In this seventh installment in the Regency romantic suspense series, Willig (The Betrayal of the Blood Lily, 2010, etc.) refreshes her formula for a lighthearted and sweet holiday romance.
It is Christmas, 1803, and the charming Arabella Dempsey is not looking forward to the holidays. The oldest daughter of an impoverished Bath parson, Arabella had been living in London with her well-to-do aunt. But not only has the aunt married a much younger officer—the Captain Musgrave, who had previously paid attention to Arabella—she has since made it clear that Arabella, after years of virtual servitude, will not inherit a fortune. Over her friend Jane Austen’s objections, Arabella takes a teaching job in a girl’s school, where she literally runs into the wealthy and handsome older brother of one of her charges, uncovering a spy plot involving encoded schoolbooks and a message wrapped rather stickily in a Christmas pudding. As the holidays begin, and Arabella’s attendance is required at one last function, both espionage and romance unfold, all under the knowing eyes of Arabella’s aspiring novelist friend. While Willig’s series has been distinguished by its Austen-like wit and historical accuracy, its gimmick of upperclass spies in the Napoleonic Wars had grown increasingly strained. In this holiday-themed volume, Willig smartly recharges the series by stepping back in time—the action of this installment takes place between the fourth and fifth books of the series. She also changes the usual setup by substituting a goodhearted but clumsy fool as her hero. Although many assume the foppish Reginald Fitzhugh is in fact the fabled spy, the Pink Carnation, in part because of his ornate floral waistcoats, the aptly nicknamed Turnip is exactly what he seems, a sweet klutz. But a gentlemanly klutz who can win the heart of Willig’s more intelligent heroine with his affable chivalry.
A shift of focus away from espionage and toward Jane Austen makes for a fun, fresh installment in a successful series.