The Forbidden Lady
by Kerrelyn Sparks, historical (2012)
Avon Impulse, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-06-212878-2


The Forbidden Lady was originally published as For Love Or Country back in 2002 by Tor Forge, and this particular edition is, as per the author's foreword, "newly revised". According to the author's website, it has been revised to be "funnier and sexier". I'm not sure how different this story is from the original edition, since I haven't read that one, so I'm afraid I am of not much help if you have the older version.

This is a story set over a period of about one year, from the middle of 1769 to the middle of 1770. England is sending criminals and poor people to the American colonies, and some of the locals are thinking of giving the British their collective middle fingers. Our hero Quincy Stanton and his uncle Edward are two of such people.

Quincy recently returned from a trip to England to meet his biological father, the Earl of Dearlington. Alas, it wasn't a happy reunion as his father still refused to acknowledge his illegitimate son. Instead, it was a ploy from that man to, apparently, seize control of his brother Edward's shipping company as a means to restore the family fortune. It's a long story, let's just say, and both Edward and Quin are not pleased with the fact that Quin's half-brother, the Earl's heir, is now tagging along with Quin, no doubt with full intention of causing trouble.

Still, it's not so bad. Now Quin can pretend that his trip has converted him into a Loyalist, so he can now mingle freely among those people and spy for the Sons of Liberty. He'd play the selfish dandy while digging up dirt that would aid the good cause. It is during this masquerade that he meets Virginia Munro and her sister.

Virginia and her sister are staying with their aunt Mary in Boston, and her first encounter with Quin is not exactly one for the romantic annals. Still, she keeps bumping into him, and discovers that he does have his appeal, damn that man. Meanwhile, Aunt Mary is inexplicably open about her anti-Torie sentiments to her nieces, because in romance novels, it's always a good idea to tell a naïve 15-year old girl that you want to be a spy and recruit that girl to the cause as well. Don't worry, that 15-year old is Virginia's sister - I'm just pointing this out because it's really one of the sillier aspects of the plot.

Our heroine has her reservations about the whole spy thing, but she's of course against human trafficking and all (we all know that slavery in America was entirely the fault of those British, of course, and when America became an independent country, slavery ceased immediately... hey, wait a minute), so she's willing to mingle with the guests and report any juicy overheard tidbits to her aunt.

There is a charming "old school" feel to this story, as the scope of the plot spreads wider than that of a typical historical romance these days. It's charming because it also comes without the obnoxious baggage of old school romances - dumb screechy heroines, ridiculously stupid and cruel heroes, and sexual assault as a plot device to put the heroine in a position of weakness.

Virginia is in many ways out of her depths here, but I really like her. She's feisty in a good way: she won't win any spy of the year awards, but she certainly puts up an effort to lie and extricate her way out of a mess without being a total nitwit about it. I also adore her determination to never be a martyr. When the hero tries to push her away, she decides that she'd go see him anyway because she has a very important thing to tell him. Virginia isn't someone to suffer or endure without any good reason. Sometimes she acts like a silly girl, but since I also get this impression that she's out of her depths, I find that these moments actually reinforce her character. I actually like that she's not some unrealistic amazing spy from the get go, since she's just a girl who spends most of her time in the countryside, and therefore it's natural that she's not the most sophisticated person when it comes to intrigue and games of the heart.

Quin is a more conventional romance novel character, and in fact, while he is more capable as a spy, there are moments when he seems more silly than Virginia. He's more prone to self-pity, for example, and his biggest concern when it comes to his relationship with Virginia is that she'd find out that he's an illegitimate child. Really, of all the things he is currently involved in, that is what a woman would find most objectionable about him? I'd think "spying for the side that she is apparently not into" would be number on his "Why I Shouldn't Get Her Naked" list. He'd be an unbearable hero should he ever be paired with a passive martyr, and Virginia, fortunately, isn't that kind of heroine. She actually makes him entertaining.

As for the plot, it has some "Hmm... really?" moments as I often get this feeling that the whole thing has been dumbed down considerably to allow some romance novel tropes to take place. However, it is hard to take the story too seriously in the first place, as the hero is somewhat like James Bond in the sense that he has all these gadgets, including a submarine, at his disposal. The story is more of a campy light-hearted history-gone-fantastic tale than a sober look at things leading up to the Revolutionary War, so I'm happy to go along with things that I usually would have reservations about.

At the end of the day, this one offers ample fun to make it a most pleasant diversion from real life blues.

Rating: 83


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