Lady Arianna Hadley has been exiled in the Caribbean for years due to her father’s disgrace. When he father is murdered Arianna vows to get revenge. Years later Arianna is finally in the position to exact her revenge and disguises herself as a male chef in an English household. However, when the Prince Regent falls ill after eating from her table, Arianna finds herself under suspicion, bringing her plans for revenge to a halt.
The half-Spanish Earl of Saybrook, Alessandro De Quincy, is called in to investigate the apparent poisoning by chocolate of the Prince Regent due to Saybrook’s his eccentric interest in all things chocolate. Saybrook not only discovers that the accused chef is a woman, but also that she has a target on her back. These reluctant partners have to work together if they hope to discover who truly has it out for the Prince Regent, and it just might coincide with Arianna’s revenge. Sweet Revenge was not as cozy as I was expecting it to be. When I first saw the cover I labeled this as your typical cozy mystery, it’s mystery centers around food after all, how complex could it be? Quite complex as it turns out. I was quite surprised by the level of historical detail about both the time period and chocolate as a new substance for consumption in England. While all of these detail created an authentic mystery, I personally found that it came at the expense of fully developed characters.
The novel focuses mainly on the mystery element both Arianna’s investigation into her father’s murder and Saybrook’s into the poisoning of the Prince Regent. At first the dynamic between Arianna and Saybrook was great. They were both interesting and enigmatic characters; I wanted to know more about both of them. The initial interactions between them were entertaining and fraught with tension:
“How do you intend to stop me? Chain me up in some remote castle dungeon like the dastardly Spanish villain in that silly horrid novel by Mrs. Radcliffe?” Actually, Arianna had found the book quite entertaining, but that was beside the point.
“Ye mean The Mysteries of Udolpho?” asked Henning helpfully.
“Yes, that’s the one,” she said.
“Montoni was Italian,” murmured Saybrook.
“Mea culpa,” retorted Arianna.
“And that is Latin,” he pointed out.
“You,” she said slowly, “are an overeducated, aristocratic ass.”
Hemming stifled a snort.
“And you,” countered Saybrook, “are a bloody thorn in my lordly posterior” (p. 166).
While the initial tension between the characters was good, it never really went anywhere. The romance or attraction between the characters came second to the mystery plot and because of that, I never really got the sense of a real relationship between the two. Now, you may say “But this is only the first book! Surely, this will change as the series progresses?”. At this point, I have read all three books in the series and there is never any real development in Arianna and Saybrook’s relationship. Readers are simply told that a relationship has developed, but I never got any evidence of this. So, if you’re going into this one intrigued by the romantic element to the books, expect a very toned down romance that is more “tell” than “show.
Another thing to note is that the author intersperses chocolate recipes at the beginning of each chapter in all three books of the series. While these recipes are tempting, I really felt that they serve to bring the reader out of the historical setting, at least, if you bother reading them (which I eventually stopped doing). The references to modern conveniences in the recipes served to jar the reader right out of the historical atmosphere that the author did such a good job of creating. Further, I didn’t really feel that the recipes really added anything important to the story, they were simply a distraction for me.
While I like the historical setting of Sweet Revenge and the next two books in the series, I couldn’t get past the rather flat characters. Further, I thought the mystery plot came at the expense of character development. Anything related to the characters seemed to be simply tossed into the book so that the plot could return to the mystery, which ultimately let to a disjointed reading experience.
If you liked the focus on mystery and the historical atmosphere, I recommend following up with Ann Granger’s The Companion. Like Sweet Revenge, this one has a romantic subplot, but it does not take precedence to the mystery. The strongest element to The Companion was the highly atmospheric setting, which I pointed out in my review.