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REVIEW: The Spymaster’s Lady by Joanna Bourne

Dear Ms Bourne,

My blogging partner Jane and I usually have similar tastes in historical novels. Usually, I say, because we’ve been known to disagree at times. And it’s those times that I almost hate to do a review and have to say, sorry but I think this one sucked. I’m glad to say that this is a time when Jane and I agree on a book. Jane’s review lays out about as much information as a reader should probably have to not spoil the surprises and plot, so I will direct people there to learn the intricate story you tell. Makes it so much easier on me! I will now proceed with my thoughts, me.

The Spymaster's Lady by Joanna BourneI love how the book jumps right into the action. There’s no long set up or explanation of the characters but the story doesn’t need them. We learn what we need to know as we need to know it. I haven’t read it twice so can’t answer to Jane’s statement that the clues are there to be seen once the tale is known but I adore how you don’t lay the foreshadowing on like overly thick icing on a too sweet sheet cake. I hate books which are all but telegraphed ahead of time. There’s are no surprises then, no discoveries, no joy. This book is more like a French cake. Not too sweet, rich with flavor, enhanced by a strong cup of coffee.

Jane is right about the language and I would point people to this book as an example of how to do it right. Faux dialects and dialogue are among my pet peeves. Just tossing in a few foreign words here and there and trying to render an accent don’t cut it. Especially when said efforts to convey the speech of non-native English speakers comes and goes throughout the length of the story. Languages have a rhythm, as you point out when the English spies along with Annique are attempting to pass through a French checkpoint by pretending to be Germans. The grammar is different, the style is different and it takes some work to convey it properly. Thank you for making the effort.

But it’s not just the differences in speaking that work in this story. Janine is another of our bloggers here and she adores the use of the English language. The choice of adjectives, the turn of a phrase, the beauty of speech can make her wax rhapsodic. I will admit that I can usually take such things or leave them. I will admire these things but the lack of them won’t break a book for me. But oh my, I was drowning in delight in “The Spymaster’s Lady.” I was like a cat in a field of catnip.

“This tree we stand beneath,” she banged the stick against bark, “which naturally you have not been introduced to and cannot see anyway, is a beautiful cherry which was old already when I first came here. I have climbed it and stolen many cherries in my time. The whole corner smells of the fruit that fell a few weeks ago. The road you seek, the driveway to the Sisters of the Orphans, is opposite. There.” She touched his shoulder lightly, showing where she meant.


The noisy town of Dover stretched above her with its stone houses stacked one upon the other up the hill and the castle above everything. Around her, gray green water washed the pilings, splashing tiny explosions of light, spinning bubbles of silver and snow white. In baskets of fish, the scales shone in iridescent ripples.

After months of darkness, brightness assailed her on every side. Color whirled and danced around her till she was dizzy. She was drunk with it. The line of stark shadow on a white stone wall cut like a shout. A crimson dress in the doorway of a tavern dazzled. Sometimes she could barely think, her head was so full of color and shape. She was lost in this riot of light, struck dumb by the beauty of a gull hovering over a sparkle of water. Never, never would she take the light for granted.

This was to be her new country, this England.


Another battering volley. Lead hit the wallpaper and gouged holes six inches deep. The piano took a direct hit and died noisily.


Soulier waved impatiently. “Yves, put him– I do not know. I do not keep a cage for such rats in my house. Put him somewhere and watch him. The pantry. All of you go. Yes, all. Do not let him escape.”

Leblanc was dragged from the room, leaving threats behind him like the trail of a snail, departing.

Janine, really needs to read this book too. It’s a linguistic delight.

Books in which the heroine is held captive by the hero often annoy me. I don’t like it when the balance of power between hero and heroine is lopsided. Grey has Annique under his control for much of the book and at times this irritated me a little. Then I would recall, as the English spies ruefully did, that it usually took at least three of them — all top agents — to contain her. And even then they had to stay constantly alert, always on their toes in order to keep her.

Non-romance fans will point to the cover featuring a bare-chested hero and snigger. Another sex book, they’ll say with their lips curled in a superior sneer. We romance fans will be able to laugh at them as we settle in to read it. Yes, it does have sex but those scenes, often ones I skim over in other books, are as delicious as they come. Not merely two bodies banging together, coated with embarrassing adjectives and adverbs, signifying little beyond lurid prose, they are a joyful celebration and affirmation of love between two people.

There, I think I’ll stop now and let everyone who picks the book up discover just what it is they like the most about it. There’re are so many aspects from which to choose, so many delights to be found. I’m sure that some readers will read what Jane and I have written, then read the book and wonder “what are those two nattering on about?” But I believe that most will devour it, close the book and sigh with pleasure. The historical romance novel isn’t dead. A-



You can purchase this book in ebook and mass market.

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.


  1. Bev Stephans
    Jan 03, 2008 @ 15:21:33

    I’ve had this on my to-be-bought list since it was previously reviewed. I can’t wait to read it!

  2. Trish
    Jan 03, 2008 @ 16:22:41

    This book is getting sooooo much buzz. I just ordered it from Amazon. Hope it lives up to the hype!

  3. Jane
    Jan 03, 2008 @ 16:24:52

    I hope it lives up to the hype too. Julia Quinn and Eloisa James are hosting Bourne and a discussion of her books at Quinn/James’ website.

    Link here

  4. sula
    Jan 03, 2008 @ 16:34:03

    aaaarggg, the wait is killing me. I first heard about this book from the SBs, then this site reviewed it. Readers on AAR are starting to post about it. And my Borders does not have it in stock yet. Ah well, I just hope the wait will make it an even better read. :)

  5. Stephg1
    Jan 03, 2008 @ 17:52:50

    I was lucky enough to win this book and read it no savored it in hours. I couldn’t tell you how many because the writing, the characters, the atmosphere seduced me in such a way time seemed to stop while I occupied the world this wonderful new author created for me. It was as close to a perfect book that I have come across in a long time and just want to thank “Dear Author” for sending me the book and ending my reading year w/a delicious bang, I want some more!!!!

  6. Jayne
    Jan 03, 2008 @ 19:03:44

    I hope those of you still waiting for this book will enjoy it. Jane’s review had me almost afraid to read it for fear it wouldn’t work for me. From my review, you can see it worked just fine. ;)

  7. vanessa jaye
    Jan 03, 2008 @ 19:09:04

    Oh, yeah, I bought this when I bought Iron Kissed, today. ::grin::

  8. MaryKate
    Jan 03, 2008 @ 21:00:37

    I’ve run out of adjectives to describe my love of this book. It’s one of those that I finished and immediately went back to start again. It’s Bourne’s mastery of dialect that is most astounding. Her French characters speak like French people without throwing in a “ma chere” or “petite.” She even gets word order correct when she has them speak English. It’s one of the most extraordinary romances I’ve read in ages.

    The book is extraordinary. I honestly don’t know how other books are going to measure up to this book for me. But if this is indicative of how my reading year is going to go, I can hardly wait!

  9. MaryKate
    Jan 03, 2008 @ 21:01:30

    Wow – proofread much? That’s a whole lot of extraordinary. Sorry.

  10. sherry thomas
    Jan 03, 2008 @ 21:11:06

    You know what I love? When a terrific book brings out eloquent reviews.

  11. Jane
    Jan 03, 2008 @ 21:35:52

    I really think that this is one book that most people will enjoy. It is accessible but beautifully written. It has standard romance tropes but constantly surprised me.

    It goes to show that sometimes you can write inside the box and create a masterpiece.

  12. loonigrrl
    Jan 04, 2008 @ 02:32:28

    I LOVE this book. I cannot believe how well written it is. I loved the characters, their relationship, the story, the language, everything. It’s fantastic.

  13. Kristie(J)
    Jan 04, 2008 @ 06:48:57

    I bought this one based on Jane’s review. Now I’m doubly glad based on yours. Sounds like we have one of the better ones first thing in the new year – gotta love that!!

  14. Jane Harrington
    Jan 05, 2008 @ 01:18:13

    Wow, what good reviews and just think, I read the book and went nuts over it before I saw all this tonight. I absolutely loved the characters in this book, and the story is written really well. Oh, the surprises! The first one I did not expect so I went back and reread the whole beginning just to see all of the clues laid out.

    And then there were even more surprises. There are lines in this book which are classic.

    And it’s not what you expect at all. It’s better.

  15. Jane
    Jan 05, 2008 @ 15:38:19

    Jane – don’t you think that Bourne did a great job of hiding in plain sight, so to speak. When I re-read the book, I was like, of course this is the secret. She says so here, here, and here. It’s extremely clever without the author saying “look at me and how clever I am.”

  16. Jane Harrington
    Jan 05, 2008 @ 16:27:20

    Yep. I just looked over the book today and thought about all the different threads the author had and how well she weaved them through the story. The last thread she tidied up, Vauban, well, I was waiting. I thought she’s forgot, because I know the heroine does not know, and then the author pulled it out when it counted most. I know everyone is going to laugh. But I was lying on the bed and I started to kick my feet up and down like one of Bennett sisters did in the P&P film.

    I loved the part where the heroine hit the tree–(no spoilers) and waited to die.

    It came to her that she was not going to die. Or, at least, not just immediately.

  17. B
    Jan 17, 2008 @ 08:03:58

    I loved the book! I stayed up ’til 1:00 am last night to finish. It is by far the best book in this genre that I have read in a long time.

  18. Rebecca
    Mar 15, 2008 @ 21:47:16

    I have read the book and loved it. However:

    ——- SPOILER ALERT ——–

    The only quibble I have with it is Annique’s arrival in Dover (Chapter 17, specifically pages 172 – 190). It don’t wash with me (and is completely out of Annique’s character and her behavior to this point in the book) that a seasoned, clever, and preternaturally aware spy such as she would so drastically drop her guard.

    She acts like there is nothing to worry about — and I won’t buy the reason being that she has her sight back. If anything, I think that having the added information would make her more wary of her environment. She may be feeling inner joy, but she must first attend to the business of surviving and keeping several steps ahead of LeBlanc and Henri.

    In order to move the plot forward, something had to happen in Dover and Grey did have to find her again. I can think of many other scenarios that could allow Grey and Annique to meet in Dover that would not have compromised Annique’s character so.

    ——- END OF SPOILER ——-

    That said, Bourne has written a great debut that, I think, she could easily broaden into adventure fiction in the tradition of the Cornwell’s Sharpe series or O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series.

    Her economy of phrase, lack of sentimentality, absolute lack of anachronism (in all things), and finely drawn characters make this book a joy to read. There are very few books written this well.

    Indeed, if romantic historical fiction had such things as lists of exemplars of best-practice, this book would rate extremely high on a very short list.

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