Point of Honour by Madeline Robins
Forge HCVR: ISBN 031287202X PubDate: 05/01/03
Review by Victoria McManus
??? pgs. List price $ 25
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Madeleine E. Robins, author of the urban fantasy The Stone War, now tries her hand at a hardboiled-style mystery set in an alternate version of Regency England. Knowledgeable readers will remember that Robins wrote five Regency romances, from Althea, published in 1977, to The Spanish Marriage, published in 1984, so she is no stranger to the period. Sound like a confusing mix of genres? It isn't as strange as it sounds; the main historical change is that Mad King George's Regent is not his son, but his wife Charlotte, and the Tories and Whigs spend a great deal of their time courting George's sons. Robins also makes use of this historical note: "The reformer Patrick Colquhoun estimated that there were fifty thousand prostitutes working in London in the late 1700s," (p. 348). Otherwise, the historical detail in the novel matches reality except for small entertaining might-have-beens like newspaper Dueling Notices: "By the sword, fatally, Peter Lord Henly," (p. 16).
Though alternate history, the novel could easily be marketed as a
straightforward mystery. Fans of Regency romances might also enjoy Point Of Honour, though it does not follow the path of a traditional genre romance.
The heroine of the novel is Sarah Tolerance, who as a Fallen Woman (she ran away with her brother's fencing instructor) has limited choices to support herself. Rather than become a prostitute, the most common fate of Fallen Women, she decides to put her skill with a sword and her inquisitive mind to work as an agent of inquiry. Like most hardboiled detectives, she doesn't have a sidekick, but several characters, like Matt in the beginning, Verseillon in the middle, and Marianne towards the end, serve as sounding boards as she attempts to solve the mystery. Again like more traditional hardboiled detectives (Mike Hammer is one example), Miss Tolerance suffers physically, mentally, and romantically, yet manages to solve the mystery anyway. The problem is that the mystery she solves is much greater than the one she is initially assigned.
The plot features many twists and turns that grow steadily darker and more complex. A nobleman's agent contracts Miss Tolerance to obtain, for a sum of money, a bejeweled fan once given to a courtesan. At first, the age and name of the courtesan and the very identity of her true client are obscured, as is her client's relationship with his agent, Lord Trux. Miss Tolerance does find the fan, but questions about her employer and his aims proliferate, complicated by the murder of one of her informants and several attacks directed at Miss Tolerance herself. Can she trust anyone? Will she be forced to compromise her future as an inquiry agent? And what does horticultural science have to do with the fan?
Robins is trained in stage combat, an added bonus which lends veracity to the swordfights. Despite the unreality of the setting, detail throughout has a crisp and realistic quality thanks to Robins' clean, almost invisible prose style. Let us hope that this wonderful book is not lost in between bookstore genre shelves.