Book Review

The Spymaster’s Lady by Joanna Bourne

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Title: The Spymaster's Lady
Author: Joanna Bourne
Publication Info: Berkley Sensation January 2, 2008
ISBN: 0425219607
Genre: Historical: European

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.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Robin says:

    I love this book so much I put it on my AAR top 100 list.  I love this book so much I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I read it.

    IMO it proves the point that Romance doesn’t have to use an entirely new setting or set-up to be brilliant, inspiring, fresh, and stunningly emotional.  For all the times the spy plot has been used in Romance, this might as well have been the first time for me, as a reader.  I love this book.

  2. 2

    People are going to be blown away when they read this novel.  Jo’s a fantastic writer and also a fantastic writing instructor. This is just the first of many great novels from her pen.

  3. 3
    MaryKate says:

    Well Holy Crap! I guess I’ll be putting this at the top of my TBB list. Sarah, you had me at a comparison of The Windflower, the best romance ever IMO.

    Thanks for the review, now I can’t wait to read it.

  4. 4
    Robin says:

    This is just the first of many great novels from her pen.

    I was so anxious to read more of her work that I ordered a used copy of the single Regency she wrote a number of years ago.  I haven’t read it yet, but I have it for when I’m waiting impatiently for the next book after TSL.

  5. 5
    Ann Aguirre says:

    Right then. This is going on my Must-Buy list. The snippets you’ve posted here are astonishingly brilliant.

  6. 6
    Cat Marsters says:

    You might have persuaded me to buy this.  It’s been a while since I read a new historical—or in fact, really wanted to!  But I’m a sucker for a strong heroine and a big divide between protagonists (because really, he’s English and she’s a cheese-eating surrender monkey).

    Now…do I splash out now, or add it to my Christmas list?

  7. 7
  8. 8
    Mel-O-Drama says:

    I am so happy for Jo. She’s a very gifted storyteller and I’m thrilled you enjoyed her story! Yay, Jo!

  9. 9

    Gah! I want this SO. BAD. Every excerpt is like the biggest tease.

  10. 10
    Chicklet says:

    (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).

    1. I’m buying this book ASAP.

    2. I hate these “naked male torso” covers anyway, but it’s particularly galling when the image doesn’t match the description of the hero. GAH!

  11. 11
    SB Sarah says:

    Honestly, the cover makes me more pissed off than I can appropriately express. Same-old beefcake ab-tastic greased washboard with a tucked-in-yet-oddly-unbuttoned shirt and an expression of chest-pounding manhood… which doesn’t represent the hero AT ALL and relegates this book to same-old-same-old.

    Now I’m going to have to think of what cover images WOULD work: What would portray the book AND communicate that it’s a romance? Tough call.

  12. 12
    Laidybyrd says:

    I love it when authors are able to convey the cadence of an accent – whether regional accents or those of a non-native speaker.  This is definitely going to be on the top of my Wish List.  Just a bonus that I enjoy historicals too.

  13. 13
    DS says:

    Sold!

    As long as the English spy is not a Duke.

  14. 14
    Cat Marsters says:

    I love it when authors are able to convey the cadence of an accent – whether regional accents or those of a non-native speaker.

    Me too.  Makes a change from all the ‘Ach lassie, dinnae fash yeself’ and cod-French that makes the speaker sound like Del-boy.

    Although I’d be much obliged if someone came up with a decent way of writing the glottlestop, because seeing it written t’ annoys the crap out of me.  I’ll forgive Mr Pratchett t’bread wi’ t’edge, but no one else, please.

  15. 15
    Chicklet says:

    What would portray the book AND communicate that it’s a romance? Tough call.

    It is a tough call! I would like to see an image with a style similar to that of The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, by Lauren Willig. Altered for historical accuracy, of course, and including a depiction of the hero in all his plain glory.

    I think what irks me most about the use of the cover design (and others like it) is that it hides the importance of the heroine. I mean, here we have (by SB Sarah’s account) a kick-ass heroine, and the publisher can’t be bothered to include her.

    I don’t know about other readers, but I don’t choose a book because the cover model is hot. In fact, I have such an aversion to being marketed to in that way that the surest way to turn me *off* a book is to slap mantitty on it.

    In this case, surely there was at least one scene of espionage derring-do that could have been pictured on the cover, one that included both Grey and Annique.

  16. 16
    sula says:

    oh man, now I am going to have to buy this book even though the cover makes me want to run screaming the other way.  You had me at the language cadence thing.  When I was living in W Africa and speaking French all of the time (even with my boyfriend), I noticed how it affected the way I structured English sentences when I started using that language again.  When I read books in which the h/h are supposedly speaking French, it never feels right.  So color me intrigued.  *g*

  17. 17
    Wry Hag says:

    No website. A haphazardly maintained blog in which she writes mostly to herself. A home in the Appalachian foothills with a motley assortment of pets.

    I swear, I love this woman already.  And it doesn’t hurt that she seems to be a smashingly good writer.

  18. 18
    Amanda says:

    I don’t read romances generally, (I read SB for the smart and awesome and hilarity) but this review is probably going to make me buy the book.  Spies, linguistics, and a hero who isn’t seven feet of oiled beefcake?  I’m there.

  19. 19
    Marianne McA says:

    Sounds good – I’ve preordered it.

    But I think the cover is beyond silly – and the title is just trite.

  20. 20
    Eli says:

    I actually saw this book in a local grocery store and passed it up because of the cover. I didn’t even pick it up to see that it was from Berkeley.

    Now I must have it.

  21. 21
    Robin says:

    In this case, surely there was at least one scene of espionage derring-do that could have been pictured on the cover, one that included both Grey and Annique.

    Just wait until you read it. TSL is so rich in every way and encompasses every sense.  I could see, smell, and practically taste everything portrayed in Bourne’s prose, and she’s one of those writers who pays an astonishing level of attention to those small details that round out a scene in ways that you can only value when they’re missing elsewhere.

    I actually think Bourne did a great job in showing the badness in both the French and the English, and my complaint with the book didn’t have to do with the nature of the villainy (I thought that was explained—at least to my satisfaction).  But even with the one thing that did bug me (the aftermath of a revelation late in the book), it is still, easily, one of the most thrilling books I’ve read in the genre.  OMG, stuff actually happened that surprised me, lol.

  22. 22
    Ann Aguirre says:

    “I actually saw this book in a local grocery store and passed it up because of the cover.”

    Are you sure it was the same book? It’s not supposed to release until Jan 2, 2008. I know books sometimes ship a few weeks early, but over a month…? Anyone else seen this on shelves?

  23. 23
    Meriam says:

    I’ve been looking forward to this book for quite some time now. I only skimmed the review (can’t bear to be overly informed) but I’m pleased the prose/ use of language is rated highly.

    Nothing depresses me more then cracking open a much hyped historical romance only to discover turgid prose and anachronistic dialogue.

  24. 24
    Kalen Hughes says:

    Have you read Tracy Grant’s SECRETS OF A LADY? It’s a reissue of DAUGHTER OF THE GAME. By far the best Regency spy book I’ve EVER read (and, as we all know, there are gobs of them out there).

    I’m going to have to add Jo’s to my TBR pile (which I would never have done had you not reviewed it; I’ve sworn off the spies).

  25. 25
    Tracy Grant says:

    Wow, Kalen, that totally made my day! :-).

    “The Spymaster’s Lady” sounds fabulous!  I think spy stories have such wonderful opportunities for conflict and betrayal and ambiguities and great plot twists.

  26. 26

    Yay, Jo! :)

    I’ve been MIA lately from the Books and Writers Community over on CompuServe, but loved following every step in her writing and publishing process, from seeing the cover to mulling over title ideas. Ultimately the cover and title are kind of fun in a retro-romance way, and at least the art is purty (rather, the guy is purty).

    She’s a brilliant, fantastic writer and a very cool lady to boot, totally deserves a round of applause from the Bitches.

    I’m gonna have to head over to boards now and say congrats!

  27. 27
    SB Sarah says:

    When I was living in W Africa and speaking French all of the time (even with my boyfriend), I noticed how it affected the way I structured English sentences when I started using that language again.

    I know what you mean Sula. I found that I used different muscles in my mouth if I spoke nothing but Spanish for weeks (like I did when I went to Spain in college) and when I started to speak English again, I ended up sounding different, mostly because I was trying to speak English out of the parts of my mouth that form Spanish letters. Hard to explain, but then too even the word order was a bit wonky.

    No website. A haphazardly maintained blog in which she writes mostly to herself.

    Can I say how sad this makes me? OH how this makes me sad. Seriously. Not every author should feel obligated to have a big huge splashy blog where they show the readership pictures of every nook and cranny of their lives, but oh man. This book is so amazing it makes me sad that there’s not an online page that can promote it the way it ought to be. Developing a site is not easy, and I empathize with that. But having a site at least for the book that the author has some control over seems like a no-brainer.

  28. 28

    I know Jane@DearAuthor loves the book—but I didn’t know whether Jane’s tastes and mine would mesh. 

    So the snippets you quoted totally made up my mind for me.  I love those snippets.  Will be getting the book v. soon, along with His Kiss is Wicked.

    I feel buoyed that there are so many top-quality historical romances coming out nowadays.  As a reader, I’ve truly missed them.

  29. 29
    Meredith Duran says:

    When Jane namechecked this over at DA a couple of weeks back, I went and read the excerpt, and got pretty excited.  Now with this review, I am feeling that acquisitive, greedy anxiety that I think the Black Friday sales were supposed to bring out in me, but didn’t.

    Still—January?  You post this and then make us wait until JANUARY?

    GAH.

  30. 30
    Jules Jones says:

    Damn you, woman, my TBB mountain was quite big enough already!

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