This month’s TBR Challenge these was Series Catch-Up and I am way behind on the Spymaster series by Joanna Bourne. Well, technically, I’m not behind so much as rationing them. I’ve read My Lord and Spymaster and The Spymaster’s Lady so this is my third by her. After this I have two more to go that have been written and one that’s due to come out…uh…this year I think maybe? And it’s my understanding that will be the last of this series.
Now, I’ll say that normally spy romance doesn’t particularly appeal to me. Contemporaries are the worst because it seems like authors think every intelligence officer is a Navy SEAL who runs around shooting people a la Jack Bauer. I’ve got no patience for it. I’ve just lived in DC too long and know too many people doing intelligence work. And that’s all I can say about that. But even in historical romance, where I give a lot more leeway to swashbuckling, most of the books I’ve read have annoyed me. Not these. Bourne is so crafty and subtle and clever that I’d easily put her in my top five writers of anything, never mind romance. So I was pretty sure that I would enjoy The Forbidden Rose and I did.
A prequel of sorts, albeit in the middle of the Spymaster series, Forbidden Rose introduces Marguerite de Fleurignac, French aristocrat, to William Doyle, British spy. They both appear in the previous books so seeing the origins of their relationship during the Terror of the French Revolution didn’t hold a lot of appeal for me initially. The couple has always struck me as a particularly solid and dependable one and I was afraid that knowing that going in would take too much of the mystery out of the story. It didn’t.
The main reason is Bourne’s inimitable writing style. I’ve never read anyone who includes so little of what the characters are actually thinking within the text itself. The majority of the character development occurs between the lines. There is plenty of witty dialogue and we’re firmly inside the heads of both characters, but what’s unique about Bourne is that her characters’ assumptions are wrong just as often as they’re right. They ascribe motives, make assumptions and follow paths of deduction that the reader sometimes knows (or sometimes just suspects) are incorrect, much like an actual person. It makes them incredibly unreliable narrators, even in a book like Forbidden Rose, where both characters act like grown-ups and have rational conversations about their challenges. It’s one thing to do that in a book like The Spymaster’s Lady (the first of the series) where the heroine is blind for half the book and stricken with PTSD. But to do that with two sharp, experienced, mentally healthy characters, however beleaguered by current circumstances, seems a challenge on a whole other level.
Then there’s the historical context. Since it’s set earlier than the other books, the French Revolution is still in full swing and we haven’t gotten to Napoleon yet. The potential for spoilers here is vast and I don’t want to give anything away for those who haven’t read it, but it’s full of political intrigue, daring escapes and takes full advantage of the dramatic potential of the end of the Terror. As far as I can tell, the history is exactly right with a slight twist of “who really knows what happened exactly” so the way it all turns out fit within the historical narrative as I understand it, but provides an extra level of story specific to the characters that was both suspenseful and, in some places, highly amusing.
I’m not entirely sure why one wouldn’t read this book first in the series. It’s definitely the best one I’ve read so far even though I really liked the difficult heroines of the previous books. The hero, Doyle, is just a little more vibrant in this one which took this book from an A+ to an A+++ for me. And gosh is it sexy. Really, really sexy. Plus it has the best wedding scene I think I’ve ever read in a historical romance, which should tell you something about my taste in weddings. The Forbidden Rose was an all-around hit in my book and I’m very much looking forward to reading the next one, particularly because nothing I’ve started since can hold a candle to it. So I might read The Black Hawk, the next book in the series, out of pure desperation.
Next month’s TBR Challenge theme is a Recommended Read so I am finally going to try The Sleeping Night by Barbara Samuel. Emma Barry has been after me to read this book for close to two years and I’ve owned it for nearly as long so it’s about time.
Disclosure: I am friendly with the author, but purchased The Forbidden Rose for myself.
The Spymaster Series
June 1, 2010