Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Recent Reading: The Spymaster’s Lady by Joanna Bourne

Okay! I want to start by saying I never stay up late reading! That is one factor that prompts headaches, so I never voluntarily change my sleep schedule unless I have a super-important reason that forces me to do that. Therefore, when I say I stayed up an extra hour because it was so difficult to put this book down in the middle, well, that is a really meaningful statement.

She was willing to die, of course, but she had not planned to do it so soon, or in such a prolonged and uncomfortable fashion, or at the hands of her own countrymen.

Annique is a French spy during the Napoleonic era. She’s been a spy since she was knee high, learning the craft from her mother, who was also a French spy until her recent death. Annique has plenty of skills suited to this career. She’s quick-witted, she’s great at playing a role, she picks locks, she throws knives . . . I don’t want to spoil too much, but I do think the astute reader will realize quite soon that she also has a photographic memory, which is why her mother and others used her extensively as a spy beginning when she was just a child. She is also a naturally happy and optimistic young woman. This comes through despite her circumstances, which are not exactly conducive to cheerfulness or optimism. Remarkably, the author makes all this believable. (Really!).

Grey is an English spy, who happens to be trapped in the same cell as Annique when the story opens. We don’t ever find out exactly how he came to be there, which certainly represents a severe failure of spycraft on his part. However, there he is, and the story pours itself onto the page with enough speed and delightful twists that the reader may well forget to wonder about that particular element of the backstory.

This story strikes me more as a HISTORICAL romance than a historical ROMANCE. If the romance were backgrounded just a little more, it’d be a subplot rather than a real plot. However, the author does use a bunch of standard romance techniques, like switching back and forth between the female lead’s and the male lead’s points of view. As is typical in romance novels, we are left in no doubt about their mutual attraction. We also have The Deep Misunderstanding that needs to be cleared up. We definitely get The Insurmountable Obstacles to their happily-ever-after. In this case, those obstacles do seem pretty insurmountable. I mean, they’re on opposite sides! (Sort of.) Plus Grey has taken Annique captive because he knows that she knows various important things about Napoleon’s plans to invade England. That part is for real, as she honestly does try to escape, quite a few times. Grey and his compatriots barely manage to hang onto her. Complicating matters, a high-level French spy with plenty of resources is determined to kill Annique for various reasons.

Strengths:

a) Clever characters! You know, if you follow this blog at all, how much I hate stupid characters. These characters are the exact opposite of stupid. They are so good at what they do and the author actually makes all that seem plausible, which is quite a trick given hyper-competent characters. Both Annique and Grey come across as believable and sympathetic and witty and dedicated. Not infallible, which is one of their strengths as characters. Conflicted, both of them. Annique doesn’t want Napoleon to invade England, but she also doesn’t want to give the English anything they can use to hurt France – quite a needle to thread. Grey is going to have to force Annique to divulge the invasion plans she knows, but he doesn’t want to hurt her or make her do anything that will make her despise herself. It’s a tough situation for them both.

b) Plot twists! You are not going to see THAT coming, let me tell you. Or that either. Or probably that. Yet all these things are believable, at least more or less, at least in context. It takes great writing to pull off this plot, because less-good writing could not possibly have made any of these plot twists plausible. Also, until right before the end, I could not figure out how Annique could possibly get things to work out. It was obvious once she did it, but I’m not sure I saw it coming until it was practically finished. Then surviving was a bit of a trick. But this is a romance, so although the story is exciting, it’s low stress in the sense that the reader can be certain there will be a HEA ending, which there is.

Weaknesses:

a) A certain degree of implausibility is just intrinsic to this story.

b) I hate titles like The Someone’s Daughter or The Someone’s Wife or The Someone’s Lady. Titles are often not the author’s fault, and titles are not that important anyway, but I would like to see a stake driven through the heart of the continuing fashion for these titles.

Who would like this story:          

Me! I loved it and I’m delighted that it’s the first book of a series. I imagine it’s going to be a series where one member of the group of spies gets involved in a romance, because that’s how romances work. Oh, yes, I see it’s a prequel story that explains how Doyle (English spy) winds up married to Marguerite (French aristocrat). These are both continuing characters from the first book.

Anyone who enjoys historical romances and likes the Napoleonic era should enjoy this book.

Anyone who enjoys spy stories and is not too opposed to a romance subplot might well enjoy this book. I’ll add that despite the shirtless dude on the ebook cover, the romance is fairly subplottish for a romance novel. I mean, it’s important, but the spy stuff is indeed actually more important, most of the time. The sex scenes are not super explicit or prolonged.

Anyone who likes clever plotting and is interested in the craft of making implausible events and charaters seem plausible and real also might want to take a look at this story. Ditto for pacing and excitement.

Update: I wrote this post a couple of days ago. I’m now halfway through the second book, and it’s good too. I particularly like seeing Adrian as a cutthroat boy.

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6 Comments Recent Reading: The Spymaster’s Lady by Joanna Bourne

  1. Pete Mack

    Beyone Bone and Jewel Creatures, allow me to re-recommend W.R. Gingell. Really good fantasy romance, and right up your alley. Oh, and I suspect you’ll like Tanya Huff, too… A bit harder edged, and more SF/UF. Not right up your alley, but no gutterball. Certainly an easy spare.

  2. Evelyn M. Hill

    I’m so glad the picture you show is a new cover! That original was embarrassingly out of touch. I know publishers often use a half-clothed man picture to indicate a novel that is considered steamy, but that cover was just awful. The book deserved much better.

  3. Rachel Neumeier

    Yes, I started to put on the naked dude cover, but then found this one. I see I didn’t quite revise the entire post to accommodate the change, but yes again, this cover is vastly better!

  4. Hanneke

    Just got it as an ebook – that still has the guy on the cover. I’ll see if I can change it to tgis one in Calibre, at least.

    Now which do I start first, this one or Troubled Waters?

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