Well, nothing. If try I write in Spanish the words as come from my mouth and change them directly into English without moving them, the style will be very different. If I write directly in English, the rhythm, the cadence of the words is unique entirely from my brain attempts to translate.
If I write directly into English, which is my native language, the sentences are different. If I write in Spanish without reordering the words for an English reader as I did above, there are marked differences in the prose.
Such is the difference in languages. And my example isn’t really that good. That difference in word order, cadence, and rhythm is difficult to convey without involving dialectical words that make me twitch. Joanna Bourne, on the other hand, has got language down cold.
The heroine of The Spymaster’s Lady, Annique Villiers, is French. The book is written in English even when the characters are speaking French. Or German. Some of the characters speak English of varying dialects and accents. The book itself is in English – and yet you can tell the difference when the characters switch from language to language, sometimes before Bourne notes that change in the narration.
Knock that oiled chest-baring ab-master off the cover, and substitute something more professional and perhaps boring, and I promise you, linguistics students could study this narrative as a representative work on how to accurately portray the differences in languages and dialects without actually USING those dialects. English poses as French, as German (which is its cousin anyway), and as variations of itself, and the depth of talent in just that part of this novel alone is astonishing.
Seriously, I haven’t even gotten to the plot part yet and I’m ready to build a shrine to Bourne just for her prose. The best example that I enjoyed the most I can’t share because it gives away too much of a plot twist, but the voice of Annique is one of the most unique and elegantly crafted that I’ve come across in romance.
In this scene, she is speaking with Grey, the hero and a fellow spy, after he’s captured her.
“I have known several men of your type. None of them was amenable to reason.” She sounded more and more resigned. “We come to an impasse, you and I. What will you do with me?”
“Damned if I know. Take you to England and decide there, probably. By then we’ll understand each other better.”
“I meant, what will you do with me tonight? I am eating life in very small bites these days, monsieur.”
Then, later, as they find a camp:
“This is what we need. You have Gypsy blood in you, Annique?”
“Not from my mother’s side, I am almost sure.” She could smell his shirt, the starch and the vetiver-scented water that was ironed into it, which was wholly a French custom and not a British scent at all. They had such meticulous technique, these agents. “I do not know enough about my father to say….”
He did not touch her, but something in her body reached out and greeted his body as if the two were old friends who had not seen one another for a long time. She did not like it that her body chatted to his in this fashion.
Annique and Grey are two of the most well-written protagonists in historical romance I’ve read in a long, long time. In fact, I told Candy about this book and said it left me complacently blissed out in such a fashion that I hadn’t experienced since she made me read The Windflower.
Plot summary? Oh, fine then. Annique Villiers is a French spy who is thrown into an enemy prison alongside Grey and Adrian, two British spies. The three all know of each other, and after Annique helps them to escape, Grey captures Annique with the intentions of bringing her to England. And really, I can’t say more than that without giving away some of the best hidden plot twists I’ve encountered.
Annique is a clever heroine, who at the start of the novel is learning to see a future when her life has never been more than the moment when she puts one foot in front of the other. She’d never looked further than her next step, her next minute. She’s funny, charming, brave, resourceful, and brilliant. She refuses to compromise herself, or her integrity, and she knows she’s good at being a spy.
Grey is a slightly tortured, lonely, but deep hero, who gives little away on the surface of his expression but has a lot going on in his active, brilliant mind. Fascinatingly, Bourne acknowledges in the narrative that while Annique is beautiful, Grey himself is plain, and not necessarily attractive (all the more reason the abtastic cover model should go pose elsewhere. This is a terrible cover that sells this marvelous book way, way short, dammit). But he’s brilliant – and since I find intelligence beyond sexy, I loved this hero.
The plot is both new and not new. As Jane from Dear Author pointed out when we emailed each other about the book, squeeing like dorks, the heroes are English; the villains are French. That’s nothing new in a war-set historical romance. But the depth of historical significance and the intrigue of spies from rival sides reveals another side to Napoleonic wars. Some historical novels take place at balls in England while the war is raging on in France, but it’s something happening elsewhere, to other people, not to the protagonists. This novel is about those “other people,” sneaking back and forth from England to France and back again, the people to whom the war is happening personally. There’s much drama, but thanks to Annique, there’s also a thick element of humor woven through the story.
The only flaw I found with the story was that while Annique and Grey are uniquely rendered characters of a familiar mold, the villain, he was stock and dull and scary only because he had no mercy and I had to therefore wonder how someone so stupid and so ignorant arose to such a position of power when surrounded by all these marvelously intelligent people.
The villainy in both the antagonist and in the larger French spy community is based on sexual assault and predatory actions on the innocent, and the endless threats of rape and assault made me more than a little ill, not because they added up to a significantly dastardly villain, but because it was too simple a retread of rape-and-violence-and-thinking-with-cock = Bad Guy. The extra thick icing of bad guy is that he tends to rape people for a good bit of the story, and I didn’t need that extra spoon feeding of “here’s the bad guy!”
If the villain had kicked puppies and been a raging closeted homosexual, I’d have had to weep for the injustice of pairing that villain with the marvelous creations that are Annique and Grey. He’s not the bad guy because he wants to sacrifice others for the sake of his own ambition and greed. That’s apparently not enough badness. But when a villain is that much evil, there’s rarely any resolution that can adequately revenge his evilness.
But truly, the hero and heroine are incredible enough to offset the over-done bad behavior of the villain. Bourne could have written Grey and Annique’s entire backstory out as part of the narrative. The book could have been three times as long and no less fascinating. This is easily one of the best historical romances I’ve ever read. Bourne’s use of language and her skill in slowly revealing the layered secrets of her protagonists are lessons in writing talent that many, many others could do well to follow.