The Spymaster’s Lady Lobster BLTs for 2015 TBR Challenge

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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If you want to feel all authentically dockside, wrap it in newsprint before you eat it.

 

The Spymaster's Lady Book Cover The Spymaster's Lady
Spymasters
Joanna Bourne
Historical Romance
Berkley Sensation
2008
Paperback
373
Purchased Used

3 comments

  1. I love this book. For me, Joanna Bourne ranks with only Cecilia Grant and Susanna Kearsley at the top tier of folks who are currently writing romance in terms of the quality of her writing and the sheer enjoyment that I take from her books.

    But I’ll admit that I find this and the second book in the series (My Lord and Spymaster) not as satisfying as the other three in part because of apparent contradictions in Annique’s character and Grey’s comparative staidness.

    (THE REST OF THIS IS VERY SPOILERY. YE BEEN WARNED.)

    The first half of the book–through the reveal of Annique’s blindness certainly and probably through the arrival in England–are perfect. Just perfect. My specific complaint centers on the scene in Dover in which Annique has just been attacked by the French agents and she chooses (again) a non-lethal response. I get why that’s important in terms of convincing Grey that she didn’t massacre the British agents, but it strains credulity for me that she’d spare them time and again–and that’s coming from someone who finds it squicky how laissez faire romance can be about violence.

    But if that’s not enough, she decides to travel to London with a man she doesn’t know and has no reason to trust. I just…she’s supposed to be this super spy. She, blind and unarmed, almost repeatedly takes down three of the best British agents (granted, Hawker is wounded, but still) and she throws it all in with this guy because he’s cute?

    To come at this another way, I actually read Annique’s contingency plan making as a symptom not of PTSD (from which I agree she suffers) but of her training and her spy-craft. I do agree that she’s a somewhat unreliable narrator (which is part of what Bourne does that’s just so bloody brilliant) and that as we learn about her past, we can see the moments when she was deluding herself because she couldn’t face the truth about her work as a double-agent.

    So why does she trust Robert(Grey)? It’s just a bridge too far.

    I also get frustrated with her when she goes to see Soulier at the end, particularly as I found the ultimate resolution to the plans plot to be a bit…if not obvious, because it’s perfect for who Annique is and wants to be, then something Grey or William or Galba should have suggested.

    And then Grey…he’s just sort of generic. I don’t know that he came to life for me as Annique did. Maybe I needed to hear more the conversations he had with her as Robert in which he was talking about his family? I just had no sense of his backstory really or what was important to him besides his agents (and his concern for Hawker does come through, perhaps to the omission of everything else at first). He also pales in comparison to William and Hawker who I feel as if I know.

    Look, these are quibbles in light of a book as wonderful as this one. And I agree that she’s truly the hero. But I want you to read the rest of the series because I want to know if you still think this book is as amazing once you’ve read The Forbidden Rose and The Black Hawk.

    (One thing you didn’t mention that just kills me is how good Bourne is at writing dialogue that’s rendered in English but where the characters are actually speaking French that maintains the cadences of French in English. I just can’t comprehend writing that that’s good.)

    For me, this is a B+ but only on the Joanna Bourne scale and only because TFR and TBH are A+. I feel like I’m downgrading this because it doesn’t quite achieve those heights.

    1. Two very fascinating points of view. I saw Annique like Elisabeth as a unreliable narrator, unable to fully tell us what is driving her and I loved that. I loved disconnect between the way people see her (whether they see her as ultra-competent or easily bested) and how she sees herself.

      I agree with you Emma, that Robert/Grey remains mostly an unknown. I took her fascination with Robert as a tryout for the way she wants to relate to people once everything is set and done. She wants to find someone solid, kind and generous and a respite from the horror that has been her life for the last little while. And I think taking up with Robert on the road was also camouflage.

  2. This is such a thought-provoking write-up, and makes me want to read this again, if nothing else as a perfect study in characters helping to shape a reader’s perception of another character. And how the brave, capable narration in her mind both denies and contributes to that. These are such good points. I love this book to death!
    And what fun to see the tea and (sort of) whelks!!

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