- Title: A Spear of Summer Grass
- Author: Deanna Raybourn
- Genre(s): Historical
- Publisher: Harlequin (MIRA), April 2013
- Source: NetGalley
- Length: 384 pages
- Trope(s): Bad Girl with a Heart of Gold and Hidden Depths, Enigmatic Loner Hero, Colorful Cast of Supporting Characters, Very Convenient Coincidences
- Quick blurb: Disgraced socialite exiled to stepfather’s crumbling estate in 1920s colonial Kenya
- Quick review: After much pre-reading anxiety and post-reading obsessing, it didn’t work for me — but for more reasons than I expected.
- Grade: D+
“For Christ’s sake, woman. Don’t stand there mooning about. This is Africa. Go inside before something eats you.”
I’m a huge fan of Raybourn’s Julia Grey mystery series (countless re-reads, book trance every single time), so when I saw the cover and blurb for A Spear of Summer Grass, I sighed happily and thought, “Ohhhhh, she wrote a new one just for me.”
So why the Book Anxiety? It started with the usual “She’s one of my favorite authors, what if I don’t like it???” I sucked it up and made it through the two chapters with an initial dislike for the heroine, but no major red flags – so far, so good.
But then a quick glance at a few reviews – “horrible” and “DNF” from The Book Smugglers and the enlightening discussion at Dear Author – sent me flailing into the worst-case scenario of “What if I like it – but I shouldn’t???” So I moved it from currently-reading back to the to-read shelf and let the anxiety fester. For weeks.
I started reading again last night, and finished this morning around 3 a.m. It was a one-sitting read, but not a full-on blissful book trance. Instead of wallowing in the language and characters, I could not stop myself from focusing on all the elements that were so problematic for other reviewers.
Yes, this book does romanticize colonial Kenya – I don’t think there’s really any room for debate about it. Raybourn makes a valiant effort at providing context and addressing those concerns through dialogue with secondary characters, but those exchanges were forced and awkward, with a distinct “pay attention, this is important” vibe. I cringe to think of this story told in third person, because the first-person POV was the only thing that saved this story from a DNF. I couldn’t overlook bits like “his slender chest swelled with pride,” but experiencing them through Delilah’s privileged self-centeredness made them more palatable. Until, that is, the cringe-worthy and completely unnecessary Return of the Conquering Heroine scene. Ugh.
I’m not going to focus on the romance, because there wasn’t much of it. There’s very little relationship-building, and the Love at First Lion Killing moment arrived exactly as expected. Without his prequel novella, J. Ryder White would be a throw-away love interest.
This book is all about Delilah, and she’s a compelling and memorable character. She’s also too perfectly surprisingly suited for her unwanted role as Mistress of the Manor. Before even arriving in Africa, she’s already acquainted with or familiar with nearly all of her new white neighbors — including a former lover. The locals show up on her porch for her White Lady Magical Healing Powers, and we learn she was a volunteer surgical nurse during the Great War. She confronts the Evil Overseer, and we learn she spent her childhood summers on a Louisiana sugar plantation under the tutelage of her invincible great-grandmother. Her encounters with the obligatory “witch doctor” character reveal her innate Creole mysticism. And her ex-husband (one of several) just happens to be a high-powered attorney who’s willing to abandon his new family to travel for weeks to rescue her once again. The Very Convenient Coincidences just kept piling up.
- I hated the way Delilah treated her poor-relation cousin/lady’s maid.
- “Circle of Life” played on repeat in my head during Ryder’s impassioned “everything back into balance” speech.
- Helen is the colonial version of Lindsey Duncan’s deluded aging beauty character from Under the Tuscan Sun.
Therefore, the Book Anxiety wins this round.
However… Raybourn took a huge risk in writing this book. She deliberately chose a no-win historical setting and gave us an unapologetically sexually active heroine – nearly an anti-heroine – who shoots straight (literally and figuratively). This is no Romance-O-Matic Regency, and despite my disappointment, I want more like this.