So one day, I spent my lunch break at the Augusta Barnes & Noble – probably because I was close to finishing The Mysteries of Udolpho and I knew I wanted to read something with … I don’t know, something not Mysteries of Udolpho. And I was browsing the shelves and came across this series, wherein the main character, India Black, was described as a “madam of espionage.” Okay, that sounds like a pun I’d make.
Crossing my fingers, I turned the book over, and sure enough – India was not only a spy for Britain, but she was also the madam of a brothel. “Sign me up!” I said, in the middle of that Barnes & Noble – where I was promptly shushed, even though it’s technically not a library. But unfortunately for me, Barnes & Noble did not have the first book in the series, and since I really prefer to start series at the beginning, I refrained from purchasing anything at that time.
Then I ordered it off of Amazon, along with like, four other books. Most of which, I’ve read at this point. BUT ANYWAY.
According to the back of the book, it is the winter of 1876 and India is minding her own business – Lotus House, her brothel. One of her charges is entertaining someone upstairs, when he unfortunately dies of a heart attack. Because she doesn’t want to have a death besmirch the honor of her house, she enlists the help of young Vincent, a pickpocket with a heart of gold — oh, actually, I meant a heart for gold. And just when they’re bundling the corpse into a wagon to take him to the docks, a smart gent by the name of French happens upon them and takes over the whole operation.
See, the dead guy was a member of the Ministry, and they’re going to make his death look like an info drop gone bad. But French needs Dead Guy’s briefcase. When India goes to retrieve it from the room, it’s missing. And now, French and the Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, threaten to close down her shop unless she helps them retrieve it.
Thus, India gets sucked into the world of espionage with nary a thought. The rest of the plot involves Russian spies, a couple more deaths, and a sable coat, but overall, I do not feel like this book lived up to its potential.
India Black was clearly written as a “strong female character.” Meaning, she has pluck and tenacity, but … no real weaknesses. She doesn’t have a spasm of horror at seeing Dead Ministry Guy; she’s all, “Oh shite, now we’ve got a mess to clean up. Guess I’ll have to find the starveling to help me with this.” Her dinners consist of a glass of strong whiskey and toast. We see her provide comfort to the women that live and work in her brothel, but we don’t see her care for them. India doesn’t have any friends; she is alone. And being alone is all right, but it seemed as if India was meant to be a man and then gender-switched to a woman, thrown in a brothel because apparently that’s the only place a smart woman can own a business in that time period (which, besides a dressmaker’s shop, is probably true) – and “brothel madam” just adds that hint of spice that I thought I was going to get.
Her part of Operation Retrieve Briefcase is simple: get invited into this Russian guy’s party and distract him enough so she can get the briefcase. Intel provides that Russian Guy has a preference for lesbian porn; therefore, India will rope one of her friendliest fellow madams (because remember, India really doesn’t have friends) into attending because a) Fellow Madam is bisexual and has always wanted to “get into India’s trousers,” and b) India doesn’t mind her, so — two birds, one stone.
No hesitation about having to not only have sex with someone she almost considers a friend, let alone in front of a stranger, let alone for nefarious reasons. India doesn’t hesitate; she sees the clearest means to an end and then pursues that end to … well, the end. I would expect any human being, female or otherwise, to have some qualms or murmurs of doubt or … just overall feelings about that type of scenario.
I’m definitely not saying that female lead characters should not show strength. But there is a difference between using strength as a character’s main characteristic and showing strength as a facet of a character. There’s a really good article on the use of a “Strong Female Character” that my friend Jen may have linked to me years ago – Jen, if this is the same article, yay I remembered! If it’s not, look, I found another one! But anyway, the article basically says that male characters get to have many facets whereas female characters, if they’re the lead, get to only be “strong”:
Sherlock Holmes gets to be brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius. Female characters get to be Strong.
Everyone should totally read this article, especially the end.
I want my female characters to have depths – make them brave, allow them to be sad, make them scared. Give her traits that show that maybe, her rudeness or roughness are defense mechanisms, that she only acts that way when she feels cornered. Show she has a tender side. Give her female friends. Even if she tends to be a loner, tell me she’s happy being a loner.
Overall, I felt that India Black was a cipher – she was a Strong Female Character with an Interesting Occupation thrown into a Situation and she needed to assist a man without letting him be the boss. No, she never needed rescuing. Yes, she could use a gun, and she used it well. But she treated everything that came in her path as another run-of-the-mill thing that she needed to check off a to-do list. Oh no, I have to escape this room. Guess I’ll go out the window and try and get into the next room from the windowsill. No big deal, it’s only two stories up if I fall, and it snowed, so – I’ll be fine. I mean, she’s so – NONCHALANT! That’s the word I was searching for! Anyway, she’s so nonchalant about this whole business that she keeps referring to Benjamin Disraeli as “Dizzy.”
The only time she shows a different aspect of herself, India is able to rationalize it away:
… for a minute I almost lost my nerve and wished myself back safe in Lotus House, away from the cold and the dead Cossack and the exquisitely turned out Oksana. I could feel the sting of tears close to the surface, but I refused to give way. Then I recollected that I had had little to eat since dawn, my hands and feet were numb from lack of circulation, it was colder than the proverbial witch’s tit, and French and I were being held prisoner by a ruthless Russian major and his bitch of an accomplice. No wonder I was feeling a bit down.
Cheered by the revelation that I did not in fact have a serious character flaw … [p. 234-235]
Being scared and wanting to go home is not a character flaw! Uggghhhhh….
I was just really disappointed. I will try to read the next one – I’m definitely ordering it from the library, that’s for sure, no more spending money on this author for me – but if there isn’t growth in her character in the next one, I’m probably going to stop reading this series. Which is a shame, because I feel like there’s so much potential for this story.
Alaina has a sad now.
Grade for India Black: 1 star