who are definitely not "in love" but certainly might be called "in lust" at the beginning of this novel) are somewhat unprepared for the truth of the situation in Hyderabad, which is a great deal more unsettled than expected. English Empire is not as secure as everyone might believe; a number of insurrections and problems with the locals and the French have led to some complications in the region which make everyone suspicious of everyone... with good reason. Merry old England is rife with flowery spies and it turns out that India is no different -- here, we'll find the Marigold has been at work in the region, potentially connected to a missing weapons delivery. Unsurprisingly, Penelope is far more adept at picking up on this information than her husband, who is more interested in women and card games. They make the acquaintance of Captain Alex Reid, a dashing young man with close ties to India that has been sent to escort them from Calcutta to Hyderabad. While Alex has little time to play chaperone to these newcomers, he's also fairly interested in making sure that Freddy does not make a muck of current plans to smooth things over in the region. Freddy is exactly what Alex expected but Penelope... well, Penelope turns out to be quite different from the usual pampered lady. She swims, shoots, and rides better than most everyone, and that's just the beginning of her many talents. In turn, Pen finds that Alex is full of mysteries, too, as questions arise concerning his family and complicated Indian politics.

What delighted me about this book is that I find Willig has returned to her two great strengths. Number one: by setting this book in India, the reader is reminded of Willig's fantastic ability to describe location and time period with exquisite depth and detail. After five books in England, Willig had somewhat exhausted her resources in describing the ton, court politics, and country homes. It wasn't her fault, she was still doing a great job, it's just that one forgot to notice. Here, it's like a breath of fresh air to find ourselves in India, where she has all kinds of new material to draw upon. She clearly revels in historical detail and the reader catches this enthusiasm. In addition, the political situation in India has the potential to be overwhelming, but Willig holds firmly to our hand to lead us through. Number two: this is a truly playful romp, complete with romance and sex. You might not think this is a big deal, but it's been a while that we've gotten more than just some steamy kisses and smoldering looks in a Willig novel. I've been worried that she was getting more conservative with her sex scenes... which aren't the sole reason for reading these books, clearly, but one of the first things I appreciated about Willig was her ability to let go and have fun, no matter how ridiculous things might be. For goodness sake, in Pink Carnation, a gentleman's fingers do some fancy work on a lady in a boat on the Thames! After that, she seemed to back away from the crazy scenes and it really did feel like she was reigning herself in. When I was reading Night Jasmine with the incredibly virtuous main couple, I somehow knew that the scandalous, redheaded Penelope would be our next heroine and she would not disappoint!

I can't say that any details of the story much surprised me, but I don't need to be surprised when the story is being told well and I enjoy the characters. Pen and Alex have their predictable misunderstandings and miscommunications. Penelope is quite easily jaded considering her limited experience, even if she was quite familiar with dark alcoves. Alex is a bit too perfect, but Willig men tend to have this "flaw." It's fiction, after all, and when we're 95% sure of a happy ending at the end of each book, we all must make some sacrifices. There was one particular phrase that Willig used which I didn't like the first time around and liked even less when it was used again, but otherwise I thought that Willig is certainly benefiting from being a full-time writer. She clearly had the time to do her research and develop strong characters.

If you've visited laurenwillig.com, you might notice that she touches upon the issue that despite the title, there is no Blood Lily in this book. A Marigold, a Moonflower, and some frangipani, but no Blood Lily. She attributes this to the fact that originally, the title was supposed to be The Something Something of the Something Marigold, but since Marigolds aren't quite sexy, she made a last minute plea to readers on her site to help her brainstorm... and the Blood Lily was settled upon as being somewhat indicative of redheaded Penelope.

Now, I must sit and wait another year for the next installment in this fresh series. Thank goodness Willig is fairly reliable in turning out a book every year! I haven't heard who might be the focus of the next novel... perhaps one of Alex's sisters? No matter what, I'll impatiently wait, trusting that Willig will turn out another delightful novel full of dash, swash, and buckle.

Check out laurenwillig.com for more information on the series and visit http://www.laurenwillig.com/books/bloodlily.html for the whole first chapter of The Betrayal of the Blood Lily.

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