The Forbidden Rose
by Joanna Bourne, historical (2010)
Berkley, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-23561-4


I've stated in my reviews of Joanna Bourne's previous books that I think she's a talented author with a way with words. The Forbidden Rose is a standalone prequel to those previous books, although you will appreciate all the Easter eggs present in this one only if you have read those books. This book, however, doesn't resonate with me at all. The writing is fine, but the romance is even more bland than the ones in the previous two books, and as a result, I find myself being bored silly by this book.

Marguerite de Fleurignac is the daughter of an... eccentric, shall we say... nobleman who was in Paris doing his thing as the country house burned down, leaving Maggie to fend for herself by living in the woods and going hungry because she couldn't bring herself to barbecue poor Fiver for dinner. When she's not going hungry for the bunnies, she manages to play a big part with her ex-lover in an underground network to smuggle French aristocrats to Watership Down despite showing very little survival instinct or cunning in this story.

William Doyle, the best English spy out there, arrives at Chateau de Fleurignac as Maggie is busy playing the guitar and singing Les Yeux Brillants to Fiver and his friends. For reasons that still befuddle me, he suspects Maggie's father of the person who plays a role in getting a few English blokes assassinated. He finds Maggie and introduces himself as Guillaume LeBreton ("the defender of Brittany"), a traveling bookseller who nonetheless manages to give Maggie no choice but to come along with her. Maggie, who doesn't even pause to wonder at the remarkable coincidence of the arrival of a man whose name translates suspiciously to something related to her covert mission, soon tags along, pouting and making out with him in streams and such.

The characters get physical a little too soon and with too little heat for a romance novel. Yes, I know in a time when people's heads can get lopped off just because the person in charge thinks that one's nose is too big, people don't waste time on courtship and coming up with excuses as to why one must have sex without appearing too much like a harlot in romance readers' eyes. But I keep reading and waiting for Maggie and Doyle to show something a little bit more toward each other - some passion, some heat... something, anything, that tells me that love may be present. I'm afraid I'm still waiting by the last page.

Doyle is Doyle - he's, to me, another standard English Spy Hero. Because he's the hero, he doesn't have to play too much of an unrealistic saint-like character. Despite some ridiculous eye-rolling moments, like the name he chose to use in his undercover role, he's not too bad compared to the heroine.

Oh, Maggie. Maggie is... Maggie. She's a familiar kind of heroine if you have read enough books by Jo Beverley and Mary Balogh. Maggie plays the martyr for her father to an unreasonable degree without experiencing any negative emotion. She seems more concerned for the kids and everyone else to the point that it does seem like she doesn't have any sense of self-preservation. Ms Bourne spends a lot of time and effort trying to convince me that Maggie is this intelligent heroine, but what I see is a heroine who walks into an ambush, the hero's warning coming too late. I see a robot programmed to be the selfless heroine that everyone seems to love, a heroine who exists only to save the world with nary any concern for herself. I see a heroine who is set up to be this underground operative in a most unconvincing manner, given that Maggie comes off as remarkably trusting and even naïve for someone who has spent a long time avoiding capture and such.

Come to think of it, there is a remarkable contrast of sorts here between Maggie and Doyle that demonstrates how the hero can do things that a heroine will never be allowed to do. In this one, Doyle tears his hair out considerably and goes all brooding and angst-ridden that he has to leave Maggie in the clutches of her transparently villainous relative, but still, he does just that in the name of duty. Maggie, on the other hand, hasn't met any kid, kitten, or bunny that she isn't willing to die for. And it's not like she displays any zeal or faith in the cause behind the underground save-the-nobles thing - she's not an obvious supporter of the monarchy, for example. So why is she risking her life? I guess she just wants to save everyone. Because Maggie is just so unconvincing and even fake in her designated role in this story, I have a hard time believing that Maggie is capable of the things she is supposed to be good at.

Later in the story, the whole story gets infected by Maggie's ersatz nature, perhaps by osmosis. I don't want to spoil the story any more, so let me just say that there are some penultimate big scenes late in the story that has me scratching my head and wondering just how incompetent the French has to be to allow the good guys to pull off such stunts.

Anyway, The Forbidden Rose is well-written, as I've mentioned, but the romance and the plot are pretty dull. I get intrigued now and then by some secondary characters who come off as much more believable and alive than our main characters, but the doldrums settle back in when the story shifts back to Maggie and Doyle. Maggie's father is not one of these secondary characters, by the way. My goodness, this book would have been so much better if someone had smothered that irritating walking plot device to death with a pillow shortly after he first showed up in the story. Back to this story, perhaps it would have worked better for me if the heroine wasn't such an obvious example of a Selfless Barbie cliché thrust into a plot that requires a harder, tougher, and more cynical heroine, the plot didn't require so much suspension of disbelief as the story progresses, and the romance didn't have this going-through-the-motions vibe to it.

Rating: 60


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