Book Review: City of Jasmine by Deanna Raybourn
Love, intrigue, and adventure are set against a backdrop of gorgeous desert vistas and an ancient Middle Eastern city in this new novel from Deanna Raybourn, author of A Spear of Summer Grass and the Lady Julia Grey series.
In City of Jasmine, lovely but broke Evie Merriweather Starke is gaining lots of attention as an aviatrix setting out to fly over the seven seas of antiquity — hoping to keep sponsorships coming in just a little while longer before her cash and stamina run out. Evie has spunk and daring, but she’s also still nursing the heartbreak of her failed marriage. Evie eloped with Gabriel Starke on the day she met him, ringing in the new year of 1915 together. But their marriage quickly soured, and when Gabriel was lost at sea with the sinking of the Lusitania, no one but Evie knew that she’d been about to divorce him.
Now, five years later, Evie is trying her best to move on with her life, with her eccentric Aunt Dove for companionship, when she receives an anonymous piece of mail containing a picture of Gabriel, dated 1920 and captioned “Damascus”. What does it mean, and why would someone send it to Evie? Seeing how she’s in the area anyway, Evie sets off for the ancient city to either find her presumed dead husband or to lay his memory to rest for good.
Adventure awaits. Damascus is dusty, confusing, and full of old-world glamor and mystery. Evie finds herself in the company of a group of archaeologists, who have apparently made a startling discovery way out in the desert at their dig site. Meanwhile, the Middle East is simmering with post-War political tensions, as the European powers attempt to carve up the former Ottoman Empire — which doesn’t necessarily sit very well with the Arab locals and the desert-dwelling Bedouin tribes.
City of Jasmine is at heart a romance, and that shines through despite occasional dives into historical politics that get a bit too dry at times. The love story is really what this book is all about, and it’s at its best when the mystery of Evie and Gabriel’s marriage and estrangement is explored. Why did the lovely man Evie married turn into a cold-eyed stranger so quickly? Why did he fake his own death? What is he doing in Damascus, disguised as an antiquities expert in dusty robes and a nasty beard? And why, even now, must he treat Evie with such aloofness and mockery?
There’s quite a bit of action in City of Jasmine, and at times it has a frantic, almost Indiana Jones-ish feel to it. There are double-crosses and triple-crosses, chases through the desert, gunfire, escapes via camel, truck and airplane, hostile tribes and friendly tribes, and all sorts of talk of relics, artifacts, and priceless treasures. This being a romance, though, there are also quite luxurious descriptions of Turkish baths and spa treatments, flowing robes, absolutely scrumptious-sounding food, and desert tents filled with lovely carpets and cushions.
The history feels somewhat shoe-horned in. There’s a lot of talk about the politics of the time and their implications, but this mostly just scratches the surface of the complicated issues involved. I suppose the political atmosphere of the day is necessary for the events and setting to make sense, but between that and the archaelogy and the action sequences, the romantic elements are often in danger of being buried by plot.
I did enjoy City of Jasmine, but felt that the relationship between Evie and Gabriel needed to be explored further. Interestingly, the publisher released a prequel novella entitled Whisper of Jasmine in early February, several weeks before City of Jasmine‘s release. Whisper of Jasmine tells the story of Evie and Gabriel’s first meeting at a New Year’s Eve party, their intense and immediate attraction, and their elopement. It’s all quiet breathless and passionate and very, very romantic. I have to wonder, though, if the overarching story might have been better served by including this prequel as a prologue within City of Jasmine itself. Without having read the prequel, it’s hard to see the marriage as anything but an impulsive decision that ended in failure, and we don’t see enough of Evie and Gabriel together to get a sense of the feelings between them. Of course, I can’t really judge since I did read the prequel first — but I wonder what impressions a reader might have who hadn’t read Whisper of Jasmine ahead of time.
If you’ve read A Spear of Summer Grass by Deanna Raybourn, then you’ll be happy to recognize a few familiar characters popping up here in City of Jasmine, kind of like encountering old friends unexpectedly. If you haven’t read A Spear, no worries. It’s nice to have the connection to the previous novel, but not essential to understanding the characters and events of City of Jasmine.
I enjoyed the flapper-esque sensibility and dialogue of Evie and her aunt, who is the quintessential elderly relative with a notorious, scandalous past:
“We’re travel-fatigued,” Aunt Dove pronounced. “It happens when one passes too quickly from one culture into another. I’ve always said trains were uncivilized. One ought only ever to travel by steamship or camel.”
Likewise, there are moments of prime bantering between Evie and Gabriel that are quite charming:
When I reached his side, he paused and gave me a penetrating look. “How much did you enjoy pulling that trigger at me?”
I thought a moment. “Less than I expected but more than I should have.”
He nodded. “That sounds about right.”
Overall, I found City of Jasmine — while overly hectic in places — an engaging, romantic tale of adventure and love. If you enjoy a light taste of history mixed in with your exotic locations and passionate pairings, give City of Jasmine a try!
And if you’ve read City of Jasmine, I’d also recommend:
- A Spear of Summer Grass by Deanna Raybourn: A terrific historical romance set in colonial Africa in the 1920s, with a remarkable, memorable heroine.
- Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell: For those wanting a deeper dive into the history and politics of the Middle East in the years following World War I, you really can’t do better than this brilliant historical novel.
Title: City of Jasmine
Author: Deanna Raybourn
Publisher: Harlequin MIRA
Publication date: February 25, 2014
Length: 354 pages
Genre: Romance/historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Harlequin MIRA via NetGalley