This month’s TBR Challenge theme was RITA winning or RITA nominated books, in honor of this month’s RITA awards. Unfortunately, RITA winners and I don’t have a great track record. As I was skimming the lists, I recognized several books I absolutely loathed. Of course, I loved Carolyn Crane’s Off the Edge from last year and Laura Kinsale’s The Prince of Midnight is one of my top five favorite books. But only I had a total of THREE RITA-winning or RITA-nominated books on my TBR pile. That’s…terrible. Luckily one of them was The Spymaster’s Lady by Joanna Bourne. The book begins with Annique Villiers, a French spy and Grey, an English spy, both imprisoned by a rogue French agent in his dungeon. As they escape and make their way through the French countryside, they come to desire one another and perhaps care for one another, though their positions as spies for rival governments do not make for an easy romantic road. Both Annique and Grey are exceedingly proficient at their craft and proceed to gain and lose the upper hand to one another in a way that creates delicious tension, both romantic and otherwise. It’s a thoroughly suspenseful and delightful book. But to see this story as a professional and romantic struggle between equals misses half the point.
Here’s where those of you who have yet read this series may want to part ways with this review. Because I want to talk about what happens toward the end, particularly with Annique, and it will completely spoil the plot for anyone who hasn’t read it. If you’re anti-spoiler, read no further.
What I loved best about The Spymaster’s Lady was the lady herself. Annique is a complex, twisty, broken heroine who believes herself to be simple, direct and strong. Though the point of view is third-person omniscient, Annique is not a terribly reliable narrator, nor is she introspective. Annique is oriented exclusively toward the outer world through a lifetime of spy training–a child solider, though not one who held a gun and killed with impunity. She has been exposed to death and treachery and the harshest realities of existence her entire life. She was not sheltered at all by the mother who introduced her to spycraft, instead (selfishly, in my view) utilizing what we’d call now the child’s photographic memory to further her career and her cause. She is blind from an injury that left some internal thing putting pressure on her optic nerve. And to top it off, at the start of the story, she is grieving her mother, who has died some weeks before, and suffering what could at best be called burn-out and at worst actual PTSD. These circumstances strongly impact the story, particularly the second half, and yet they are revealed almost entirely through subtext and secondary characters.
At the outset of the story, Annique has been trying to fulfill the wish of her superior officer by taking certain documents to England when she is betrayed by someone she trusted. For all Annique’s capability (and it is considerable), she is 19–an old and cynical one to be sure–but not completely above the follies of youth and inexperience relative to the older, wiser, more treacherous, more deadly agents she encounters. All of this is masqueraded in her internal monologue by her real and deserved strength and confidence in herself. Annique continually prepares contingency plans for everything right from the beginning of the book, which the reader knows neither normal nor desirable and is in fact a symptom of PTSD. Unlike a lot of romance heroines, we don’t feel sorry for her because she is poor or orphaned, though she is both. We feel sorry for her because she has had to become as wily and strong and capable as she is. She does not feel sorry for herself, indeed she has not had time, nor does she seem to have been taught any regard for own life. The hero accuses her of having a death wish, but she never once thinks about suicide. She imagines simply melting away into a simpler life once she reaches England.
It is left to secondary characters and the narrator to convey the depth of grief we feel for Annique. The hero, Grey, has decades more spy experience than she does and also seems to be a good deal older (perhaps even 20 years). He continually points out both Annique’s capability and vulnerability in internal monologue and dialogue. Even more telling, his boss, the “master of all English spies”, persistently reflects on Annique’s youth and is sad for her, a sentiment that he repeats half a dozen times in the last 150 pages of the book. He laments her youth, how she was raised, that she is still being hunted by both French and English spies who want the information she possesses and that she has always been very much alone. The sentiment Annique regards as “weakness” in herself, both hero and Galba regard as perfectly normal human connection, which she has never had. They recognize as Annique does not that there is tragedy in her situation.
And even still, it is Annique who is the “hero” at the end of the book. Both the Grey and her old mentor Soulier play a part in her eventual deliverance, but theirs are supporting, not starring roles. In the moment of climax, Annique trusts Grey to go along with her story without prior arrangement between them. It represents a monumental shift from her previous behavior since the beginning of the book. She places all her hope in his hands and he honors that trust by staying the heck out of the way. Whereas before she was a “lone agent,” now she has accepted a partner. The sex, the desire, even the love and loyalty they’ve experienced together were never the issue for her. But for the entire book, she has been processing a breakdown in trust that, there in Soulier’s parlor, is redeemed.
It takes Annique and Grey the length of the book to come to terms with one another, driving the conflict right up to the brink in a move that I’m going to call Kinsale-esque. And in truly heroic fashion, Grey recognizes that he will need to free Annique for good before she will consider staying with him. Though her desires are nebulous, she has no friends and no plan, he trusts enough that at the end of the book, he sends their carriage away, gives her money and lets her go. Sort of. The last few pages are super romantic so I’ll draw the line at my spoilerization there. But I found it wholly fulfilling.
At one point in The Spymaster’s Lady, Annique has been cornered in an alleyway by one of the evildoers after her for the secret plans she carries. Even as she continues to battle, the situation is looking pretty dire when Grey, disguised as fisherman, comes to her rescue. His presence is sufficient to turn the tide of the battle and together they beat back her attackers. Afterwards, thanks to the loss her sight, Annique does not recognize him and he brings her tea and whelks there on the docks in Dover.
So. Whelks. Basically sea snails, I gather? Or maybe like…little conchs? I don’t know. I’ve never eaten them. So I thought about what else I could pair with this review and remembered my very favorite seafood recipe, a sandwich made from a different creepy, crawly sea creature, the lobster.
This recipe comes from one of my favorite food bloggers, Jessica at How Sweet It Is. The recipe is perfection all on its own and requires no modification so just go see her and drown in all her lobstery, bacony goodness.
If you want to feel all authentically dockside, wrap it in newsprint before you eat it.