Book Review: City of Jasmine by Deanna Raybourn

Book Review: City of Jasmine by Deanna Raybourn

City of JasmineLove, 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.

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The details:

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

Wishlist Wednesday

Welcome to Wishlist Wednesday!

The concept is to post about one book from our wish lists that we can’t wait to read. Want to play? Here’s how:

  • Follow Pen to Paper as host of the meme.
  • Do a post about one book from your wishlist and why you want to read it.
  • Add your blog to the linky at the bottom of the post at Pen to Paper.
  • Put a link back to Pen to Paper somewhere in your post.
  • Visit the other blogs and enjoy!

My wishlist book this week is:

Letters from Skye: A Novel

Letters From Skye by Jessica Brockmole

From Goodreads:

A sweeping story told in letters, spanning two continents and two world wars, Jessica Brockmole’s atmospheric debut novel captures the indelible ways that people fall in love, and celebrates the power of the written word to stir the heart.

March 1912: Twenty-four-year-old Elspeth Dunn, a published poet, has never seen the world beyond her home on Scotland’s remote Isle of Skye. So she is astonished when her first fan letter arrives, from a college student, David Graham, in far-away America. As the two strike up a correspondence—sharing their favorite books, wildest hopes, and deepest secrets—their exchanges blossom into friendship, and eventually into love. But as World War I engulfs Europe and David volunteers as an ambulance driver on the Western front, Elspeth can only wait for him on Skye, hoping he’ll survive.

June 1940: At the start of World War II, Elspeth’s daughter, Margaret, has fallen for a pilot in the Royal Air Force. Her mother warns her against seeking love in wartime, an admonition Margaret doesn’t understand. Then, after a bomb rocks Elspeth’s house, and letters that were hidden in a wall come raining down, Elspeth disappears. Only a single letter remains as a clue to Elspeth’s whereabouts. As Margaret sets out to discover where her mother has gone, she must also face the truth of what happened to her family long ago.

Why do I want to read this?

Letters from Skye suits so many of my reading preferences: Historical setting, Scotland (!), war-time romance, multi-generational narrative. I love the idea of the contrast between the romances that happened in the lives of the mother and daughter in the different World Wars — and how one could affect and change the other. It all sounds very dramatic and dashing and so very romantic! I’m really look forward to reading this one.

What’s on your wishlist this week?

So what are you doing on Thursdays and Fridays? Come join me for my regular weekly features, Thursday Quotables and Flashback Friday! You can find out more here — come share the book love!

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Favorite Romances

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, featuring a different top 10 theme each week. This week’s topic is:

Top Ten Favorite Romances

At first, I was a tad confused by the topic. Should this be my favorite romance novels? (I don’t think I could name ten, to be honest.) Or top ten romantic books in general? But no, what makes the most sense is the top ten romantic pairings — the “supercouples” of fiction, with love stories that are remarkable, unsurpassed, unforgettable… or at least, different enough to be noteworthy! My list of romantic couples in fiction:

1) Jamie and Claire Fraser (Outlander): Speaking as an unabashed fan of the Outlander series, I just don’t think I could name a more romantic couple than Jamie and Claire. Put a tall, red-headed 18th century Highlander (in a kilt, please!) together with an outspoken 20th century medical woman, and sparks fly! A love story that crosses centuries, filled with humor and passion — what’s not to love?

2) Severus Snape and Lily Evans (Harry Potter series): Just because the love is unrequited doesn’t make it any less romantic. Poor Severus, doomed to spend his life paying for his part in the death of the one and only woman he ever loved. His patronus is a doe! This scene gives me chills every time I read it:

Dumbledore watched her fly away, and as her silvery glow faded he turned back to Snape, and his eyes were full of tears.
“After all this time?”
“Always,” said Snape.

3) Henry and Clare (The Time Traveler’s Wife): This book just knocked me out when I first read it, which may explain why it’s one of the few books I’ve read twice in a row (and a couple more times since). Henry always finds his way back to Clare; Clare is his rock and his constant. I just love these two together.

4) Diana Bishop and Matthew Clairmont (A Discovery of Witches): The witch and the vampire who find a forbidden, prophecied love. Total hotness… plus a couple who meet in a library? How awesome is that? Academics need love too!

5) Dexter Mayhew and Emma Morley (One Day). Best friends who finally – FINALLY – realize that they’re perfect for one another. This book made me laugh, yell, and cry. Dexter and Emma’s paths, alone and together, felt so true to me, and perhaps it’s this real-life element that makes their relationship feel so special and so romantic.

6) Mercy Thompson and Adam Hauptman (Mercedes Thompson series): I already included a witch and a vampire on my list; now here’s a shapeshifter and werewolf combination that’s just hot as can be and incredibly full of love and romance. I love this urban fantasy series, especially how it shows the evolution of Mercy and Adam’s relationship from wary acceptance to full-throttle love and devotion.

7) Jane True and Anyan Barghast (Jane True series): Long live the supernatural power couples! Jane’s a half-selkie, Anyan is a Barghast in the funny, crazy, high-powered world of Nicole Peeler’s Jane True series. It takes several books before these two finally wise up (and hook up), and it remains to be seen whether the author will grant them a HEA when the final book comes out in May.

8) David and Debra (Eagle in the Sky): This is going way back, but I read this Wilbur Smith novel when I was a young, starry-eyed teen and it just blew me away. Debra and David find a love that is tested over and over again by tragedy, and they always manage to find a way back to one another. I must have read this book half a dozen times in the couple of years after I first discovered it. I wonder whether it would stand the test of time if I reread it now?

9) Buttercup and Wesley (The Princess Bride):  Does this one even need an explanation? Are there better words for pledging undying love than “as you wish”? Twu wuv.

10) Snow White and Bigby Wolf (Fables): From my absolute favorite graphic novel series – I just adore the romance between these two strong-minded Fables. They have a marriage with more stress than most mundies could ever imagine, and yet they manage to maintain their love, respect, affection, and passion. Is it wrong to have a crush on a comic book character? Because that Bigby Wolf is just so… big and bad.

Honorable Mention:  All the rest that I don’t want to overlook: Really? Narrow it down to just ten? It all comes down to my mood, not to mention the fact that what I’ve read more recently is fresher in my mind… so here’s a bunch of other great romantic couples that just shouldn’t be forgotten:

  • Ron & Hermione, Harry & Ginny, Molly & Arthur, Remus & Tonks (sniff…) (Harry Potter)
  • Lyra & Will (His Dark Materials trilogy)
  • Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy (Pride and Prejudice)
  • Emma and Mr. Knightley (Emma)
  • Alexia Tarabotti and Conall Maccon (The Parasol Protectorate series by Gail Carriger)
  • Harper Connelly and Tolliver Lang (Grave Sight et al by Charlaine Harris)
  • Mariana and Richard (Mariana by Susanna Kearsley)
  • Heather and Brandon (The Flame and the Flower — the very first romance novel I ever read!)

Love is in the air. Happy Valentine’s Day! May you find romance, either in your real life or in the pages of a book!