November 2011, European Historical Romance (1794 and 1818 Paris and London)
Berkley, $7.99, 336 pages, Amazon ASIN 0425244539 Part of a series
Once in a while, during every reader’s literary life, you encounter a book that reminds you why you are a reader. It renews your faith, if faith was lost; it rekindles your interest, if interest waned; and every word, every page, is a wonder. Adrian and Justine’s story is not only such a book and it confirms Joanna Bourne is one of the best authors currently writing. If Ms. Bourne continues writing at such quality, she would deserve to be called one of the greatest romance authors ever. And I mean that.
The Black Hawk is, finally, Adrian and Justine’s tale, and most readers who have followed Ms. Bourne’s Napoleonic spy series have been anticipating the tale of the wiry English ex-thief and the French girl living in a brothel. You do not need to have read the other books, however, to read and enjoy this one, for Ms. Bourne tells Hawker and Justine’s story in full.
We begin in 1818 London, when 37-year-old Justine is stabbed. Bleeding, she manages to stumble to Sir Adrian Hawkhurst, whom she hasn’t talked to in four years. But then we are taken back to 1794 Paris, at the tail end of the Terror, when Owl and Hawker are junior spies for their countries. They are old beyond their years and hardened by life, but they are united in their organizations’ mutual desire to save aristocrats from the guillotine. The youths are too wary and too similar to become friends - both are smart, cynical, dangerous, and have lost their trust in most humankind - but their similarities transform into mutual respect and a bond strong enough for Justine to approach Hawker with a plan and challenge.
On Rue de la Planche is the Coach House, where French orphans are beaten, indoctrinated, and sent to England as spies. Justine wants to free the last of these orphans, the Cachés, and manipulates Hawker into helping her. Their operation is ultimately successful, but over the next quarter century they discover that the Cachés have become more pervasive than they had realized. And through it all, Justine and Adrian must reconcile their loyalty to their countries and their visceral need for the other. Alternating between past and present, we see how grudging alliance becomes lust, how lust becomes love, and how love can turn into separation and even hatred. But three years after the end of the war, Justine ends up back at Hawker’s door, sliced by one of his knives.
There is more - there is so much more - and I devoured every word with nothing less than ravenous pleasure. There is intense joy in reading the result of what is obviously months of research and exertion, but which also bears the mark of a truly gifted author. Ms. Bourne pays the reader the highest compliment of writing a story that fits the characters, without shortcuts or gloss. And so the story is bloody. It is brutal. There are shocking events implicitly and explicitly described. But this was the French Revolution and this was wartime. It was a complex, ugly, triumphant time in French history, and by God am I glad to see it treated with open eyes.
This applies to the characters, and know in advance that Justine and Adrian are not easy people to read about. They are old before their time - Justine was sold to a brothel when her aristocratic father died, and Adrian lived as a thief and murderer before the British Secret Service plucked him off the street - and they live in shadow while their contemporaries sew samplers or become shop apprentices. Some of their earlier scenes had me forgetting their age, and once or twice I wondered if the author was taking creative license too far. But Justine and Adrian's depiction is, I believe, nothing less than completely honest. They are not always good people, but they know honor, loyalty, kindness and love. Apart, they are individuals worthy of respect and admiration. Together, they are incendiary.
There is never a single doubt that Justine and Adrian are two halves of one whole. Much of their love story takes place in the past, which is why I’ve spent so much time dwelling on their youths, and if I had one wish it is that their rupture, separation, and finally reconciliation received equal attention. Owl and Hawker have been through so much, together and apart; I wanted every minute, and another twenty-odd pages would have been most welcome. But some final developments accelerate a smidgen more quickly than I would have wished, and I have to admit that the villain’s revelation (and his/her motives) fell a tad short compared to the book’s overall richness.
But realistically, these are tiny quibbles about a book that, still, leaves me grasping for praise. I cannot understate Ms. Bourne’s achievement here. The Black Hawk is a mature, polished, multi-layered book. Justine and Adrian are two of the most memorable characters this year. And Joanna Bourne writes with passion, originality, and the utmost respect for her story and readers. This book was not perfect. But it was very, very close.
-- Jean Wan
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