GUEST REVIEW: The Black Hawk by Joanna Bourne
Reader Christine sent me this beautiful review of Joanna Bourne’s book, The Black Hawk, and I am honored to share it with the DA readership.
The novel “The Black Hawk” begins in 1818, six hundred yards from number saeven Meeks street where Justine, a former member of the French “Police Secrete,” long estranged from her former lover Adrian, now Head of British Secret Service, is hurrying to his headquarters to break their impasse and warn him of a deadly plot she has uncovered being woven around him. An assassin attacks and Justine has her first face to face meeting in years with Adrian while lying gravely wounded on the rug of the entryway. I say the novel begins in 1818 rather than the story, because as any follower of this author knows, Adrian and Justine’s story really “began” twenty two years before.
The greatest danger of any novel where a supporting character becomes a standout over several books and readers clamor for their story is disappointment. When their tale is finally told it is often impossible for the book to live up to what may be years of reader anticipation and expectation. It can result in a perceived triumph (Zsadist and Bella) or a letdown (Gina and Max) by its readers.
I had followed the story of “Hawker” aka Adrian Hawkhurst, not chronologically, but in the order Joanna Bourne wrote her books. First encountering him as a wry, seasoned and flirtatious 18 year old agent during “The Spymaster’s Lady,” leaping forward nine years in time in “My Lord and Spymaster” to learn more secrets of his past, enjoying his avuncular role with the heroine and his new responsibilities as head of section, to finally hurtle back in “The Forbidden Rose” to see him on his first mission in 1794 as a surly thirteen year old thief and cutthroat pressed into British Service after a botched job robbing their headquarters. Hopping about in his history like Dr. Who on the Tardis, touching down in this time or that, here and there, not fully understanding the implications of a random sentence in his “future” until offered a “later” glimpse into his past. I enjoyed myself picking up pieces of his puzzle and felt clever for sussing out the clues woven by Bourne into the novels. Bits of Justine and Adrian’s history are seeded in these books, offering tantalizing glimpses of what promised to be an epic and passionate romance begun in 1794 with two very precocious thirteen year old agents working for opposing sides during the French Revolution.
My anticipation for this novel was so great that when the parcel containing the ARC arrived at my home, I clawed it open leaving shreds of envelope in my wake as I charged up the stairs, book in hand to barricade myself in my room with this Holy Grail until I had learned all the twists and turns of their story. Whenever Joanna Bourne publishes a new novel the temptation for me is to devour the book as quickly as possible, gulping it down whole in my rush to experience it. This does her work an injustice however, as books by her are like a box of fine Laduree macaroons, not cheap junk food. They should be leisurely savored as the exquisite delicacies they are, for Bourne is a master wordsmith, able to charm, excite or break a reader’s heart with the stroke of her pen.
When I settled in to read, from the first page all my fears of disappointment melted away. This is the story I was hoping to read, and even better than imagined. While the novel begins in 1818 we don’t miss a piece of Adrian and Justine’s relationship. From 1794 on, through “flashbacks” we follow the growth of their friendship and love while they act as official adversaries but frequent allies during one of the most tumultuous periods in history.
Because of their past, this romance is more wistful than Bourne’s previous works and feels more serious. In previous books the couples’ stories evolve over a matter of weeks, not years. By allowing their relationship to mature and evolve over time, their story seems the most passionate and complete. It is also the most heartbreaking as time and circumstances serve to continually separate them. This is not to say the romance is dark or depressing, for when the two are together their sheer joy in each other’s company leaps off of the page. As Adrian observes, admiring Justine “Owl, at work was bright as the edge of a diamond, hot as fire sparks. Tonight heat glowed out of her, from wanting him. He glowed right back, wanting her.” Knowing their romance jeopardizes both of their lives they still cannot help snatching stolen moments across most of Europe while in the midst of intrigues and wars that continuously put them on opposite sides.
One of the most refreshing things about Adrian and Justine how is equal they are as a couple in almost every way, including age, experience and drive. Justine and Adrian struggle to meet in the middle on so many grounds, literally and figuratively. He is bettering himself after a ragged upbringing in the toughest part of London as a cutthroat and burglar for the “King of Thieves,” while she is striving to deal with the horrific abuse done to her after knowing only a privileged childhood as an aristocrat. He is clawing his way up from the bottom; she is struggling to survive there after a plummet from the top. Both are using their native intelligence and respective opportunities in the “game” to advance their positions in life. In so many novels the woman is the inferior to the man, trailing along in his wake and content to conform her world to his. While Justine has the misfortune to be both a woman and on the losing side of the war, she pursues her goals as ruthlessly and advances as steadily in her world as Adrian does in his. Their relationship does not culminate in her conceding or “seeing the error of her ways” as she is a true idealist for her cause, willing to sacrifice her life for a man that she sees as bringing the first sense of equality to her country. In her opinion “Napoleon was all that held France together. He was the great man of this age. He renounced the worst excesses of the Republic but kept the great gains. Because Napoleon held France, all men could vote. The Jew, the Black, the poorest peasant in the field- every one of them was French and free…The Republic had been purchased with rivers of blood. Only Napoleon could preserve it.” So often in novels the means for keeping a couple apart seems contrived and false and the characters appear foolish as a result of letting it happen. In “The Black Hawk” it seems perfectly logical throughout the book that not only their opposite sides, but their equally strong wills would keep them from finding a way to be permanently together for so many years.
Perhaps the most touching thing about Adrian and Justine’s romance is how well they know and accept each other. Justine, emotionally scarred by her abuse has allowed it to define her in her own mind. “For some things there is no lie big enough…The knowledge of what she was lay down at night to sleep beside her. Stared at her from the mirror every morning. “I was a child whore in the most fashionable and degenerate house in Europe.” “I can escape France but I cannot escape what I am.” In Adrian she finds a kindred soul who has already come to terms with the violent life he was born into and considers any escape from the narrow confines of it a triumph. The acceptance Justine sees in his eyes helps her to work through her feelings of self loathing. “His voice poured warmth over the cold inside her. He knew what she was. Knew what she had done. There was no condemnation in him. He had done terrible things, himself.” Their love affair, rather than shameful, is seen as cleansing by Justine, a kind of rebaptism, and begins initially (and quite symbolically) in the middle of a downpour. Adrian continually thinks of himself as two people, the street thief he was born and “Sir Adrian” the persona he created over years of study and work. He makes a careful division between the friends who know him as a respectable servant of the crown and those that knew him when. Adrian allows only Justine to see a part of him he has had to repave to advance in the world. When they reconnect briefly in England in their later teens Justine asks him to speak English for the first time with her but he initially refuses as “They don’t want me speaking English.” “I don’t do it right.” He quickly relents and allows Justine to hear his tentative and imperfect new “upper class” accent. Each is unafraid to show each other the parts they hide from the rest of the world. In lives that are led totally in deception they can be truly honest only with each other.
Throughout “The Black Hawk” Bourne provides so many scenes I had longed for as a reader, a glimpse into Adrian’s home life in England, Severine and Justine interacting in France and later after her adoption, Meeks Street under Adrian’s rule with new upstart apprentices (who do not react as Adrian did to a recycled barb of Carruthers), Doyle as older agent and advisor, and the close friendship that develops between former rivals Pax and Adrian. Chief amongst these joys is seeing Justine and Adrian together and through each other’s eyes.
At one point Justine’s observes a now adult Adrian, her lover, while hiding together. “His jacket fell open around him, pulled by the weight of the knives he carried in secret pockets inside. He slouched beside her. The gray waistcoat fitted his body as close as skin, showing a man of lean muscle. A tomcat of a man. A sleek imperturbable hunter. The strength of him, the danger, the coiled spring of unlikely possibilities that was Adrian Hawker – all contained within that elegance.”
Their mutual admiration for each other is based in a healthy appreciation for each other’s intellect and skill, and pride in each other’s accomplishments. While Adrian frequently remarks on how beautiful he finds Justine, he is just as impressed with her intelligence and tenacity. “Ten feet from the door he let himself look back. Owl had attached herself to that bastard Napoleon, playing guard. She was drawn up straight, all steel ready to shoot anybody who looked at Bonaparte cross-eyed. Clever Owl. Consummate professional. Nothing she didn’t see.” When Adrian figures out a complex riddle perplexing them both, Justine is just as appreciative of his mental acuity and tells him. “You are more than adequate.” He was her Hawker and he was brilliant. He was already pacing back and forth across the rugs. Thinking. Plotting. Muttering to himself. Had she not seen this a hundred times? She had never wanted him more. She said “I must leave. This will require preparation.” And because there was no one else to tell him this. “You have been clever. You are very, very clever.” Both Adrian and Justine are, and for a reader nothing is more enjoyable than reading a beautifully written story about two highly intelligent people.
I have tried to avoid spoilers for the plot as I feel any reader should be allowed to be carried along and experience the books twists and turns as breathlessly as I did, but I will say an underlying theme of this book is the manipulation of children and how they are used and/or abused by both sides of the conflict. This is something both Justine and Adrian feel keenly and work to prevent when they can. I don’t however, think it is a spoiler to say there is a clever twist I did not foresee, and that eventually everything ends happily, perfectly, but not in any way saccharinely. There are no big reunions between Justine and Adrian and couples of previous books. No gratuitous mentions of other characters are made; the only characters revisited are integral to the times and the plot. There are as always, a few oblique references that Bourne includes which never fail to make me feel clever when I catch them. (One very small one- Adrian is said to be very wealthy and among his holdings is a partial ownership in a shipping company. Any guesses who the other owners could be?)
As a reader of all of Joanna Bourne’s works, with the exception of the frustratingly elusive “Her Ladyship’s Companion,” my opinion is this is the best novel she has written and destined to be a classic in the romance genre. If you have read Joanna Bourne’s work before you know what a compliment this is, and the depths she is capable of.