2008, European Historical Romance (Early 1800s [Georgian] France and England)
Berkley, $7.99, 384 pages, Amazon ASIN 0425219607
I almost passed on reviewing The Spymaster's Lady. The cheesy cover (open ruffle-shirted hunk - yawn) and even cheesier title (oh, no - not another spymaster!) led me to believe that it would be yet another boring, cookie-cutter, Regency super-spy romance. I could not have been more wrong. Joanna Bourne hasn't had a book published in 25 years - where has she been? - but the wait was worth it. This is a flat-out, spectacular book.
The story takes place in 1802 during the Peace of Amiens and opens in a private French prison where Annique Villiers, a French spy, is about to be tortured over "the Albion plans" - Napoleon's secret plans for the invasion of England. Annique's torturer, the sadistic and villainous Leblanc, fully intends to kill her, but not before he gets those papers - which he plans to use to his own advantage. In the cell with her are Grey, a British Head of Section who has managed to keep his full identity from Leblanc, and his wounded compatriot, Adrian. Grey perks up at the mention of the Albion plans, for he knows what they are and has just lost several men while trying to secure them.
Annique and Grey work together to escape their prison, and then play a cat and mouse game throughout the French countryside, as Grey is determined to bring Annique and her knowledge of the plans to England, and Annique is just as determined not to let him. To say more about the plot would be to give away too much, and counterproductive as well, for there are so many twists and turns and revelations that anything more I might say would be moot in the grand scheme of things.
But even with all the plots and counterplots, secrets and lies, The Spymaster's Lady is primarily a character-driven novel. And what rich characters there are! Annique and Grey, as well as all the secondary characters, are complex and multi-layered. And while there are many character revelations throughout the book, they all fit within the established personality. The revelations do not make Annique and Grey into different people - the dreaded "where the heck did that come from?" - but rather enhances and gives depth to the character. Each character has a unique voice and there is never any doubt as to who is talking. None of the characters utter words that could have come out of anyone else's mouth; each person's vocal cadence is unique.
Annique is the daughter of spies, been raised from a child to be a spy, and has learned her job well. Though she is just 19, she has worked for France as a boy, and as a siren, in battlefields and boarding houses for years, earning an impressive reputation and the respect of all members of the spying community - no matter their nationality. Annique does indeed hold the secret of the Albion plans and the knowledge tears her apart. She knows that the invasion cannot succeed and will only cause untold death and devastation, but can she bring herself to give the plans to the enemy English? The fate of all those lives rest solely upon her shoulders, and the weight of her decision is a burden no one should have to bear. Annique is a wholly unique character and a fascinating one. She is incredibly competent and skillful - a believable master spy - and I was blown away by her resourcefulness and resolve.
Grey is a more straightforward English spy, though also frighteningly competent and pragmatic. He has met his match in Annique, however, and it is fun to watch him try and figure her out and stay one step ahead, failing to do so more than once. Grey's real beauty as a character, though, is his steadfastness. He and Annique engage in many battles of wit, lies and deceptions, but there is never any doubt that he loves her throughout. He never jumps to conclusions about Annique's own feelings about him - seeming to know them better than she does herself - but accepts that her lies are part of the spy game. They are each doing their jobs and that includes lying to each other at times, but they also accept that the love is not a lie and cannot be concealed from the other, though at times they wish it could. And while the book earns a "Warm" rating, Annique and Grey's love is a love of the intellect as well as the body. It's a combination that cannot be beaten and makes this a sexier book than the Warm rating might indicate.
I cannot say enough good about The Spymaster's Lady. It is smart, masterful writing and I cannot wait to see what Bourne does next; I'm hoping for Adrian's story - I fell for him a bit. What a great way to start the new year!
-- Cheryl Sneed
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