In Zoe Archer's books, there are rules and limits, there are extraordinary things that happen, and there are characters that are unique. But the story and the people within it are always grounded in a place that is consistent and intelligent. I have a solid sense of trust that while the people and their abilities might be incredible, because they are Archer's characters, I believe in them, and in the world they inhabit.
Sweet Revenge is the story of Jack Dalton, who was imprisoned for attacking a nobleman (though he had very fine reasons for doing so, it was a bad move on his part). When he learns that said nobleman is nearby in a town adjacent to the prison where he is kept, he stages an impromptu but effective breakout, and escapes across the fields to the town. When he reaches the hotel, he's held at gunpoint – not by the prison guards who are chasing him, but by a group calling themselves “Nemesis, Unlimited” who were partly responsible for his escape. The nobleman isn't actually in town – but the members of Nemesis, including the heroine, Eva Warrick, are after that same nobleman, and need Jack's help to secure revenge. They intend to have his assistance – by any means necessary.
Nemesis takes up vengeance plots against people who are too easily above the law, who can do all sorts of crapass things to people and never bear any responsibility for their actions. Eva and her partners formed a group who takes on individual cases and seeks a karmic quid pro quo of ruination, humiliation, or both for whomever did wrong and didn't pay for it. They need Jack and aren't above using his information and holding him by threat.
This book starts off with action action and running action. It's breathless with adrenaline. Jack escapes from prison, and in the first few pages you know where, and why he's doing it. From the first page to the point where he agrees to cooperate somewhat with the Nemesis group, the pace is frenetic.
Then, the next few chapters were slower – and are a dragging contrast to the bang action of the first chapter. But in these scenes, you learn about Eva, the organization, and the emotional depths behind the characters. As I learned more about Jack, his view of himself as a convict and former thug for hire, his way of seeing the world, and about Eva, I developed a lot of empathy for them in a hurry. So when the action picked up again, I was with them, heart in my throat.
This is a action/adventure/historical romance, set firmly outside the nobility and the ton, and it's fascinating. Jack's perspective was a welcome change from the teflon lords, and his sense of morality was fascinating to me.
One aspect of this book that I thoroughly enjoyed was the way in which Archer takes the power in each scene and transfers it between the two characters one after the other. Sometimes he's the dominant one, sometimes she is. And they learn to work together, appreciating one another's strengths and not bemoaning their own weakensses.
I loved that the characters were extraordinary because they were focused and determined humans – no superpowers, no magical skills. Jack was a brawler, a man who knew how to fight dirty, who broke rocks in prison and is therefore a huge man. I also loved how he was open to being loved and appreciated, how it changed him so deeply, going from having no one who knew or cared about him to having people who watched out for him, and one person who worried about him and cared very much.
Eva is a fighter, a schemer, and a woman who is dedicated to her job. She loves her work. Part of the challenge between Jack and Eva is that once their assignment is done, he has to move on. Eva would have to choose between her work and Jack, who, due to that whole escaped convict thing, cannot stay in London.
It was easy to be absorbed in the story, due to writing and increasing and varying speed of the plot. There's big bad, a series of little bars, and nonstop focus on their goal. The negotiations of power and strength that go on within each scene change the stakes of each subsequent chapter. The contrast between Eva's wits and Jack's strength could have been cliche, but the story also highlights Eva's own strength, and the increasing appreciation Jack and the others have for Jack's intelligence and talent for strategy.
Eva and Jack have to learn to trust one another and reform their initial assumptions about each other. Their class differences, language differences, their backgrounds and goals in life are very different, but they're drawn to one another. The best parts, therefore, are their conversations:
“Before I went into the clink,” Jack said, folding his arms across his chest, “I slept naked, so I'd be running around Brompton with my tackle knocking against my knees.”
She gave a low, worldly chuckle. “I've seen your tackle, Mr. Dalton, so you can't paint yourself in such a flattering light.”
“A pretty way with words, you've got. Precise and nimble. Like one of them sailors' carvings on ivory.”
“Scrimshaw.” Her mouth curved. “I rather like that image. Perhaps you've got a bit of the poet in you,a s well, Dalton.”
“This is my pen.” He held up a fist. “I use it to write sonnets across blokes' faces.”
“Describe me however you want – we both know Nemesis has got me by the baubles.”
She pursed her lips. “Not forever.”
“When you've got a man by his baubles, love, even a minute feels like a lifetime.”
“Having none of my own, I'll have to take your word for it.”
Goddamn, she was a brazen one. And goddam if she didn't intrigue him, this woman who talked in a posh accent about a man's goolies, and led two lives. A woman like her couldn't be trusted.
“No one's ever thought of me as anything more than hired muscle. No one, except you.” He narrowed his eyes. “Only because you want something from me.”
“My purpose is entirely mercenary.” She wouldn't insult him with anything less than candor. “But that doesn't negate what I said. It only strengthens it.”
I liked Jack more than Eva, but mostly because his emotional journey was much larger and much more difficult than hers was. I thought he changed and grew more than she did, and wanted her journey to more closely match his.
The story and the setting are murky and explore dark places in London and in people's lives, so it's not a happy historical by a long shot. It's adventurous and clever, and while there's a happy ending, because the story is set in the unflinching reality of Victorian poverty and the consequences class difference, it's not sunshine and ponies. Not all problems are solved, but the circumstances always end better than they started. (I'm trying not to give away too much here.)
The thing that disappointed me most was the severe variations in pace, though I tell myself that it makes logical sense. Investigations can't be all chases and adrenaline, and research and surveillance are often boring. I wish Jack and Eva hadn't spent so much time in carriages tailing people, though those close quarters gave them time for excellent conversation and discussion (I'm clearly arguing with myself here). I loved that they were unique and distinct from one another on the page, both in their manner and in their way of speaking – I didn't need dialogue tags to know who said what.
And I loved that I was reading about London, but there was only one ball, and it was full of subterfuge and danger. It was a historical romance that embodied “unique,” with characters I enjoyed.