Notorious and beautiful, Vidia Swanson works as an "angel," trying to coax incriminating secrets from powerful men who may or may not be traitors of the Crown. Her latest target is suspected of stealing gold from Wellington's troops, but matters take an alarming turn when Vidia realizes that her spymaster thinks she is the one who is tainted—a double agent working for Napoleon.
Backed into a corner, she can only hope to stay one step ahead of the hangman in a race to stop the next war before it destroys her—and destroys England. Tainted Angel offers up a compelling game of cat and mouse in which no one can be trusted and anyone can be tainted.--from Amazon
After reading and unexpectedly enjoying Murder in Thrall by Anne Cleeland, I decided to try her other currently available offering. While Murder in Thrall is a modern murder mystery/romance, Tainted Angel is set in Regency England in the months prior to Napoleon's escape from Elba.
The story begins with Vidia receiving orders from her English spymaster to extract a fellow agent from a potentially dangerous situation. The agent is Carstairs, for whom it becomes obvious that Vidia has a strong attraction, and with whom she has worked in the past. Recently widowed, Carstairs is dangerously drunk in a very bad part of town, and there is concern that he might be incapacitated enough to reveal something he shouldn't. The extraction is successful, and Vidia ends up spending the night with Carstairs, during which time he mutters a phrase, in French, which might indicate that his loyalty has been compromised. Or, which might be an attempt to trap Vidia into revealing that she herself is no longer loyal. She realizes that she is under suspicion, and since she is actually in the middle of a very questionable and potentially treasonable sting, she has good reason to be worried.
If all of this sounds complicated and hard to follow, that's because it is. There is a master-mind who reminds me quite a bit of the father in Georgette Heyer's The Masqueraders, there are betrayals, double and triple-crosses, several marriages--at least one of them not valid--loyal and not-so-loyal retainers, spymasters, clever women, lost daughters and so on. While I enjoyed the book, and felt that all the loose ends were tied up, for the moment anyway, there were some things that bothered me as I was reading.
Carstairs is supposedly the hero, but he actually wasn't all that interesting, and was overshadowed by the English spymaster who is referred to mostly as the "grey-eyed man", or "the Vicar". The ruthless and intense Vicar seemed like a much better match for Vidia, and even in the small amount of time he spends on the page, seemed both more complex and more intriguing than the ostensible hero. While it is clear that the attraction between Vidia and Carstairs goes back a ways, you still don't really know enough about those early interactions to understand what draws them together, which makes their final coming-together fall a little flat.
While Vidia's complicated backstory and therefore motivation is revealed in the course of the story, much of the first part of Tainted Angel is spent with the reader having no idea what is going on. While you do eventually figure it out, it would have been nice to have had a clue a bit sooner because her final triumph would have been more enjoyable. As it was, so much of the story happened before Tainted Angel begins that the climax is muted at best.
There were also a few research or editing errors that bothered me--using "sextant"(a tool used for navigation) instead of "sexton" (a minor church official), Vidia having her hair powdered at a time when fashionable women no longer did this, etc., but frankly, I'm so used to things like that in historicals that it's hardly worth mentioning.
And I got very tired of the word "tainted."
What I liked very much about the book, is that Vidia herself is an interesting woman. She truly is a woman with a past, and has done and suffered things that would have destroyed lesser women. She is clever, and resourceful, and competent, and while I might doubt how long her HEA is going to last before she becomes bored, I liked her enough to hope that it somehow all works out. And I will definitely be reading the next book in the series, Daughter of the God-King.
Love the cover!