Twins Kel and Isabel have switched places from time to time. More often than not, it is Kel assuming Isabel’s identity when she is overwhelmed by the niceties demanded by women at court. For the most part, Kel hasn’t minded—if nothing else, those occasions when he filled in for Isabel at a ball meant he could clandestinely fulfill his desire to socialize with other men. When Isabel disappears the night before her proxy wedding to a prince from the neighboring kingdom of Pervayne, everyone who knows of the twins’ swapping assumes it’s merely a fit of pique for the independent Isabel. Her failure to appear before the ceremony requires Kel to step in once more to save his sister’s and his country’s reputation. Except Isabel still does not return by the time she is supposed to leave for her new home in Pervayne.
Kel once again assumes Isabel’s identity—no small feat considering the deception must be utterly complete in order to convince the entire entourage traveling back to Pervayne with the new “bride” in tow. Things get complicated when Kel realizes a squire to the prince, named Dare, has also been tasked with profiling the prince’s new spouse. Kel chafes at having to pretend to be Isabel—at least until she comes to her senses and comes to take her rightful place—and having to repress his natural skill with horses and swords. What’s worse, Kel finds himself wildly attracted to Dare. Suddenly, being under the scrutiny of the attractive squire isn’t quite so terrible. The only caveat is that there can be no hope for a romance. Not only is Kel unsure of Dare’s attraction to other men, Kel is very sure he must maintain the fiction that he is actually Isabel…and resolving the whole issue would mean leaving Dare behind.
A Deceptive Alliance is like a road trip story set in a time of kings and queens. Once the show hits the road, we spend countless days watching Kel, Dare, and the rest of the entourage dealing with the facts of life as part of a royal caravan. I enjoyed Blackburn’s consistent use of descriptive language. For example, “toilet” described the actions the characters took for preparing for a day (or cleaning up at the end of the day). Another was “the necessities” as a euphemism for going to the bathroom. The attention to detail in the clothes was both part of the plot and another world-building device that helped me draw a picture of the characters and their place in time. Clothing also serves an interesting focal point for plot development. Kel initially goes full-Isabel with the skirts and bodices and whatnot that require assistance to wear. The longer he is forced to continue the charade, the more he asserts his independence and starts to modify the clothing so it suits his (masculine) sensibilities more. As Kel’s clothing becomes less fussy, he simultaneously presses for more freedoms. It’s clear that as Kel shifts from desperately trying to recreate Isabel into desperately trying not to lose himself in the role, Dare’s interest in Kel seems to grow.
I found Dare to be, initially, a very suspect character. Blackburn works in a point about Dare seeming to recognize Kel’s unladylike bare feet. While it is such a small point in the plot, it introduced Dare as someone who could potentially be a troublemaker. As the story progresses and Kel increasingly understands Dare’s sent to gather information about the new “bride,” I thought Dare’s actions were more transparent (i.e. that Dare’s not out to sabotage the marriage between Kel and the prince). The moment where Dare and Kel realize they are mutually attracted to each other was rather delectible. In fact, their whole relationship feels like a slow burn and it was delightfully angsty when Kel repeatedly has to remind himself (and the reader) that he’s pretending to be his sister: the woman married to a prince.
There were a few elements I found disappointing in the book, though. For one, when Kel is finally free to act on his emotions for Dare, it seems like their entire relationship is defined by their physical attraction. The dialogue they share and the activities we see them engaging in on page (and that are alluded to off page) seem to overwhelmingly focus on the act of sex—like their relationship is defined by lust. After such a terrific build up (Kel knowing he’s impersonating a married woman; Dare being in no position to proposition the wife of a noble), it felt a bit lackluster to shift so completely to just sex. The other issue I had was with pacing. I very much enjoyed the brief introduction to Kel’s home and his relationship with his sister; the pacing during the trip to Pervayne also felt well-planned. During the last quarter of the book, however, there is a string of new twists that are resolved almost as soon as they arise. [spoiler] Bandits attack the caravan and the next page, they’ve been subdued (entirely off page). The King of Pervayne discovers the switcheroo and Kel gets imprisoned. Half a chapter later, everything is fine. Isabel gets pregnant and one chapter later, Kel’s the foster father.[/spoiler]
Despite the wham-bam-thank-you-man ending, overall this is a fun book. Mostly, I would classify this as a “road trip” type of story mixed with the “secret identity” trope. For anyone looking for a get-together story that touches on themes of forbidden love and breaking with tradition to be happy, I think you’d be satisfied with this light read.