by Caroline Linden, historical (2010)
Avon, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-06-170648-6
Angelique Martand is considered one of England's finest spies and assassins. However, in this story, the magic is gone and she finds herself contemplating the notion of retiring from the gig and living a more down-to-earth life with some bloke. However, her boss John Stafford has an assignment for her. Nathan Avery, who seems like some American fellow who got where he is due to his family's connection to President Monroe, is here to locate and bring an embezzler, Jacob Dixon, back to his country for trial. Predictably, the plan here is to have them pose as a married couple during the assignment.
Both Angelique and Nate keep some major details about their assignment from each other, understandably so at first since they don't trust each other, but these details can become a major issue between them when their masquerade ends up being real in so many ways.
I say this with love: I wish author Caroline Linden will stop writing spy stories. You Only Love Once is a textbook example of what a spy story should not be. While this one is never as ridiculous as some spy-themed historical romances I have read in the past (especially this one, shudder), it requires far more suspension of disbelief than necessary.
I don't know why Angelique has to be saddled with the whole "most dangerous spy" tag by the author - she is not even a little dangerous here. She waves a knife and growls like an angry kitten now and then, but Nate, a fellow with no official training, leads the investigation and does a lot of things that Angelique is supposed to be the expert in. Worse, this same man can track down and follow Angelique in and out of town twice without being detected. Remember, he's not the most accomplished spy and assassin trained since young here. Angelique reveals every single detail of her missions to the maid who smuggled her out of France during the guillotine era - and it is only later in the story that she realizes that she may have put Melanie in danger by doing so. Given how Nate can easily follow her on her visit to Melanie without being discovered, I can only imagine that we are talking about a Teletubby version of reality here when an oblivious heroine like Angelique can be considered one of the best spies ever.
It is clear that romance conventions come into play in this story, dooming Angelique into playing second fiddle to the hero. Thus, Angelique's supposed abilities are informed rather than believable. The author tells me that Angelique is amazing. I read the story and I don't see the awesomeness. Because we don't like our heroines to be murderous cold-blooded whores, Angelique is made to insist in an unintentionally hilarious show of pique that she only kills people who deserve it - abusers and rapists who conveniently enough happened to be enemies of England wishing to plunge the country into turmoil. You'd think Angelique will find solace in doing what she believes to be right, but no, she still expects Nate to recoil from her after discovering that she snuffs out the lives of villains everywhere.
Now, let me make this clear: Angelique is capable of a few things despite displaying traits that will otherwise make her a not very good spy. She makes a great assistant to Nate, for example. Okay, that doesn't seem like a compliment, but really, in a sea of incompetent nincompoops starring in so many historical romances out there, it is nice to see a heroine who is actually useful when it comes to helping the hero. See what I mean about how this story would be so much better if Angelique weren't touted to be such an amazing spy? Nate also does some silly things now and then, but I can give him a pass because he has no formal spy training.
You'd think that the English will be portrayed positively since Angelique is such an efficient slayer of the lowlives in that country. But because Nate is an American, the author can't resist having him give a speech about how Americans are all open-minded people who don't care about things like classes. There are no barbarians in America! And yet, Angelique just has to be blue-blooded. I guess it's because democracy isn't pretty unless the democratic people in question are of noble blood. Meanwhile, the English characters apart from a sequel bait accomplice of Angelique come off as nasty, perverted, villainous, or just plain unlikable. The implication, intentional or not, is as clear as an elephant stampede charging into a china shop: the French are at the bottom of the hierarchy of Beautiful People in the Genre, the Americans are on top, and the English are tolerable only if there are no Americans to outshine them in being even more beautiful.
Because the story unfortunately focuses on all that unconvincing spy subplot set-up, the characters jump from not trusting each other to being willing to sacrifice all for each other in an abrupt manner that has me scratching my head. Can sex ever be that amazing? Still, the late chapters when Angelique is willing to betray her boss and give up everything to be with Nate can pack quite an emotional punch... if only she didn't come off like a fickle and untrustworthy spy who turns on her boss because of sex faster than a Bond girl dropping her bikini top for Agent 007. Poor Angelique - the author's repeated insistence on the heroine's unproven awesomeness never allow Angelique to be anything more than a disappointment.
To sum things up, You Only Love Once has some emotional moments, but the whole premise and the execution of that premise result in an unbelievable spy romance where agents use the same names in all their masquerades, commit amateurish blunders, and yet, in Angelique's case, still retain the tag of super-duper spy and assassin. This is a story that can only exist in the romance genre, if only because most of us have come to accept ubiquitous romance tropes, no matter how ridiculous they may be to readers outside the genre, as realism in this genre.
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