The Emperor's Conspiracy
by Michelle Diener

Gallery Books, 2012. ISBN 978-1-451-68443-8.
Reviewed by Olga Livshin
Posted on 05/01/2013

Fiction: Historical

A spy thriller intertwined with a romantic triangle, set in Regency England, with a peek into high society, a whiff of the gutters, and a dollop of blackmail. Such a recipe couldn't fail but produce an engaging tale of history and mayhem.

The heroine, Charlotte, was the daughter of a prostitute. The girl worked as a chimney sweep since she was four, but at twelve, luck smiled on her: she was adopted by Lady Catherine. Since then, Charlotte has lived in two worlds. While le bon ton knows her as a reserved society miss with an impeccable reputation, her friends from the stews call her Charlie. She visits her former rookery often and helps as many of her former mates as she can, with work or money.

Circumstances bring her in contact with Edward, a wealthy nobleman working for the Crown. Sparks of interest and desire ignite between them, but before they can explore their mutual attraction, they must untangle a treacherous conspiracy that threatens not only Charlotte's life but also the security of England.

While Edward is searching for the traitors, Charlotte battles the ghosts of her childhood. Her heart is torn between her sisterly affection for Luke, her former sweetheart and the current crime boss of London, and her emerging love for Edward. Edward's work for the Crown pitches him against Luke, so both men pull her in the opposite directions.

In turns charming and sensible, kind and surprisingly ruthless, Charlotte struggles to reconcile her unfolding feminine passion with the unbreakable ties of her past. She can't betray her friends, she can't forfeit Luke, her soul brother, but she wouldn't abandon her hopes for happiness with Edward either. While she is trying to balance her double life, the villains are poised to strike, and Edward is running out of time.

I seriously doubt the historical authenticity of this novel (I mean, come on: a chimney sweep becoming a lady), but I enjoyed Charlotte's non-stop adventures all the same. The pacing is furious, as misfortunes pile up on both her and Edward from the first page. The depiction of poverty-stricken London slums digs for the reader's empathy, but despite the inventiveness of the plot, the emotional impact of this novel is not as strong as it could've been.

The problem lies in characters. Characterization is a weak point of this book. All the characters, including Charlotte, are interesting sketches, with lots of potential for depth that hasn't been fully realized. And that detracts from the value of this novel. Flat dialog doesn't help either. Still, the novel reads fast, captures attention easily, and provides a few hours of pure escapism for the reader, like an adventure flick on TV. Recommended for lovers of light historical fiction.

Michelle Diener writes historical fiction. Her previous novels in the Susanna Horenbout and John Parker series include In a Treacherous Court and Keeper of the King's Secrets. She lives in Australia with her husband and two children. Visit her website.

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