MAESTRA by L.S. Hilton
CBTB Rating: 3.5/5
The verdict: take this book to the beach this summer!
L.S. Hilton's debut is sizzling, addictive summer reading, guaranteed to thrill the right reader. This is a point I can't stress enough throughout this review: this book will not appeal to everyone. Readers looking for a gritty, realistic, harrowing crime novel: skip this book. Readers looking for an almost cinematic, wildly over-the-top beach read: you might just love MAESTRA.
The first novel in a trilogy, MAESTRA introduces readers to a wicked and despicable femme fatale, Judith Rashleigh, an assistant at a prominent London art house who schemes and manipulates her way towards the top of the international art world. In a story of unabashed greed, insatiable appetites, and a plot as larger-than-life as its anti-heroine, MAESTRA is pure criminal delight.
MAESTRA has been accurately characterized as a cross between GONE GIRL and THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY. Readers meet Judith Rashleigh at a low point in her young life: she has secured an assistant job at one of London's most prominent art houses, but she is seriously mistreated by her employers. Desperate to reclaim some of her identity, Judith becomes a hostess at a notorious champagne club by night. A chance encounter with a wealthy businessman, combined with her inkling that her art house boss is scheming to sell forged art, leads Judith to abandon her career and escape to the French Riviera. When her wealthy benefactor is involved in a fatal accident, Judith finds herself at a crossroads: will she return to London, or use this unforeseen moment of freedom to reinvent herself? Naturally, our enterprising Judith opts for the latter, and sets off on a wild - and deadly - romp across Europe. Brimming with wild schemes, elicit (and explicit) affairs, glamorous locations, and crimes galore, MAESTRA is dessert in the buffet of crime fiction.
I've read lots of reviews of MAESTRA that express skepticism at the sheer exaggeration that permeates this story. It's definitely not the book for you if you're looking for a realistic, gritty police read—this book is unapologetically opulent and over the top. It's filled with lavish descriptions of Judith's shopping excursions, the gourmet meals she eats, and the fabulous locales she visits. These rich descriptions might irritate readers of more serious crime fiction, but it will delight those looking to be swept into a world of high fashion and high crime.
Judith Rashleigh is a wonderfully wicked protagonist for Hilton's trilogy. While some reviewers have found her ridiculous or even offensive, I had the opposite reaction. Like the rest of this story, Judith too is an exaggeration of an enterprising young woman. She is scheming, manipulative, and brash—and all on a grandiose scale. But accepting the exaggeration of this story is part of enjoying it—a reader who is looking for a woman of Lisbeth Salander's calculating intelligence and grit in Judith Rashleigh will be sorely disappointed, but a reader who is willing to suspend reality a bit and just enjoy Judith's wild romp across Europe will love L.S. Hilton's protagonist. (To that end, I do strongly disagree with comparisons made between Lisbeth Salander and Judith Rasheligh—Judith pales in comparison to my beloved Lisbeth! They are two entirely different kind of characters, and please do not read this book if you're looking for the next Lisbeth. Instead, check out Samuel Bjørk's I'M TRAVELING ALONE to be introduced to another gritty, intelligent, fiercely independent leading lady.)
It's worth mentioning that this story really is explicit—it reminds me of a better-written 50 SHADES OF GREY. I was genuinely shocked by some of the scenes in this book, and if you're averse to explicit sex scenes, this definitely isn't the book for you. I personally could have done with a little less explicit scenes—this aspect of the story is where it lost some points for me in my rating. I fully appreciate how essential Judith's sexuality is to her character, but some of the encounters described in MAESTRA were just a little too much for me.
I'm always advocating reading crime books even in the sunny, cheery weather of spring and summer, and MAESTRA is proof that crime books can be the perfect beach read. MAESTRA is unabashedly dramatic and glamorous, and sweeps the reader into a world of international intrigue, led by a razor-sharp femme fatale. For a beach read that's equal parts enchanting and shocking, I can confidently recommend L.S. Hilton's MAESTRA.
Disclaimer: I am an employee of Penguin Random House. All opinions my own.