The Cryptographer by Alice Wallis-Eton

Love and espionage in the midst of war. Could there be any more perfect combination? How about if we throw in an adorable canine sidekick, along with some burly Scottish Dragoons?

What’s it About?

Everybody has a secret, but some are harder to decipher…

England, 1813. Aster Tanner is alone in the world and keeps a roof over her head by working the one asset she has – her mind. She needs her job; she does not need a Scotsman underfoot, making her heart flutter with heated glances and impertinent questions.

Iain McIntyre, Captain in the Second Dragoons, has a confidential assignment: find a list rumoured to name traitors working against England. He is looking for anything unusual — like a woman working as a secretary. He tells himself his fascination with the lass is because she holds a man’s position, and nothing to do with his rising desire to know the sharp mind hidden behind her darkened glasses.

When Aster is targeted by those intent on recovering the list, she must decide who to trust. She has seven encrypted names. But whose? Meanwhile, Iain is on the trail of a double agent. Time is running out, and secrets must be decoded before lives and hearts are sacrificed.

First Impressions

This was a surprisingly intriguing read that successfully held my interest with a slew of engaging characters, not to mention a few twist and turns that even I didn’t see coming. Unlike the cover art might have you believe, this regency romance isn’t just another classic tale of highbred lord and lady falling in love. Instead, we have two main characters who wouldn’t typically be featured in primary roles, which was one of the first aspects of this novel that drew me in. Aster is a lowly, yet deceptively intelligent, secretary who must work in order to survive. She’s without family, and the only companion she has in life is her beloved pooch, Dougal. In essence, Aster is our regency girl-next-door. She’s never been to a ball, doesn’t know how to ride a horse, and has never been able to afford an elegant item of excess such as a parasol. She lives and works day-to-day, never expecting much more out of life than what she currently has.

Then along comes a Scottish military captain who throws her world upside down. Iain is a second son who has been brushed to the sidelines for most of his life. Although he comes from a family of means, the fact he was born second in line means that he’s had to work his whole life, as there was no great inheritance coming his way. This also resulted in high class women virtually ignoring him considering they wouldn’t marry into the wealth and prestige of his family’s title. When a secret mission brings Iain face-to-face with this intriguing female secretary working alongside an infamous cryptographer, the Scotsman finds himself entranced by Aster’s very presence, and she quickly starts to become the primary focus of his attention rather than the mystery at hand.

Who Can You Trust?

The fact that these two were fully embroiled in the world of espionage, secret codes and puzzles lent a mystifying air to their entire relationship. Even though we as the audience knew they were both honest patriots, Aster and Iain spend the first half of the novel juxtaposing their obvious attraction to one another against the question of whether or not the other is a spy for the enemy. Neither of them is used to receiving much attention, she as a working woman and he as a second son, so when interest and consideration is unexpectedly thrust upon them they immediately start to think of potential ulterior motives. We only hope that these two can ultimately recognize the shared attraction simmering between them, and that if they push aside their suspicious musings they can form an unbreakable partnership which will prove tenacious in the face of a common enemy.

And this brings us to another unique feature of this novel that I wouldn’t have expected from a regency romance, which was the descriptive focus on loneliness which has pervaded so much of their lives up until this point, more so especially with Aster. She lives in a world without family, her work is rather solitary in nature, and she lives in a boarding house where she finds it difficult to connect with the other patrons. Sometimes the only conversation she has in a given day is with her dog. On the other hand, Iain is part of a group of soldiers who are like brothers to him, and yet the vast majority of his youth was spent being ignored in the shadow of his brother, the heir. When Iain and Aster meet they are immediately taken with each other’s company, but they also fear that a future together might be outside the realm of possibility. The thought of going back to the lonely lives they once led is a sad comparison to the bright light that each has brought into the other’s world. When they eventually spend one passion-filled night together in a remote seaside cabin, a happily ever after seems so close, but will all of their prior insecurities continue to push this chance at happiness just out of reach?

Off-Balance

On the whole I did thoroughly enjoy this read, as there was an air of mystery and suspense which held my interest, and a slew of twists and turns that I wasn’t expecting from start to finish. That being said, some of these same unexpected developments ultimately hindered the flow of the story in a way which could have been avoided. Firstly, there were some vast stretches of the story in between our moments of suspense that felt rather lethargic in comparison. Aster and Iain probably spend more of the story thinking about each other, and contemplating their feelings than they actually do interacting with each other. The bulk of the cryptography decoding story line, as well as Aster’s influential role in it, was reserved for the latter half of the novel in a way that we weren’t even fully privy to her intellectual capabilities until rather late in the game. I wish there had been more focus on that part of the plot rather than the constant wondering by Iain and Aster if the other was looking for a lifetime commitment, or if one night was all there would be between them.

Again, while I enjoyed the fact we see a woman of Aster’s background featured in such a crucial way, I wanted her acumen to be more fully integrated throughout the rest of the story. Another feature of this novel which threw things into a bit of disarray was that we were witness to some rather violent and gruesome acts of murder and even torture that I definitely wasn’t expecting. That’s not to say a regency romance can’t have those darker elements featured, but instead their use was so sporadic and off-tone compared to the rest of the story, that you couldn’t help but feel they came completely out of left field. There either needed to be a lighter touch to those moments of violence, or the rest of the book should have had a darker emphasis woven throughout so that those individual scenes didn’t seem so off-balance.

Series: Second Sons, book 1. Iain’s fellow Second Dragoon comrades were such engaging characters that they really helped build a sense of family amongst this group of second sons. I’m eager to continue on with this series to see what romance is in store for each of them.

Final Impressions: This is a read that held my interest, and kept me guessing how everything was going to come together in the end. Unfortunately we don’t really get to see how the big picture does come together, but rather just a few of the tiny pieces to the larger puzzle. Though not a cliffhanger ending by any sorts, it was a bit disappointing to discover that we’ll need to keep going with this series before any kind of final conclusion will occur. Thankfully the slew of characters presented in this first novel were thoroughly entertaining, and I do want to see how things progress in each of their future books. I really enjoyed Iain and Aster as lead characters, especially with Aster as a somewhat unconventional female protagonist, but at times their uncertainties over the other’s affections seemed misplaced and unwarranted. Finally, there were many clever plot twists that kept me on the edge of my seat, and even prompted me to put hand to chest with a gasp of worry at one point. However, some of the twists were unnecessarily macabre in description, while others (though interesting as a twist) contradicted the back stories for some characters which the author had previously presented to us as truths. A bit of editing and restructuring would have benefitted the overall flow of the work.

Smut Level: At one point Aster’s desire for Iain in his absence is so great that she decides to take matters into her own hands, if you catch my drift. We also get a few descriptive moments of one night Iain and Aster spent together, though nothing that will leave you too flushed. I was upset that we never saw one fantasy come to fruition that both of our characters envisioned, which was to spend time in a rather unique cliffside bathtub together.

Get it on Amazon: Click Here. $25.54 Paperback (I purchased the Kindle version of this years ago for much less, but it doesn’t seem available in e-format anymore). CreateSpace Independent Publishing. 256 Pages.