by Joanna Bourne, historical (2008)
Berkley, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-21960-7
Joanna Burke's The Spymaster's Lady is a very good debut historical romance. It's different from the usual spy stories out there in that it isn't afraid to strive for authenticity and believability even if the genteel reader may not approve of such unglamorous depiction of spies. The author's prose is top-notch and a pleasure to read. All in all, this one has all the makings of a keeper where I am concerned, but unfortunately, I just can't believe that the romance between the main characters is real no matter how hard I try to.
Robert Grey, who is the second-in-command behind the British Section in the war against Napoleon, personally heads off to France to rescue the valuable agent called Hawker. However, in the prison cell of a chateau in Garches, Robert finds Hawker along with another valuable asset: the French spy known as Fox Cub. The Fox Cub, or Annique Villiers, has been captured by Leblanc, a villainous member of the secret police who wants Annique dead because she knows his secrets. After getting tortured like how you'd imagine a female prisoner would be tortured by the secret police, Annique still manages to get herself, Hawker (who turns out to be a bloke named Adrian), and Robert free. I'm really impressed.
Do you think Robert is grateful? Of course not. He captures Annique to be taken back to England. He believes that she's behind an event in the past that led to the deaths of some of his men so he also has an ax to grind with Annique. I'm not sure that I appreciate what seems like a hasty judgment on Robert's part in blaming Annique for that, since in this story everyone else seems to have no problems telling him that Annique is not responsible for that incident. I wish Ms Bourne has shown me a little bit more clearly why Robert firmly believes that Annique is the culprit when even his best spies believe otherwise.
The rest of the story deals with Robert, Annique, and the two men with them as they try to escape France. Along the way Annique and Robert beat each other, try to kill each other now and then, get fond of each other, have sex, fall in love... the usual.
What makes this book really stand out to be is the author's prose. I love the fact that she allows Annique to be a genuine spy, which is to say, Annique thinks and acts like a spy, not some virtuous damsel pretending to be a spy. She doesn't hesitate to use her beauty or physical assets to get the upper hand of her opponent and she will lie without hesitation if the situation warrants it. She has no ridiculous self-loathing about having to do what she had to do during the course of her career. Annique is just a spy - a wonderfully convincing one.
But while I like how she will do anything to survive and how she will not hesitate to try to take care of herself, I wish the author has allowed Annique to actually be capable and stand up to Robert more often in this story. A pretty common pattern in this story is to have Annique break free from Robert, only to have her getting into trouble from which Robert will come to her rescue. The hero saving the heroine is an overused shortcut by romance authors to demonstrate that the hero really cares for the heroine, and I wish Ms Bourne has taken a different approach here. Throughout the story, Annique is dependent on Robert, which means Robert has all the power in this relationship. I often feel that Annique has no choice but to fall in love with Robert. Ms Bourne doesn't give her many other options to choose from when it comes to what she can do with her life.
Robert has all the power, so I wish Ms Bourne has allowed Annique to get the upper hand once in a while if only to give an illusion that Annique is not completely weak. I have the same problem with Robert that I have with many of Jane Feather's heroes: I find him too cold and too distant to believe that he's actually in love with the heroine. His relationship with Annique feels more like a chess game than a romance to me. He's always finding ways to subdue her (drug her with opium) and use her. He also keeps information from her. Of course, Annique also attempts to keeps her secrets to herself, but I find Robert's treatment of Annique problematic because he already has too much power over her. I really can't get comfortable with the lop-sided nature of this relationship where the man holds the life of the heroine in his hands and still spends most of his time thinking of ways to subdue and use her while at the same time trying to remind himself that she's supposed to be the enemy.
Come to think of it, I wish Annique and Adrian are the ones in love in this book. These two seem to have a more compatible set of personalities. Robert is just too darned in control of Annique's fate to make me view him as the right boyfriend for Annique.
There are a few interesting developments in the story that I have not even hinted at in this review because I think the reader will enjoy them more if she reads the story unspoiled, so let me just say that as much as I find it hard to get into the main romance, I have a wonderful time with the rest of this story. The Spymaster's Lady is a fast-paced chase as much as a romance, with some really disquieting scenes that drive home the terrible reality of war as well as some exhilarating scenes of chase and rescue. Joanna Bourne can really tell a story as if she's in a boxing ring sucker-punching her reader like an old pro.
Therefore, despite my personal feelings about the romance, I won't hesitate to recommend this book to other people (like, say... you), especially to fans of Jane Feather. If you like a fast-paced story with thrills, danger, and, of course, romance, especially with a heroine that can think fast on her own and fight hard and dirty when her back is against the wall, you may like this one. I do. I wish I love this book more, I really do, but still, I really like this one.
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