I have a complicated relationship with Harlequin Presents. On the one hand, they’re a seductive fantasy, like a contemporary fairy tale. They take place in a world where wealth and privilege have made it so the only challenges left to the characters are the interpersonal. Everything external drops away to focus on the hero and heroine and the angst and drama. There are French chateaus, designer gowns, gala events and elaborate secrets that threaten to destroy it all.
The secretive art dealer Reiko Kagawa wears the designer gowns in The Sinful Art of Revenge, and the French aristocrat and art collector Damion Fortier provides the French chateau. Like many of my favorite Presents, the couple has a shared past, and the book begins five years after a passionate weeks-long affair that ended with Damion bankrupting her grandfather and both feeling betrayed by the other. (Why Damion feels betrayed by Reiko seeing someone else a few weeks after he reveals that, surprise!, he’s given her a phony name and is actually the heir of the man her grandfather owes a fortune to escapes me, but this is HP land, so let’s roll with it.) Blake wastes no time placing the reader down in a tense scene of high drama and opens with Damion driving his expensive sports car to the back door of a run down English country home then climbing through the bushes to spy on the heroine through the windows.
Reiko of course feels a presence watching her and takes it in stride when Damion flings the door open and confronts her. He’s had his people trying to find her, you see, and how dare she not want to be found. He needs her to find some art that’s important to his dying grandfather. Reiko isn’t the same naive ingenue she was five years ago, and she tells him just where he can stick his stalking, trespassing and bossing around. After she does that, she agrees to fly to Paris with him the next day and do what he demanded.
Presents have an almost claustrophobic feel to them, and this book is no exception. Despite being set in England, Paris, Tokyo and the French countryside, the absence of important secondary characters or side-plots makes it so that you never look away from the main couple and their drama. The cameo-style cover for this line suits it well, because for all of the descriptions of far-off destinations and exclusive luxury, the action feels like it’s always filmed in closeup.
After the stage is set, each scene has the hero and heroine passing heated looks and words back and forth while either gripping each other passionately or trying desperately to resist gripping the other in a passionate embrace. Presents take that fine line between love and hate and take it down to a single pixel. Between the fighting over secrets and the punishing kisses, it’s like watching a soap opera, or a wicked hot mess of a date at the table next to you in a restaurant. For all it’s evident that this stuff is seven kinds of messed up, it’s highly entertaining.
As fun as all of this melodrama is, however, on the other hand the elements employed to achieve it are often SUPER problematic. This book has something for everyone in it. I will say up front that our half-Japanese heroine is never compared to a china doll or a geisha, and that was a relief. There’s a throwaway line about ninjas, because of course there is, but the fetishization and exotification was close to nil. Have a cookie, author. Instead, there’s some squicky gender essentialism where the heroine declares herself not a Real Woman, since she can’t have PIV sex or children.
How could she offer someone else hope when she herself had lost everything— even the ability to be a real woman?
There’s some amazing slut shaming when she tells the hero how many men she’s been with.(Don’t worry. Later on she says she didn’t sleep with any of them.)
She named the figure . Damion’s face turned ashen beneath his normally healthy tan. Before her very eyes she saw him recoil. His throat moved as he visibly swallowed.
And every second Reiko lived through the look in his eyes made her want to sink into the ground.
He surged to his feet. And without another word he walked out.
There is a metric fuck ton of ableist wangst over the scars and nightmares the heroine got from a terrible train accident where the heroine considers herself damaged and is grateful that the hero sees past it. The hero is jealous and possessive to the point that he angrily demands she not touch anyone else or dress in ways that invite male attention. Then, to top it all off, the author gives the infertile heroine a magical baby epilogue. Because of course she did.
To add insult to injury, the sex writing was worthy of The Twatspert.
A shudder raked his powerful frame. ‘Reiko, I need to make sure you’re ready. I can take this as slow as you want.’ His voice held a gently pleading quality that lit a triumphant flame in her heart.
Boldly, she raised one leg and slid it over his thigh. ‘I’m ready. Feel free to check it out for yourself.’
Final Assessment: Due to the fantasy nature of Presents, I’m willing to overlook a lot of of problematic elements, and Blake has a great handle on the over-the-top atmosphere that I read the line for. This was just one trope too many and I couldn’t suspend disbelief. C-