Winter’s Heat is a Christmas-themed novella from Zoe Archer, set in the world of her Nemesis Unlimited series in Victorian England. It’s a book that starts off well, but has some strange holes in it. It’s fun if you can turn off your analytical brain – but I could not turn that part of my brain off, so I found it to be frustrating.
First of all, I haven’t read the previous book in the Nemesis Unlimited series (Sweet Revenge – Sarah's grade: B+). But I had no difficulty keeping up with Winter’s Heat – it’s fine as a stand-alone. In this novella, Ada and Michael are agents of Nemesis, a group that tries to get justice for those who can’t get justice from the courts. They are both working undercover as servants during the Christmas season at a country estate. They had a brief relationship in the past and although Ada has sworn to use her head this time, she’s still attracted to Michael.
In this book, Ada is at a crossroads. She’s not an official member of Nemesis and she’s not sure who, or what, she wants to be. This was a powerful theme for a while until it was repeated, explicitly, so many times that it lost its impact. Lines like this, “So which of these women was she? The one who worked quietly in service or behind a counter, or the one who shouted against the world?” are fine by themselves but since this line is repeated (with variations, of course) over an over again the message gets pretty heavy handed. Meanwhile Michael is trying to regain Ada’s trust and he has his own decisions to make about where he belongs. His appreciation and respect for Ada are some of the best parts of the book – she has a lot of self-doubt, and he has total faith in her, and tells her so with words and with actions.
I liked the idea of the spying servants who get vengeance against the rich, but it didn’t quite pay off for me. One of my problems with this book is that there were all these details that didn’t add up. For instance: the servants work very hard all day. This is alluded to many times. Yet, somehow, Ada and Michael still have the energy to run around looking for stuff and making out all night. Am I old? Because that sounds exhausting, not sexy, and I’d think there would be more references to them being tired. I mean, they are probably running on no more than 3 – 4 hours of sleep a night for several nights running and they do active labor during all their daytime hours with little food. I could understand them powering through that kind of exhaustion because of a combination of adrenaline (they are passionate about their mission) and lust (they are passionate about each other) but some sort of reference to fatigue seems in order. Sadly, this is just one example out of many of small things that add up to a story that doesn’t make much sense.
Another, more serious problem is that the villains are not convincing as people and the plot involving them isn’t convincing either. The villains, Lord and Lady Larkfield, are embezzling money from an orphanage that they claim to support. In fact, they force the children to work, and they pocket the money that the children make (the children make jewelry that the Larksfield’s sell). Much of the plot revolves around the fact that the Larkfield’s don’t want their peers to know about this because they would face social commendation, plus they are trying to escape the notice of the police, who raided the orphanage recently and discovered the shenanigans.
I’m not a historian, but as far as I can tell from basic reading about the Victorian Age and some quick Googling about labor laws, what the Larksfields did would have been perfectly legal. They have no reason to hide from the police. As far as being condemned by their peers, most of their peers would have congratulated them on instilling the orphans with a work ethic and good moral fiber. Labor was supposed to be good for the poor, including children. The idea was that if they were forced to work, then the poor would not be a drain on society, and work would build their moral fiber. Child labor was controversial but common, and in the late 1800’s and early 1900s it was perfectly legal to hire a child as young as nine years old to work 60 hours a week.
When Ada finds out about the Larksfield’s making orphans work, she is totally shocked, and that shocked reaction screams “anachronism”. Of course the entire orphanage scheme is horrifying. I’m certainly not defending child labor either now or in the past. But it was common, not surprising. It was also controversial – so for Ada to be angry and upset would make perfect sense. But her shocked, surprised reaction is that of a modern day person, not a Victorian. As far as the Larksfield's peers go, if their peers knew about their activities, the Larksfields would undoubtedly be criticized by a few of their more liberal peers but praised by most – especially if they said they wanted to use the money for a fundraiser, or further improvements to the orphanage. It’s not like the IRS was keeping tax records of the Larksfield’s 501(c) 3 status. I’m not saying that the Larksfields aren’t reprehensible – I’m just saying that the set up of the plot doesn’t make sense given the regrettable attitudes of the day.
I could handle the villains being historically inaccurate if they weren’t also so cartoony. At one point Lady Larkspur tells Ada, who is in the middle of doing Lady Larkspur’s hair, that if Ada steals any of Lady Larkspurs’ jewelry, Lady Larkspur will have her “associates” come up from London and break Ada’s fingers. What? Really? I get sadism, but this is just cartoony. All Lady Larkspur has to do to is threaten to have Ada sacked and prosecuted for theft. It’s the kind of overkill that makes her seem ridiculous. The Larkspurs have no motives other than greed, we never get to know them, and they have no personalities and no layers. So it’s not especially satisfying to see them defeated. Of course it’s wonderful to know that the orphans will all be happy now but it’s not personally satisfying. The Larkspurs are devices, not characters.
If you can turn off your analytical brain and just enjoy this as a spy romp through the world of Downton Abbey (which is technically Edwardian, but the tone is similar), then you will probably enjoy this book. I’m being hard on it, but it isn’t terrible – it’s just OK. I liked the theme of justice being done, and the idea of tables being turned – the ‘servants’ spying on the rich. I liked the theme of self-actualization, as Ada becomes more daring and confident. But I’ve read several other things by Zoe Archer and I expect more than ‘OK’ from her. Her novels are astonishingly good and even her novellas usually feel like complete, emotionally powerful stories. I was moderated entertained by this book, and I loved the premise of the servants extracting justice, but I wasn’t moved.