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REVIEW: My Lord and Spymaster by Joanna Bourne

Dear Ms. Bourne,

book review 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 naïve 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; instead, Sebastian comes charging in to save her. Even more distastefully, he and Lazarus then engage in a discussion about which of them "owns" Jess. Though Sebastian later denies to Jess that he thinks he owns her, somehow I didn’t believe him (maybe it was how he so often thinks "mine" in reference to Jess).

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.

~ Jennie

This book can be purchased in mass market from Amazon or Powells. No ebook format yet.

has been an avid if often frustrated romance reader for the past 15 years. In that time she's read a lot of good romances, a few great ones, and, unfortunately, a whole lot of dreck. Many of her favorite authors (Ivory, Kinsale, Gaffney, Williamson, Ibbotson) have moved onto other genres or produce new books only rarely, so she's had to expand her horizons a bit. Newer authors she enjoys include Julie Ann Long, Megan Hart and J.R. Ward, and she eagerly anticipates each new Sookie Stackhouse novel. Strong prose and characterization go a long way with her, though if they are combined with an unusual plot or setting, all the better. When she's not reading romance she can usually be found reading historical non-fiction.

21 Comments

  1. Jane
    Jun 24, 2008 @ 12:49:36

    I would have given the book a B because even though there are flaws, I found the writing to be so superior to many of the historicals out there on the market. Bourne’s books have spark; her characters are alive.

  2. Robin
    Jun 24, 2008 @ 12:53:48

    I’ve been trying to decide whether or not to write up a review of this myself, only because I am so utterly fascinated by the politics of desire in the novel. So many times I felt that the plot and characterizations were completely subsumed by Sebastian’s obsession with making Jess desire him as much as he desires her. The way he so obviously identifies that as a power Jess has over him, and his frustration at wanting her to be similarly leveled by it really engaged me, even though I don’t think it was supposed to be so much the focus of my reading attention. But still, it was, for me, the most interesting thing about the book, and something I’m *still* thinking about.

    My grade is slightly higher, a B-, but I completely agree with you about how Jess seems to be controlled by the men in the novel. What I wanted of her character wasn’t the badass little thief and spy; it was the master accountant and merchant. That Jess fascinated me, and I wanted more of her. Although I was very grateful that Jess didn’t have the same speech patterns as Annique and that the overall voice of the novel was different. Bourne is such a talented writer, IMO, that she can get away with a lot on the raw material of her gift. In so many ways I think this novel could have blown me away.

  3. Jane
    Jun 24, 2008 @ 14:32:49

    I agree with you, Robin, and Jennie, that one of the biggest weaknesses was Jess. I think that deriving Jess’ power and independence from her physical prowess was a mistake because that was quite dependent on others. By using her brain, such as the merchant/accounting genius, she did and could have made others inexorably reliant on her in ways that no one could suppress.

    The power dynamic or the mismatch of the power dynamic was the most disappointing part of the book for me.

    However, to some extent it’s like saying that the chocolate raspberry cake didn’t have enough of the gooey chocolate versus the rice cakes which were bland and tasteless.

  4. katiebabs
    Jun 24, 2008 @ 14:44:42

    I am such a Bourne fan girl. Even though I liked Spymaster’s Lady better, I really did enjoy Joanna’s second book. Jess gives Sebastian a run for his money. I love when the heroine does that to the hero.

  5. Ana
    Jun 24, 2008 @ 16:48:26

    Ditto what katiebabas said.

    I love Joanna Bourne’s prose and I love her heroines. I am not very keen on her heroes though , they are too domineering. Well, except for Adrian. I really want to read Adrian’s story.

    I also enjoyed reading about Lazarus, I too was reminded of the Fagin-Artful Dodger relationship.

    I thought the whole bit at his den was amazing up until and including the part where Bastian “sells” her back – I believed him when he said she belonged to herself.

  6. Robin
    Jun 24, 2008 @ 17:59:14

    However, to some extent it's like saying that the chocolate raspberry cake didn't have enough of the gooey chocolate versus the rice cakes which were bland and tasteless.

    So true.

  7. Jennie
    Jun 24, 2008 @ 18:42:17

    My grade is slightly higher, a B-, but I completely agree with you about how Jess seems to be controlled by the men in the novel. What I wanted of her character wasn't the badass little thief and spy; it was the master accountant and merchant. That Jess fascinated me, and I wanted more of her.

    I didn’t need her to be a badass thief (which she seemed to be; it was only that Sebastian was always one step ahead of her, which seems par for the course for a traditional romance, which this book really is in many ways). I also would’ve liked to have seen (rather than been told about) Jess’ business acumen. But I was very disappointed with the entire visit to Lazarus. Disappointed that Jess had to be rescued, disappointed that she didn’t seem to really have any great plan going in. Disappointed that Sebastian, who granted was supposed to be tough, but who didn’t know Lazarus the way Jess did, had to be the one to handle the situation.

    There were also a lot of mixed messages in that scene as to what Jess believed that Lazarus might do to her. Maybe it was just my reading of the scene, but it seemed to keep skipping around between “Lazarus might very well kill her” and “Lazarus would never hurt her.” Now I can’t remember; some of these may have been from Sebastian’s POV, now that I think of it. But I still wish Jess had been able to extricate herself from that situation, or that at least it was clearer what her plan was. Don’t give her this background as a tough street kid if you’re only going to make her helpless and useless when it counts.

    Although I was very grateful that Jess didn't have the same speech patterns as Annique and that the overall voice of the novel was different. Bourne is such a talented writer, IMO, that she can get away with a lot on the raw material of her gift. In so many ways I think this novel could have blown me away.

    I think that it’s because of her raw talent that I’ve found myself so frustrated with the two books I’ve read of hers. I’d prefer to read either of these books than a book that’s a C because it’s trite and pedestrian, but the things that I don’t like are so fundamental to my romance tastes that I can’t just overlook them. I always seem to go back to food analogies, but maybe it’s a bit like a dish that is delicious and perfect in every way except that it contains a spice you really don’t like, it a quantity so great you can’t ignore it. Maybe it doesn’t ruin the dish for you, but it definitely keeps it from being great.

  8. Bev Stephans
    Jun 24, 2008 @ 18:58:38

    I have it on order. I can’t wait to see if I agree or disagree with all of you.

  9. SarahT
    Jun 25, 2008 @ 04:39:08

    I didn’t like The Spymaster’s Lady at all, so I doubt I’ll be picking up this one. We were constantly told how clever & brave Annique was, yet we saw no evidence of it. Annique constantly had to be rescued by others and she failed to recognise Grey when she finally got her sight back. For a woman who was supposed to be so intuitive and survive on her wits, I found this seriously unbelievable.

  10. carolyn Jean
    Jun 25, 2008 @ 12:02:42

    I really got into this book. I love being in the spy world that Bourne creates, and while, intellectually, I see some of the points being made here, as well as the gripes on TSL, oh, I don’t know, I found myself thoroughly enchanted. Again!

  11. MB
    Jun 25, 2008 @ 12:57:28

    Thanks for your review.

    Victimish heroines and omniscient, controlling heroes don’t seem very “equal” to me. Nor is that the kind of happily-ever-after I aspire to.

    I much prefer reading about strong, capable, and intelligent heroines who can resolve their own problems. Like Georgette Heyer’s couples, if they can then find a man to equal them, then that is a fantasy I CAN enjoy!

  12. carolyn Jean
    Jun 25, 2008 @ 13:02:54

    Oh, I really hate victimy heroines, too. I didn’t find this heroine victimy. And the heroes aren’t omniscient – in fact, Jess unravels a mystery the heroes simply couldn’t. Bourne has spoken about different kinds of power, and in a way, different kinds of power are being wielded by different characters here.

  13. Janine
    Jun 25, 2008 @ 14:13:39

    However, to some extent it's like saying that the chocolate raspberry cake didn't have enough of the gooey chocolate versus the rice cakes which were bland and tasteless.

    I haven’t read the book but my problem with chocolate raspberry cake is that I love chocolate but hate raspberries. I always wish it didn’t have the raspberries in it.

    And that’s a pretty good metaphor for the way I felt about The Spymaster’s Lady — loved the prose and the unusual set up, but was very frustrated by the unequal power dynamics and even more so, by the way I felt Annique was presented as something that she wasn’t.

  14. Jennie
    Jun 25, 2008 @ 18:32:18

    I really got into this book. I love being in the spy world that Bourne creates, and while, intellectually, I see some of the points being made here, as well as the gripes on TSL, oh, I don't know, I found myself thoroughly enchanted. Again!

    There are certainly books that I feel that way about. I love the sometimes-maligned early Patricia Gaffney romance Lily. Sometimes I think I have sort of a tipping point beyond which I can’t be very critical of a book, because I feel, as you put it, “thoroughly enchanted”. It’s like being really, really in love – you might understand intellectually that your beloved has faults, but they don’t bother you because he’s just so dreamy!

    Obviously, I haven’t felt that way about either of Bourne’s books. I don’t think it’s just that they don’t quite make it over that tipping point into total enchantment; I think it’s specifically the flaws they possess which bother me more than they might bother another reader.

    In a way, Bourne really is hard for me to grade, because I appreciate that there is intelligence in the writing of these books, and that they aren’t rote or cookie-cutter. Considering how much I complain about rote, cookie-cutter romances and uninspired writing, it pains me to give Bourne a C. But I can only grade based on how much I liked a book as a whole – I can absolutely see why she’d be an auto-buy for other readers (and there are a few popular authors I could never say that about!).

  15. carolyn Jean
    Jun 25, 2008 @ 21:05:43

    Oh, great description of the tipping point. Like being in love. And suddenly you’re looking past the Zubaz.

  16. Dear Author Recommends for July | Dear Author: Romance Book Reviews, Author Interviews, and Commentary
    Jul 01, 2008 @ 14:21:36

    [...] My Lord and Spymaster by Joanna Bourne. Jennie’s review of this book dovetails mine only I would have given it a higher grade (a B instead of a C). Bourne’s quality of writing is superior enough that it overcomes some troublesome areas such as the imbalance of power between the hero and heroine. Even with its flaws, I think its the best of this months’ historical crop. Jess Whitby is the daughter of a shipyard titan who has been taken into custody on suspicion of treason. Sebastian Kennett is a rival sea captain who is determined to see Whitby’s father pay for the death of Sebastian’s crew members. Jess must find the real traitor and fight off Sebastian at the same time. Read more of Jennie’s review here. [...]

  17. Kim H
    Jul 07, 2008 @ 10:00:25

    I think Joanna Bourne is a truly gifted writer, but I still feel as though she hasn’t quite developed her gift into all it can be. Her story writing is among some of the best I’ve seen, and it’s always a thrill for me to see someone with her talent writing in the romance genre. That said, I think she still has a ways to go in terms of finding the right balance between those excellent plots and the romance. Part of what makes My Lord and Spymaster fall short is that the romance aspect of the story is rather weak. I agree that the balance of power between the H&H is lopsided, but I don’t believe Ms. Bourne necessarily intends it to be that way; she’s giving us background to indicate her heroine is a strong, intelligent, and infinitely capable person – we just don’t get to see any evidence to support that in her behavior. I ultimately couldn’t buy into Jess as being all the things the author tells me she was, when she needs the hero to come to her rescue every time she attempts to think or act for herself. I also found the culmination of a lot of lovely sexual tension building to be a little flat. That may be just me though:P
    I expected earth moving, fireworks, parades and brass bands marching through the bedroom, and felt the reality was only just so-so.

  18. Jennie
    Jul 07, 2008 @ 11:49:08

    That’s an interesting take – I hadn’t really seen it as a failure in Ms. Bourne’s writing that she presents Jess as strong and capable but then doesn’t have her act that way. I’ve been looking at it more as a choice by the author, to sacrifice the heroine’s strength in favor of making the hero look stronger. But you may be right.

    I dont’ remember the love scenes at all at this point, which may tell you something :-) – or it may not, because my memory for most aspects of a romance is about 36 hours at this point, and that’s true even of romances I really like. But I think at this point in my reading career, love scenes never really stand out unless I’m already quite emotionally invested in the h/h. Because of the problems I had with ML&S, I wasn’t able to achieve that level of attachment, so I doubt I had much reaction either way (though if Sebastian thought again about all he had to teach Jess, I’m sure I rolled my eyes a bit).

  19. The many pleasures of My Lord and Spymaster | salution
    Jul 20, 2008 @ 08:35:29

    [...] As is my way, this will not be a proper review. However, my esteemed colleagues Katie(babs) at Ramblings on Romance and Ana at Booksmugglers have done excellent ones. And for a thoughtful dissenting opinion, see Jennie's from Dear Author. [...]

  20. The many pleasures of My Lord and Spymaster | abortive
    Jul 20, 2008 @ 10:39:55

    [...] As is my way, this will not be a proper review. However, my esteemed colleagues Katie(babs) at Ramblings on Romance and Ana at Booksmugglers have done excellent ones. And for a thoughtful dissenting opinion, see Jennie's from Dear Author. [...]

  21. Joan Wicks
    Feb 13, 2009 @ 08:50:13

    Love, love love Joanna Bourne’s writing style. And if it wasn’t for that, I would have stopped reading half-way through when she put Tower Bridge in a Regency novel. It may seem a small thing, but historical fiction, even historical romance should at least be accurate. Neverthless, I rolled my eyes and kept reading. She has a wonderful way of writing very close third-person POV that should be a exercise for all writers. Well-done.

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