Miss Bates knew Deanna Raybourn in her incarnation as the creator of the Lady Julia Grey mystery series, one Miss Bates read and enjoyed. But mystery novels, in comparison to romance novels, always make Miss B. antsy. Truth be told, she was more fascinated by the Lady Julia/Nicholas Brisbane courtship and coupling than she ever was by the whodunits. She can’t ever recall the dominant mystery thread that is the core of any of the Lady Julia novels. What she does remember, with reader pleasure/pain, are the antagonistic, oblique attraction and temperaments of the leads, the curiosity to know more and more of their intimate encounters and emotional vulnerabilities. Raybourn is so so good at withholding from the reader. This attracted and repelled Miss Bates, had her anticipate and yet avoid the latest release. In her latest novel, City Of Jasmine, it appears that Raybourn loosened those maddening elements and allowed her hero and heroine to eke out a little more of themselves and their relationship to the reader. In this sense, and coupled with Raybourn’s lovely writing and the strong, amiable voice of her heroine-narrator, City Of Jasmine was a better, more satisfying read for Miss Bates. It was also a tighter narrative than the Julia Grey mysteries: it didn’t get as bogged down in details and developped mystery elements with greater and more engaging alacrity. She would venture to suggest that if you like your mysteries with their cross-hairs on the relationship rather than the body, you’re going to relish this latest from Raybourn. It captured Miss Bates … though she still experienced some frustration with it.
[Please note that the novel’s plot is such that the review implicates a few spoilers. Read on with that in mind, please.] City Of Jasmine pulled Miss Bates in at the start. What a great heroine Raybourn has given us in Evangeline Merryweather Starke, explorer and aviatrix, embarking on a tour of the “seven seas of antiquity” with the irrepressible Lady Lavinia Finch-Pomeroy, “Aunt Dove” (indeed, Aunt Dove was the best kind of spinster character) on her Sopwith biplane, the Jolly Roger. Evie is a minor celebrity, a lady flier at a time when they were numbered on one hand, but the truth of it is that she’s keeping bill-collectors at bay. She’s a widow, had been married to the aristocratic and wealthy Gabriel Starke, explorer, mountaineer, and archaeologist, who perished in the Lusitania. When Evie receives an anonymously-delivered photo of Gabriel, she knows she must explore its possible implications. Her feelings for him are fraught with the memory of their final days together, in China, arguing, misunderstanding, Gabriel going cold and aloof and she, leaving and resolved to divorce. Unresolved feelings, residual grief, and emotional reticence, are the fruits of Evie’s marriage. Before completing her seven seas tour, she will go to the “city of jasmine,” Damascus, to put Gabriel to rest one way or another.
[POSSIBLE SPOILER AHEAD] It doesn’t take her long to see through his disguise. But that leaves her with many questions and a lot of hurt and anger. The aftermath of her discovery and time with Gabriel in the desert are all intrigue and adventure, but forgiveness and love as well. [SPOILER AT AN END]
Evie’s voice was attractive to Miss Bates. She loved her humour and sense of adventure, her care for Aunt Dove, and her self-deprecation. The opening line says it all: “The desert is a lonely place to begin with. And there’s nothing lonelier than being with someone you loved who stopped loving you first. It ended in the desert, the fabled rocky reaches of the Badiyat ash-Sham, with a man I had already buried once. But it began in Rome, as all adventures should, and it started with a scolding.” Throughout the narrative, we hear Evie’s sadness, but also her humour and ability to “carry on.” Aunt Dove, in turn, is a wonderful secondary character: humorous, eccentric and, in the end, wise, a true companion to Evie in her darkest, most difficult moments. The opening of City of Jasmine brought Graham Greene’s Travels With My Aunt to mind (though Aunt Dove’s role diminishes as Evie confronts desert revelations).
Miss Bates thought the descriptions of Damascus another of the novel’s strengths: “Rolling through the orchards of olive and lemon, pomegranate and orange, we saw Damascus standing on the plain, a gleaming, jewelled city of white in a lush green setting … over it all hung the perfume of flowers that spilled from private courtyards and public gardens … the city of jasmine, the air thick with the fragrance of crushed blossoms.” In this lovely, brief description, you have a hint of Raybourn’s ability to create atmosphere and paint pictures. She does no less with the desert … where she has the added delicious tension and volatility of fraught relationships and interactions. The goings-on are reminiscent of an Elizabeth Peters’ novel, but Raybourn’s awareness and knowledge of the history and politics of the time align themselves with the Bedouin and the Arab push for autonomy and prove much more interesting.
What were Miss Bates’ frustrations with City of Jasmine? Too many villainous secondary characters and an excess of plot threads. A wonderful opening gave way to near-farcical centre: one wherein we find a frenetic series of events involving bad guys, good guys, bad guys who turn out all right and vice versa, political intrigue, and Indiana-Jones-like sequences of danger, mayhem, and near-death. In the midst of this a hero and heroine relationship, especially on the part of the evasive, cool hero, that unfolds and reveals its depth and desire.
[SPOILER AHEAD] Gabriel Starke’s volatility and peevishness with the adorable Evangeline did not endear him, or entrench his hero-status, to Miss Bates. The cross-class nature of Julia Grey and Nicholas Brisbane’s relationship made Nicholas’s difficult character an equalizer to Julia’s ease and wealth. Gabriel, on the other hand, just comes across as a bit of an ass. All the more reason, when he finally rips his heart out and hands it to Evangeline, to redeem the romance thread. [SPOILER AT AN END]
In Raybourn’s City Of Jasmine, Miss Bates excavated evidence of “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Deanna Raybourn’s City Of Jasmine is published by Harlequin (Mira) and has been available in your preferred format at the usual vendors since February 25th.
Miss Bates is grateful to Harlequin for an e-ARC, via Netgalley, in exchange for this honest review.