Wolf’s Temptation
by Donna Birdsell
(Berkeley Sensation, $6.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-425-21261-0
Wolf’s Temptation takes us into the heady world of espionage at a time when England was struggling to maintain control over its rebellious American colonies. The romance between two English spies is convincing, and the story is quite engaging, but there are a number of plotting problems that make me hold back a higher rating.

Ethan Gray, son of an English aristocrat, is pursuing the mysterious fourth man in a conspiracy to sell weapons to colonial rebels. He believes he is getting closer to his quarry when he is temporarily taken off the case and sent to France to stop the sale of a warship. He must join forces with the Raven, a spy whose achievements he has long admired. Ethan didn’t expect her to be a woman; nor was he counting on her being the daughter of a man who died because of his mistakes.

Maris Winter has had a crush on Ethan ever since he came bearing sad news. Since then, she has followed in her father’s footsteps. She devotes her energies to the British government and to taking care of her sullen mother and senile grandfather. Her loyalties to the crown are tested by her equally strong feelings for a shadowy figure named Samuel. What the relationship between the two is becomes fairly apparent, but the novel strives to keep it a secret.

During their mission in France, Ethan is slightly attracted to Maris, but remains more interested in another woman, the mysterious and seductive Peacock he met at a masked ball. He believes she can lead him to the fourth man he is after. Needless to say, the Raven and the Peacock are one and the same, but the possibility doesn’t occur to Ethan. As he gets to know Maris, the Peacock’s flamboyance fades from his memory and the Raven’s efficiency and subtlety intrigue him more and more. Maris cannot turn down the advances of her girlhood hero, but she doesn’t dare imagine anything more permanent because of the secrets between them.

The success of this novel is largely due to its heroine. Her down-to- earth and matter-of-fact style is a refreshing change from the more typically glamorous and sexy female spy. The dilemmas and conflicts she must resolve give her depth and authenticity, and although her loyalties and her behavior didn’t always concord with what I would expect from a woman of her times, they did elicit my admiration and sympathy.

Ethan is less appealing. He moves very quickly from refusing to work with a woman spy to groping Maris to expressing his deep admiration for her accomplishments. At the same time, he continues to blame his youthful trust in a female spy for his only failure, the one which cost the life of Maris’s father. Because he never shares the details of this event with Maris, we never know how it might have effected her perception of her hero. Nor do we know how right he is in his self-flagellation.

Though the story is well-told and the pacing good, there are too many intrigues, sub-plots and villains. Some of these herald another novel in the series; others hint at developments in an earlier one. While both sound potentially engaging, the allusive information leads to some confusion: I had a hard time keeping track of who was who and of understanding why minor characters were given such central roles. This seemed to be done at the expense of more important developments: Ethan’s interest in the Peacock, for example, is forgotten only to be resuscitated at the convenient moment.

These oversights didn’t annoy me half as much as all the unnecessary suspense surrounding the mysterious Samuel. What’s more, there are two glaring historical inaccuracies that surround his story, but to discuss them here would be to reveal too much. So I’ll take pity on those who might be willing to overlook some of the above-mentioned flaws. They won’t be too sorry: despite its many shortcomings, Wolf’s Temptation can be quite an engrossing read.

--Mary Benn

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