REVIEW: My Lord and Spymaster by Joanna Bourne
Dear Ms. Bourne,
I was enthralled with the first half of your recent book, The Spymaster’s Lady. A smart hero, a plucky (in a good way) heroine and beautiful prose had the book well on the road to being a solid A for me. Unfortunately, in the second half of the book the heroine underwent what seemed to be a radical personality transplant, becoming incredibly, implausibly naÃ¯ve and helpless. Further developments and revelations in the latter part of the story brought my grade down even further – the second half was a C (it would’ve been lower if I hadn’t still been impressed with the prose), and my grade for the book ended up averaging out to a B. A respectable grade, but one that didn’t really reflect my frustration with what felt like the sabotaging of a story that the potential to be great.
My Lord and Spymaster is loosely related to The Spymaster’s Lady; the characters of Doyle and Adrian from the earlier book both appear in the latter one. I found that their inclusion was not the only similarity the books shared; I ended up having many of the same issues with My Lord and Spymaster as I’d had with The Spymaster’s Lady.
Jess Whitby lies in wait one dark night in a sketchy neighborhood in London, hoping to waylay and pick the pockets of Sebastian Kennett, a sea captain that Jess suspects might be a notorious spy known as Cinq. Jess is compelled to try to find Cinq in order to free her father, who has been accused of being the spy.
Jess has an unusual history – she was once a child pickpocket and the favored right hand of Lazarus, a sort of underworld kingpin (more about him later). Her father, a merchant who had been arrested in France and was thus unable to prevent his young daughter from turning to a life of crime to protect and support her mother, eventually rescued Jess, and from then on her life was very different. She and her father traveled to various exotic locales for his trading business, and Jess was put under the care of a governess who tried to smooth the understandably rough edges her charge had developed.
Jess is supposedly an accounting whiz who has developed some sort of brilliant system (never described in any detail, but I doubt I would’ve understood it anyway) to keep books for her father’s company. As with the character of Annique in The Spymaster’s Lady, I was at first charmed by Jess’ voice, which reflected her dual upbringing and lent her a unique charm.
Sebastian, as it turns out, is after Cinq too – in fact, he believes Jess’ father is guilty, and wants him to pay with his life. Cinq was responsible for the sinking of one of Sebastian’s ships, which resulted in great loss of life. Sebastian has his own childhood traumas; he lived in poverty, the unwanted illegitimate son of a nobleman, until his aunt rescued him and brought him to live with her.
Jess’ plan to entrap Sebastian and search him for incriminating documents goes awry, and she is injured. Sebastian takes her to his nearby ship and seems to fall into instant lust with her, a scenario I always find a bit distasteful when the lusted-after party is hurt and vulnerable (and in Jess’ case, semi-conscious).
From there, the hero and heroine engage in a power struggle, both against each other and against their mutual attraction. At first, neither trusts the other – though Sebastian fairly quickly comes to believe that Jess has nothing to do with her father’s supposed treason. Jess suspects that Sebastian may be Cinq for the better part of the story, which makes her attraction to him hard to understand at times. As with Annique and Grey in The Spymaster’s Lady, I found, especially as the story wore on, that the hero won more and more of these power struggles, and the heroine invariably lost. That’s not a dynamic I enjoy reading about, though I guess maybe other readers do, given the frequency with which it appears in romance novels.
I also found Jess similar to Annique in a few other ways – she is portrayed as being very bright, capable and worldly from the perspectives of several of the other characters, but when it comes right down to it, she needs to be rescued by the hero every time she gets herself into trouble. In one particularly unpleasant sequence, Jess visits her old master, Lazarus, on what is clearly a very perilous and tricky mission. She hopes to find information that will help her to prove her father’s innocence. I would’ve applauded Jess’ bravery if she had negotiated the dangerous Lazarus on her own with any kind of success, but of course she doesn’t;
As with Annique, Jess seems to be a sort of "pet" to various male characters (many of the same male characters, actually) in the story. This heightened my sense that for all Jess was supposed to be bright, capable and worldly, she is in fact being condescended to as would a child who has an outsized sense of her own abilities.
Sad to say, even your unique writing voice began to wear on me a bit in this book. I can be fickle – I like a distinctive prose style, but too much of it and I get irritated. It’s like eating something rich – delicious, but better in small doses. Jess’s charming and unusual syntax would have worked better for me if it had been used more sparingly.
The lock scraped and the door opened. But it wasn’t Trevor who’d come to let her in. It was the Captain. “Are you trying to kill yourself?”
Some days it doesn’t shower luck down on you. She’d counted on having a little more time before she had to face him. “Good afternoon to you, too, Captain. Mucky weather we’re having.”
“You were on the bloody roof. Have you lost your mind?”
“There’s a school of thought that holds that opinion.” Somebody from Eaton had trotted over and told him his books had gone missing. He’d figured out she’d been on the roof. Canny as a parliament of owls, the Captain.
“It’s fifty goddamned feet up. One slip, and they’d have scraped you off the pavement into a bucket.”
“That’s a vivid bit of description. I put your books back before I left. Did they tell you?” When it started raining, she’d nipped back inside and dropped the ledgers off in a corner office, stacked on the desk in a neat tower. “Look, am I going to stand out in the rain till I get old and gray or what?”
He pulled her over the doorsill like he was taking in lobster pots. “You think this is funny? You think I’m not going to lock you up.”
“I don’t have any idea, actually. I’m disenchanted with locks, lately. Everybody ignores them.”
I like Jess’ insouciant voice in the passage above. Her unusual little phrases, such as "canny as a parliament of owls", imbue her with a vividness that is unusual in a romance heroine. Even so, after a while her voice began to irritate me a bit. I can’t quite articulate exactly why, except perhaps to say that I saw this flip persona as a defense mechanism on Jess’ part, and I kind of wanted her to let her guard at some point and stop being breezy and ironic. I also just think on a basic level it’s as I said above: a little is delicious, a lot feels too rich and cloying.
You continue to have a way with secondary characters – Adrian intrigues, as he did in The Spymaster’s Lady. Perhaps the most fascinating character is Lazarus, Jess’s childhood Fagin. Lazarus is portrayed as truly ruthless and cruel, and yet it is clear that he has a soft spot for Jess, and that during her time with him, she was more than just one of his lackeys. I’m tempted to say I’d like to see more of Lazarus in future books, but ultimately I think he’s far too morally compromised to be anything but a villain. Any attempts to dig more deeply into his character would likely require defanging him, because how do you justify a man turning young children into thieves and murderers? Still, Lazurus’ ambiguous nature made him the most interesting character in the book.
I’m left honestly not sure how to grade My Lord and Spymaster, or whether I want to continue reading your books. I fear that your sensibility is just not for me; I’ve gotten progressively pickier about what sort of male/female dynamic I like to read about in romances. I appreciate – very much – that your writing has a flair and elegance that is distressingly rare in my reading. But I’ve had my fill of victimish heroines and domineering heroes, and even sparkling prose can’t quite overcome that. I guess I will give this book a C, with the caveat that readers who enjoyed The Spymaster’s Lady and did not have issues with the hero and heroine’s characterizations will mostly likely enjoy My Lord and Spymaster much more than I did.