The Emperor's Conspiracy
by Michelle Diener
The title itself is misleading. It suggests a wide-spread plot involving royalty, but it actually takes place solely in a small section of London, over the course of a week or two, and the players involved are entirely fictional. None of them are important historical figures, and yet they alone seem to be tasked with uncovering a serious historical event. There is no emperor in this book, and there's scant reference to his conspiracy until the second half of the book. However, the plot--despite not being as advertised--is a nicely complicated work of intrigue.
This is definitely a plot-driven story, fast-paced. An author's blurb on the back describes Diener's writing as "richly detailed", but I have to strongly disagree. It just isn't. Much of the book is dialogue, and the rest of it is either action or (less so) character introspection. The descriptions are very minimal.
The character backgrounds are very minimal as well, and told (i.e. not shown) in retrospect. That is references are made to the past quite often, but they are often repetitive and just tell of significant events, rather than create an atmosphere and a scene. And only Charlotte's past is discussed in any depth. Catherine, who is an often present character, is ridiculously underdeveloped, to the point where she seems like just a device. We never even find out why she's a widow, or her thoughts and motivations behind adopting Charlotte. She's just some angelic guardian whose presence is the very foundation that makes any of the story possible. She's essential, but neglected.
Charlotte also seems to be developed specifically to fit the plot, and I find it implausible that a character such as herself even exists in that setting. Not that she started as a poor street urchin and wound up a lady thanks to Catherine's benevolence, but that she is able to keep a foot in both worlds without having a tarnished reputation. In some ways, she is much too mature for her age (even taking her childhood experiences into account). She's too cool, too calm and collected, too able to maneuver without gaff in both circles. She has the poise and self-confidence of a matron. On the other hand, she's emotionally immature enough to mistake gratitude and compassion for love.
Over and over again, she tells of how much she loves Luke, a self-destructive, murderous crime boss who stalks and surveilles her in the most organized and elaborate fashion. He saved her from the streets when she was a child, and she felt obliged by her gratitude to let him have sex with her from the age of twelve. Then he was seriously injured and ill, and she nursed him back to health. You'd think at that point she would have felt her obligations fulfilled, but instead she feels so sorry for him because he's chronically injured and impotent, and she still carries her overwhelming gratitude. She forgives him instantly for murdering people, and trying to hurt people she cares about. She says he's her family and she loves him like a brother. I say she's suffering from something like Stockholm Syndrome. The reader is supposed to think she's this amazing person for being so compassionate and forgiving towards him, because he's so tortured, but the man is an obsessed violent stalker who she allows to remain in her life out of "loyalty". Even at the end of the book, when he decides to leave town for awhile, she promises to see him when he comes back.
The setting for this book is early 19th century England, but the dialect and the characters' attitudes are far too modern to sound authentic. I have read quite a lot of 18th and 19th century English literature, enough to know that Diener's syntax and vocabulary (for the upperclass 'nobs', anyway) is all wrong for this period. I know less about the culture of the poorer folk, but it seemed more authentic.
Edward and Charlotte's romance wasn't quite 'instalove', but it was close enough to bother me a little. Fortunately, it wasn't the main focus of the story.
The ending was rather abrupt and unsatisfying. We never find out whether Edward and Charlotte actually end up together. It seemed to be heading that way, but since she kept the door open for Luke's return into her life, and Edward has a problem with that, it seems there could be issues. The conspiracy, as well, was left hanging. Did they have enough information to find and convict the rest of the conspirators? We will never know.
I gave this book 2 instead of 1 out of five because of the plot, the fast-pace and how quick and easy it was to read. This is non-serious beach reading, if anything. But there is a wealth of historical fiction out there, and I'd recommend somebody like Margaret George instead.