Illusion by Jean Ross Ewing/Julia Ross.
What tickled me: The hero puts on a show by publically milking a cow at an orgy — while he’s secretly desperately ill from poison! (There is also method in his madness, though it turned out that milk couldn’t neutralize the poison.)
What ticked me off: Nymphomaniacally evil villainess. Pathetically homosexual villains. Virgin courtesan heroine. Mystical Indian philosophy. Interestingly, by the end I felt that the author had mostly redeemed or transcended these cliches.
Who might like it: The spy/intrigue plot is somewhat Joanna Bourne-ish.
This took a while to grow on me and I considered DNF-ing it at one point. Ross tends towards subtlety, secrets, and surprises and although her writing is always lovely, sometimes it coalesces perfectly and sometimes the reader winds up feeling left out of the play. But I did eventually end up liking this quite a bit, because the characters are so complex, and because it does move beyond what seems initially like a cliche-fest. For one example, Frances, who has been trained in an Indian harem, comes to realize that how little she truly understands of what she learned:
“You said my philosophy was shallow. You were right. It was just a glimpse of a splendid richness distorted by my own narrow preconceptions. There are centuries of learning and culture behind sacred texts. What could I understand of them?”
Tangentially, this book likely inspired a scene from To Have and to Hold by Patricia Gaffney. (One involving bonds made of flowers.) The premise of the scene is so similar, I was relieved to see that the actual text is completely different.