I received this book through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program, so huge thanks to LT and the author.
In the world where The Chocolatier’s Wife is set, marriage is not left up to chance: every newborn is brought to a Wise Woman, who casts a spell to find out who that child’s destined spouse is to be. This doesn’t guarantee Twoo Wuv; it also doesn’t guarantee happiness. In fact, I think I need to go back and read that bit again to see if it guarantees anything. Regardless, it’s considered binding; it just isn’t done to marry someone other than the person who shows up when that spell is cast.
When small William of Almsley is brought for the spell … nothing happens. Not to worry, his mother is told; his wife-to-be hasn’t been born yet. It’s when this sequence is repeated year after year that everyone does begin to worry… And when I settled in happily, pretty sure I was going to enjoy this book: “This did not mean, as years passed, that the boy was special. It meant that he would be impossible to live with.” Heh.
William’s not impossible, though; stubborn, yes, and not Speshul, but not impossible. He’s rather sweet, as is revealed through his reaction to the eventual discovery that his intended is from – *gasp* – the barbaric North. Everyone knows how wild and bizarre those people are – they use magic, and probably eat their dead, and oh dear, couldn’t you try the spell again?
Meanwhile, a good ways North in Tarnia, the parents of a baby girl named Tasmin are having much the same reaction as the same spell is cast for their daughter: Not – *gasp* – the barbaric South! Why, everyone knows how uncivilized and bizarre those people are – they have hardly any magic at all, and they probably eat their dead, and … oh dear.
William, however, is sanguine about the whole thing, and starts off by writing to his wife-to-be right away (even though she won’t be able to read it for a while). And this begins a correspondence (one-sided until Tasmin is able to respond) that lasts some twenty-four years as William grows into his place as the eldest son of a well-to-merchant, eventually captaining a ship of his own through pirate-filled waters, and then – to the bafflement and indignation of his family, gives over his place in his father’s company to his younger brother Andrew in order to open a shop selling chocolates (“I’ve never liked anything half so well as I like chocolate.” – See? He’s not impossible! He’s wonderful). Meanwhile, in the North, Tasmin grows into her abilities as an Herb Mistress – and waits for William to send for her.
Which he doesn’t. Years pass after she comes of age, and their letters continue back and forth, often accompanying gifts both large and small, but he doesn’t call for her to come and marry. And then suddenly gossip reaches her family that – lucky girl! You’re off the hook! Your barbarian intended is sure to be hanged for murder, so – such good fortune! – now you never have to go into the wilds and marry one of them!
Far from the relief of her parents, Tasmin’s reaction is to pack a couple of bags and enlist the aid of the tribe of air sprites who have adopted her to whisk her southward. The William she has come to know from his letters can’t be a murderer – and she plans on proving it.
There were some minor typos (I remember “gigging” instead of “giggling” (which I kind of liked), and a minor amount of punctuation abuse), but all in all far better than most Kindle books I seem to be reading lately. The writing is just this side of lyrical, with a sense of humor underlying it that reminded me – yes, it did: it reminded me of Robin McKinley. If you take a look at the ratings I’ve given Ms. McKinley’s books, you’ll see that this is high praise indeed.
Cindy Lynn Speer was able to make characters unpleasant and unlikable without turning them into cardboard cutouts or one-note things constructed of a few ugly tics and nasty characteristics strung together. William’s mother, for example, is thoroughly un-live-with-able, but there’s something behind it, a love for her family and reasons for her crankiness (“still, that don’t make it right”) which rounds out her character and gives her weight and depth in the narrative. The Bad Guy of the story could easily have been two-dimensional, but is neatly saved by clever writing. On the flip side, Tasmin isn’t perfect, and nor is William, and the doubts and pettinesses and impatient moments and so on make them more three-dimensional as well, and I was very fond of both of them.
Ms. Speer is also very good at keeping things from her readers. It’s a skill, that, or an art; it takes a fine touch to reveal a little bit of something, pique a reader’s interest, and then evade the topic for a while without ticking the reader off – and then do it again a couple more times before paying off the built-up suspense. That happens here: there’s a reason William gave up the sea besides a deep and abiding love for chocolate, and it’s not told until William is good and ready to explain it to Tasmin.
… these two don’t succumb to Insta-Love. I love the way their relationship is handled. They have been writing back and forth for years now, and may – may, mind you – have fallen in love through the correspondence. If so, neither is about to admit it, being as nobody’s ever confessed to loving the other, and so neither is really sure how the other feels. Also, Tasmin is at least a little injured by the fact that it’s taken so many years for William to send for her, and while she admits even to herself that she was happy at home doing good work that she loved, still: he could have sent for her when she turned eighteen, and that was a while ago, and it went unacknowledged. And that he made a major life decision without telling her first. He is a little uncertain about how she feels about leaving that good work that she loved – does she really want to give it up to come live an unmagical (or at least less magical) life with him? And then of course the whole circumstance of their finally meeting face to face – through the bars of a jail cell – are … awkward. He says he didn’t do it. She says she believes him (and that’s why she’s there). Does she? He says she can consider herself released from their contracted betrothal, and go home and fulfill her potential free of the shame of being attached to an accused murderer… She says she’ll do no such thing. But why? I was so happy with the landmine these two had to negotiate before they came anywhere near a happily-ever-at-all.
And here’s something I haven’t said much lately: I like the cover very much.
- The Chocolatier’s Wife by Cindy Lynn Speer (bubblebathbooks.net)
- Do Women Love Chocolate More Than Men? (proflowers.com)