Book Review: A Spear of Summer Grass by Deanna Raybourn
Is this an awesome cover or what? I know, I know, don’t judge a book by its… but hey, this really is lovely. I love the white flapper dress, the image of a woman outside of her natural element, and the gorgeous African landscape. Aren’t you just dying to know what it’s all about? This is definitely what I would consider a successful cover — it draws you in, piques your interest, and makes you want to know more.
A Spear of Summer Grass opens in Paris, 1923, with a young woman in a great deal of trouble. Delilah Drummond thrives on scandal. The quintessential flapper, she’s the life of the party, basking in male attention, always the center of the action, never known to turn down a drink, a cigarette, or a lover. But when the latest uproar refuses to die down and Delilah’s escapades threaten to embarrass not just her hard-partying mother but her moneybags grandfather, drastic action is needed, and Delilah is packed off to her stepfather’s Kenyan estate to cool her heels and wait for the media vultures to move on to the new scandal du jour.
Delilah is not one to go quietly — anywhere — and as she settles into life in Africa, she makes waves among the colonial government officials as well as among the upper class white settlers in her social mix. Yet at the same time, Delilah is charmed by the wildness and danger of her African surroundings and throws herself into the responsibilities of being mistress of an estate, treating the Kikuyu and Masai tribespeople with friendship and dignity.
Not that Delilah has abandoned her wild ways. She attracts the eyes of every adult male in the vicinity, and proceeds to wrap each and every one around her little finger, keeping them as objects of flirtation and sometimes more, but never letting anyone close enough to actually touch her heart. Only one man, enigmatic hunter Ryder White, seems immune to her wiles, and it’s this man who both captivates Delilah and is perhaps an equal for her strong-willed nature.
Delilah and Ryder have a bit of a Scarlett and Rhett vibe going for them. She’s used to being the belle of the ball, accustomed to having every man fall all over her to please and pamper her, hoping for just a bit of her attention and favor. Ryder is somewhat of a scoundrel; he’s respectable enough, but he goes his own way, society’s opinion be damned. They attract, repel, and frustrate each other. The physical attraction is certainly strong, and Ryder is perhaps the one man who can hold his own against Delilah. The outcome of the will-they, won’t-they dynamic is never really in question — it’s clear that these two are made for one another — but the getting there is tumultuous, to say the least.
There’s a lot to really like about A Spear of Summer Grass. The African landscapes and wildlife are described in lush detail. You can practically hear the wind through the savannah and smell the wildness in the air. It’s easy to see how the various characters, often against their will, get caught up in their lives in Kenya and can’t pull themselves away. I enjoyed Delilah’s transformation from spoiled party princess to something more, a woman of character. Delilah’s past is hinted at from the start, but over the course of the book we come to understand the suffering she endured as a result of world war, the losses that caused her to wall off her heart from any hint of vulnerability, and the slow evolution she undergoes as she starts, finally, to live and feel once again.
Ryder is, of course, a typical manly man with a heart of gold, quick to punish wrongdoers but dedicated to protecting the weak, whether people or animals, and righting wrongs wherever he sees them. Of course, he’s incredibly handsome in a rugged, Indiana Jones-ish way, and that doesn’t hurt in the least.
The author does a skillful job of portraying the flavor of expatriate life in colonial Kenya, showcasing the decadent lifestyle of the rich, white settlers, their loose morality, and their unwise indifference to the non-white majority of the country. The scandals, gossip, drinking, and sexual looseness all work perfectly to create a sense of a society adrift and out of touch with the world around them. Visually, there are some remarkable small moments, such as Delilah’s fine silks and delicate shoes falling victim to the blood and dust of Africa — details that convey deliciously the feeling of life lived on the edge of the wild.
What worked less well for me was the inevitability of the romance between Delilah and Ryder. The battle of wills notwithstanding, it’s obvious from the start that Delilah and Ryder are going to end up together, and there was nothing about their developing relationship that didn’t feel like something I’ve seen before. In fact — although this might be contrary to how these things usually go in popular fiction — I think A Spear of Summer Grass might have been a stronger story without the romantic subplot. In and of herself, Delilah is an interesting, strong-willed, trouble-making heroine, and I would have been perfectly content reading a novel that focused on her personal journey without the complication of her lovers and admirers.
That said, I did absolutely enjoy reading A Spear of Summer Grass, so much so that I stayed up past midnight to finish it and had dreams full of safaris and African skies. After finishing this book, I discovered that the author has also published a prequel, Far in the Wilds, as an ebook, and yes, of course I’m going to read it!
Review copy courtesy of Harlequin MIRA via Netgalley.