Let me begin by saying that writing a novel is a terrific achievement. I know, having written one ~ and only one. My hat is off to anyone who can complete a novel.
That said, here is my honest opinion of Maiden Behind the Mask, a swashbuckling romance by Tara Chevrestt which I finished reading last weekend.
Characters: We experience this tale of swords, humor and romance from the perspective of Catalina Rodriguez, only daughter of a wealthy family in a small Mexican town, back when our neighbor to the South was still a subject of the Spanish crown.
Young and inexperienced Senorita Catalina is a subject of the times, 1800s I’m guessing, and the macho Spanish culture in which the story takes place. In Tara’s tale, this culture is represented by Catalina’s rich, but gentle father Eduardo, her ailing mother, her uncle Jose the swordsman, and Selena her loyal and worldly maid.
Also looming large is handsome young Don Ricardo Garcia, heir to a noble name, but not much else; and assorted villains, ruffians and brigands who threaten the good people of the town.
Tara does a wonderful job establishing her characters through dialogue, action and point-of-view. Here, Catalina’s character clearly shows as she reflects shortly after having been saved from a rapist by the timely intervention of Don Ricardo:
Catalina’s thoughts raced with every turn of the wagon wheels. The sun burned her already flushed cheeks, but her parasol was back in the alley, lying in the dirt. However, she did not care. At least this way she could blame the redness of her face on the sun and hide the fact her cheeks burned with shame and anger. She had been pathetic. She had been a whimpering damsel in distress at the whim and mercy of a man. As the white adobe walls of her parents’ sprawling hacienda came into view, Catalina vowed that she would not be a damsel, a distressed damsel anyway, ever again.
Plot: After avoiding rape and perhaps worse only by grace of a chance intervention, young Catalina decides to learn fighting skills, scandalous as this is for a young lady of her time and place.
Not only does Catalina wish to defend herself, but she also wants to defend others against the rising tide of lawlessness which threatens her town.
Blackmailing her Uncle Jose, a master swordsman into training her, Catalina becomes the masked El Capitan and rides into the night to become a scourge to evil doers.
Alas, things get complicated when Catalina’s beloved husband, Don Ricardo, suspects an affair between El Capitan and Catalina. And the more Catalina tries to keep her secret, the worse things get — though revealing it could mean losing her husband’s love for all time.
Setting: The setting of “the small town of Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles” is mostly left to the readers’ imaginations. I felt the story could have benefited from at least a little description of thick-walled dusty adobe buildings, bleached by unending sun and crowned with crimson roof tiles…
We get a touch here and there, as in “…the white adobe walls of her parents’ sprawling hacienda…” but more is needed to truly show the story’s overall setting.
What I thought could’ve been done better: I would have liked a bit more personal description. I think it could have made Tara’s characters even more vivid. Aside from being told that Catalina is beautiful, and that she has olive skin, Tara leaves her heroine’s — and other characters’ — appearance to the readers’ imagination.
But I want to see what the author sees when she imagines her characters. That’s why I buy books. In fairness, this is a point of controversy, and there are well-known authors out there who don’t do character description. I just can’t think of any.
Most of the authors whose books I’ve read ~ Stephen King to Len Deighton ~ write rich, detailed character descriptions. I think Tara’s wonderful, sympathetic characters deserve the same treatment.
Uncle Jose the master swordsman who trains Catalina, for instance — perhaps he has a hawk nose and piercing black eyes to match. And his curly black hair, so often a magnet to women’s hands, now with the first touch of gray on the sideburns, like the gentle autumn frost on the Sierra Madre highlands…
I’ve already mentioned the setting. Tara’s action, dialogue and narrative are all gems, but even gems need a bit of a setting to be displayed to their greatest advantage. And part of the reason we all read books is to be transported to unfamiliar times and places.
Old Mexico? What does it look, feel, taste, smell like? I’m not looking for a travelogue, but on the other hand I’d like something for my imagination to work with.
I also thought Tara missed an opportunity to show how Uncle Jose trains Catalina. What are some of the moves he teaches her? Adding a bit of the technical side of sword-fighting — which plays such a central part in the story — could only add to its credibility.
There is a hint of this in the beginning of Chapter 5, but I feel this aspect of the story deserves more than just those few lines — though they are good lines.
And I would’ve have liked to have experienced some of that too in El Capitan’s sword fights. Perhaps Uncle Jose taught Catalina how to use her smaller size and greater quickness to advantage against larger, stronger and more numerous opponents — As the bandido’s sword swept down, she parried, and with the nimble step Uncle Jose made her practice till she saw it in her dreams, she whirled inside and tickled the bandido’s throat with the point of her blade…
You can bet in a movie version of this story both those aspects would be prominently featured.
What I thought was good: Clean copy ~ the book is well-edited. It’s free of the typos and grammar mistakes that plague many an indie author who can’t afford professional editing.
I loved the plot, premise and the twist — Catalina’s husband becoming jealous of her alter-ego.
Tara’s writing is vivid and verbal, which makes the action easy to visualize and follow. Here, Catalina has just kicked butt (or crotch, more accurately) on a man for mistreating a horse:
Catalina stood over him, panting slightly—more from adrenaline than exertion—and cursed him in turn. “Who do you think you are? You beat a helpless animal? You are suciedad! Dirt!” She glared down at the groveling and moaning man, before turning to help the wobbly horse fully to its feet, murmuring kind words in its ear. Though shaky, wide-eyed, and alarmed, the horse complied, as though sensing a gentle touch.
Tara writes with a kind of gentle fire that permeates her story and her main character.
There’s also quite a bit of heat in her love scenes, as in this one, from the wedding night of Catalina and Ricardo. Despite their marriage being an arranged one, the two discover that they’re eminently suited for one another.
Ricardo shushed her by gripping her shoulders, turning her to face him, and placing his mouth firmly over hers. She tasted of wine and flan, remnants from their wedding party. Wedding. He was married. This was his bride. His woman.
As she mewled against his mouth, he felt a rush of desire. He probed her lips with his tongue, and she allowed him entry. He placed his hands on her waist and lifted her so that their bodies were pressed against each other’s as their tongues did a sultry dance together, swirling evocatively, withdrawing briefly only to meet again.
“She tasted of wine and flan…” Lovely sensory detail like that, sprinkled liberally throughout the story, helps give it life.
Tara’s earthy, unpretentious sense of humor also makes the story a delight to read:
He had barely tugged on his ties when his rigid manhood sprang out of its confines and into the open air. Slightly embarrassed he hadn’t been smoother in his disrobing, he struggled to come up with some reassuring words of nonsense and love.
But his bride surprised him yet again.
“Well,” she said with a smile, “that hombre is saying olé, loud and clear.”
Overall: Maiden Behind the Mask is a quick read — more novelette than novel. Part of what makes it quick to go through is what’s been left out — setting and character description, character back story, and details about the sword-fighting. Including these items would definitely make for a longer and more complete story.
But Tara’s tight, verbal writing would, in my opinion make this a fast read anyway. Her characters are sympathetic and compelling. She places them in situations threatening to sexy to humorous — often at the same time.
The omissions are matters of aluminum and chrome decoration. Including that material would be nice, but the basic vehicle is sound and fast, with a solid engine built by someone who knows what she’s doing.
Maiden Behind the Mask will take you for a lovely little joy ride.
Good job Tara!
And for a sexy superheroine paranormal sci fi romantic adventure thriller, check out my own novel American Goddesses ~ thanks for visiting Honest Indie!