Author: Michelle Diener
Gallery Books RRP $16.99
Review: Monique MulliganThe Emperor's Conspiracy

As a historical novel, The Emperor’s Conspiracy, is a well-researched and solid piece of writing with a plot loosely based on factual events. However, don’t be misled into thinking it’s a historical romance. It’s not – the romantic element is sparse and barely develops past initial attraction. That’s fine, if romance is not your thing, but for those who love a good romance novel, this may not be the book for you.

Set in 19th-century London, the action moves between elegant ballrooms and high-society residences and the dark, menacing slums, where every shadow is a potential threat. The short summary is as follows: a spirited young woman and a nobleman investigating for the Crown unmask a plot by Napoleon to bleed England of its gold. The longer version describes the young woman, Charlotte Raven, as one who walks a tightrope between two worlds – once a chimney sweep whose parentage was unknown, she has been under the care of Lady Howe since she was 12 and the upper class accepts her as a wealthy, educated noblewoman. However, she is still very much attached to the lower classes through her association with her childhood protector, Luke Bracken (now the crime lord of London). When she meets Lord Edward Durnham, she becomes caught up in a web of conspiracy which could prove fatal.

The Emperor’s Conspiracy started with a lot of promise – the cover was well chosen; attractive and simple in design, the fact that the woman’s face is unseen hints at mystery. The storyline itself is intriguing – an emperor behind a conspiracy that will ruin England? I didn’t even know that happened so that was interesting to discover. However, there was so much detail and time spent setting the scene, that I soon lost track of what the book was about. I found myself confused. Was this a romance (sparks fly instantly between Charlotte and Edward and in the background there’s a possessive ex-lover, so that was a fair assumption at this point) or a mystery? There were so many people watching people that I found it hard to stay abreast of who was watching whom. I think part of the problem was that I was expecting this to be more of a romance, but that carrot was dangled and then snatched away.

The detail is admirable in that it does show thoughtful research by Diener. I appreciated the portraits of two contrasting lifestyles and how each insinuated into the other. Luke’s recollection of life on the hulks was interesting – I remember reading (back in my uni days) about the overcrowded hulks of the time and how this related to Australia’s colonisation. While in reality little care would have been given to how the convicts felt being jammed onto the hulks, Luke’s perspective made his obsessive need to control a tad more understandable, if not acceptable.

The Emperor’s Conspiracy has enjoyed a number of highly positive reviews. Unfortunately it left me a little flat. Charlotte was clearly an intelligent, spirited character, but the characterisation wasn’t strong enough for me to really vest any interest in her, or the story. She, and most of the other characters, simply lacked depth in my eyes and since I love a good character-driven novel, that was a shame. I felt like more of a detached observer of events than someone emotionally invested in the novel. The abrupt ending didn’t work for me either, although it does leave the door open for a sequel. It just seemed rushed. Overall, I think the storyline had a lot of potential (it certainly worked for a lot of reviewers), but the treatment of it just left me a bit cold. My rating: it was an okay read.

Available from good bookstores. This copy was courtesy of Simon & Schuster – there are reading group notes on the website too.

Bookish treat: Charlotte is in a real pickle – who’s watching her? Does she have to be tied to Luke forever? How can she help Edward solve the conspiracy without getting him killed? And why does Edward have to be so attractive? I think a high-society cucumber sandwich with a dash of pickle is just the ticket here.




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