ALWAYS A STRANGER by AMARA ROYCE
(Tuesday, July 15, 2014)
Reviewer: Patty McKenna Van Hulle
East meets West in this romance of forbidden passions & love between an enslaved heroine & a Lord of honor & love!
Hanako Sumaki is a rare gift of womanhood that should be treasured, but in London at the Great Exhibition, she is treated as a freak of nature & an oddity. She is a Asian woman who is held in the struggling hold of the evil & money grubby hands of Mr. Broek, the owner of the Jade Gardens. Hanako & her young sister, Takara, had been left at the mercy of Mr. Broek after their Father's death. Hanako knows over 20 languages, is the mother hen of all the Jade Gardens' women who are basically slaves, a performer of Asian entertainment, a translator & protector of her sister, but she has outlasted her usefulness & is going to be sold as a man's toy. She will do it all, so that she can take her sister with her & protect her from Mr. Broek's perverse hands.
Skyler Roderick was a happy 2nd son & engineering student abroad, when he learned that he was the new Earl of Richmond, after the tragic death of both his father & older brother. Syke was never to be the heir, but he accepts all the responsibilities, like being the new Royal Commissioner of the Great Exhibition. His boss is the Duke of Carleton & the Duke wants all corruptions rooted out of the Exhibition, so Syke is inspecting all exhibits, performers, checking all contracts & looking anything out of place.
As Syke is investigating, he sees this red shimmer of silk reveal this exotic Far East flower & is mesmerized by her. Hanako looks into the chaos of the Exhibition & sees this proud & golden Lord & is entranced by all the emotions flowing thru her, but knows he is trouble. Syke waits outside of the curtain to wait to talk with this lotus flower, but when he goes behind the curtain, all he sees a dirty small child. That child is actually Hanako in one of her many disguises & pretends to not understand English. They play this cat & mouse game until Sykes goes to his Aunt's, Lady Devlin, dinner party & Hanako is there as a translator for a handsy client. They share 1 dazzlingly kiss, but Hanako feels his warmth, kindness, security & maybe trust, things she has always wanted, but has always been denied!
It's East meets West in this journey of unchecked desire & utter decadent passions between Hanako & Syke as her auction becomes closer, but she will protect her sister & maybe Syke, too. When he closes his eyes, he sees her in the red silk, but she will never be accepted as his Countess. Things become very complex with Mr. Broek greed, the protection of the Jade women, a helpful Lord Devlin, the do gooder Mrs. Duchamp, an outraged Dowager Countess, Tanaka's future protection, the bruised & battered heart & soul of Hanako & the endless loving just for her from Syke. Will Syke free Hanako from her bondage? Can Hanako realized that she is worthy of his love? How will Syke heal her tormented soul? If they break the hold of Mr. Broek, can they save her sister & all the in prisoned Jade women? When will Mr. Broek get his justice reward?
This is my 1st Amara Royce romance & she blends all the exotic Far East with the English world of rules & up tight society to make an unforgettable tale. Hanako was a performer 24/7 & I believe she hide inside her many disguises to hide her own pain. She is so strong & always took responsibility for everyone in her world, but she lost herself along the way. Syke is a different kind of hero, who used his head in the begin, but that man's heart was so full of love that it was like a damn breaking open! He didn't get it from his mom & I was bad & made a little pillow doll of the Dowager Countess & stabbed her multiple times with pins because I didn't want to put holes in my Kindle. Ms. Royce filled this book with a cast of lively Jade ladies who were Hanako & her sister's chosen family. This book made smile, crave a little Far East just for me, cry my eyes out (it's not a pretty sight), anger for the injustices of females everywhere, beat up & pin to death certain characters (which earned me just a little chocolate happiness) & I wanted to steal Syke & his overflowing heart from Hanako. Ms. Royce created a different & heart wrenching romance with a Far East flair that totally deserves my top score of 5 fingers up & 10 toes.
NetGalley ARC given for my honest review.
Like embroidered silk
(Thursday, May 15, 2014)
Reviewer: Katie KofeMug
Framed by the Great Exhibition, Skyler Roderick, Earl of Ridgemont, and Hanako Sumaki confront the prejudices of the time as well as those within themselves. Comfortable as the second son, eager to embrace his gifts of architectural vision, his lordship struggles to fulfill his new obligations and still remain true to his own nature. Hana juggles the knives of a horrifying situation while admitting "one can only climb so high before running out of mountain." Like embroidered silk, these characters and their story dazzle even as it snags at your sensitivities.
I devoured Always a Stranger in under five hours. The story drew me in, gently enticing me to turn the page then compelling me to continue. Evocative writing, characters with many dimensions and genuine development held me throughout the story. The dialog was believable, humor very subtle, the historical accuracy impressive and Ridgemont's mother's temper tantrum entirely credible. Secondary characters were well drawn and essential to the story without usurping the narrative. The villains were despicable but not over the top and the conflicts felt genuine. Hana's ability to swallow her fears and reach out for help was a moment to cheer; that it didn't turn out perfectly was a twist I applauded!
Be warned, this is not a light and fluffy read, not a glittering ball or giggling debutante to be endured. The rake is a villain (yippee!) The hero is disgusted by the thought of brothels, the risk of disease and the facts of degradation engender by both the whores and those that use them (more yippee!). The heroine is trapped by her manipulated sense of duty, family ties and poverty. There are mature themes that do not bear glossing over.
I felt Ms. Royce handled the reality of the times with regard for a romance reader's general expectation. She does not shove prose down your throat but allows her characters to give you a glimpse of what it felt like being exotic property without a voice or ability to believe in more than rare moments of peace. The psychological contradictions of being "held" by a protector that manipulates everyone with hints and suggestions then fists, and ultimately abandonment in the middle of no and where, were a bit too realistic at times, but made this story a unique romance.
Considering the times, I felt the characters were in a hopeless situation then an improbable one. However, as I considered the fact Lord Ridgemont spent several years in America and must have been somewhat influenced by the differences of society, improbable faded to possible. Due to family dynamics, he comprehended the outsider feeling in spite of his wealth and position, knew what it was to be an alien in a foreign land and someone in his youth had cultivated his sense of looking at the world through another's eyes. Where he was challenged by understanding utter dependence, poverty and hunger, his heart was able to fill in the blanks. If only this enlightened age could bother to do the same. Skyler was a man with an uncomfortable awareness of what was expected of him and what he felt to be right that was finding his way. I liked him.
Hana was heart breakingly honest, sad and brave. She teetered dangerously near the Mary Sue zone on several occasions (Twenty languages? A mistress of disguises and the only public performer for the Exhibition?) and that is my only complaint. For the most part, despite her many talents and abused sense of duty, she was a determined woman with touching foibles and endearing contradictions. Her desperation to foil the villain's plans and have one happy memory mutates to absolute terror with a post coital crash that was, in my jaded old biddy opinion, entirely believable. And yet ... I was touched by both Hana and Skyler's very different fears. No story momentum was lost as they came to grips with afterburn instead of afterglow. Frustrating as that was, I appreciated that sex didn't comfort her as she expected and Skyler floundered and questioned not only her, but himself.
There is no magic wand in this story, rather a steady pace to reach the acceptance that being together is worth enduring what is and will be. I don't generally like epilogues and this one was not an exception for me. However, I think most folks like their romance secured by a bow and a dangly piece of foil wrapped chocolate and this one should please them. Always a Stranger was a rare read for me because it held my complete attention from start to finish. I'm not sure I will ever have the stamina to re-read it. Some tales are like that, so thoroughly disconcerting at first read, you close the book with a shaking hand and dazed re-entry to real life. I highly recommend this book for those looking for more than the usual 'Earl and unacceptable love' story.
Note: I received an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review