Tears of Pearl

Let me say that the main reason I keep reading Tasha Alexander's books is that I feel she takes particular care with her main character's ability to have complicated emotions. What keeps me coming back for more, quite frankly, is not the mystery part of her plot (which is often a bit coincidental and is always quite complicated -- though that's not always a bad thing). It's only sometimes the historical setting (oddly, I preferred her ability to convey a sense of time and place in her earlier works, whereas here I kept having The Aviary Gate flashbacks with this one). The best part of her novels, as far as I'm concerned, is Lady Emily's ability to struggle with feelings that make her a unique heroine for this particular mystery/romance/historical fiction genre. (Okay, and sure, there's a bit of her hunky love interest, Colin, tossed in there, too.)

The first book in the series, And Only to Deceive, opened on a young widow, Lady Emily Ashton, who barely knew her husband and came to fall in love with him only after his death and her investigation into the circumstances surrounding it. Not only did we have the fact that she was coming to care for him when they could no longer have a real romance, but she became aware of just how much he loved her and yet had never really expressed it. Alexander doesn't shy away from exploring the tangled (and often bittersweet) side of things in Emily's personal life. Thankfully, even though Emily has finally married Colin Hargreaves, things don't simply fade into happily ever after, though Colin himself does fade a bit into the background in this book, which is a bit of a disappointment. Sure, they're completely smitten with each other as they take off for their honeymoon and they repeatedly tumble in to bed, but there's also the fact that in a time without contraception, Emily's independence is somewhat in jeopardy should she become pregnant. Books don't often explore the potentially negative sides of this "blessed" event when it's in a stable and good relationship, but Alexander is aware that things are a bit more complicated than that in real life.

Tears of Pearl is set in lush Constantinople, at the beginning of Emily and Colin's nice, long honeymoon... but the reader shouldn't be all that surprised when they're embroiled in a mystery right off the bat. The storyline is dumped into their laps on the train (a surprisingly abrupt and graceless introduction, which is rather uncharacteristic of Alexander, I thought) and involves a British diplomat with a tragic past and an even more tragic immediate future. He traveled the world with his family in tow until one horrific night when his Turkish wife was murdered and his young daughter kidnapped. He managed to protect his son, Benjamin, but then spent the rest of his life seeking leads in hopes that his daughter, Ceyden, might still be alive (as she was likely sold into slavery). This story comes out in a rush when Colin and Emily sit next to this man, Sir Richard, on the train to Constantinople... only to then have him collapse from an apparent overdose of medication. Unsurprisingly, Colin and Emily (especially Emily) take interest in his situation. He repays their kind attention by getting them invited to an opera performed at the sultan's palace and even though the ending of the opera itself is altered to create a happy ending, the event ends with the murder of a young woman from the harem. Have you guessed who she is? Yep. It's Ceyden, the long-lost daughter, and with harem politics the way they are, it's anybody's guess who did this.

Emily, meanwhile, has actually gotten semi-official approval to work with Colin in situations when a feminine hand is required for his missions... like, say, when someone needs to do some interviews of harem-members. Emily gets wrapped up with several interesting characters (including the mother of the sultan, the sort-of-step-mother of the sultan, a young converted Christian desperate to escape the life of sin in the harem, and a very shifty eunuch) while Colin is off investigating other things that seem more official (read: boring), and so Emily wanders a lot of Constantinople on her own (though she's often accompanied by her honeymoon-crashing friend). During all this wandering, Emily notices that she's particularly prone to nausea while taking boats across the Bosporus. Hmm. Whatever could cause nausea in a woman who's been married a few months?

Emily's lengthy and difficult musings on the possibility of having a child were fascinating, because she was willing to admit that she might not be ready for this. She already enjoys a remarkable amount of freedom for any woman of the time -- but with a baby on the way, surely life would change. It would start with being coddled as a pregnant lady by her friends, family and even her loving husband -- and then she'd most likely have to stay close to home to be with a child. So much for rambling all over the world and assisting Colin on investigations. It's not like Colin is putting this pressure on her (though she sees his suspicious and hopeful glances), but Emily starts panicking about what a baby would change. In short, even if she might eventually want a baby, she doesn't feel ready yet and while this depth might not be uncommon in other genres, it's a unique and humanizing detail here, for a heroine whose life has not been full of easy emotions. In the usual historical mystery series, women always seem so ready for that inevitable child and somehow he/she is integrated into her life and the life of her adventuring husband with ease... or a series ends. Hm.

So even if every bit of the novel wasn't a delight for me, I am at least delighted that Tasha Alexander is one of the few writers these days who is staying true to her characters and allowing them the luxury of exploring complicated emotions. It means that I'll keep marking the paperback release of each of her books and I'll eagerly read to see how Emily grows as a character and tackles interesting issues (and mysteries, too).

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