REVIEW: The Spymaster’s Lady by Joanna Bourne
Dear Ms. Bourne,
It’s taken me a while to get around to reading your debut, The Spymaster’s Lady. Back in the winter, Robin asked me if I would review it in a conversational review with her before your next book came out, and I promised that I would. When I got to reading it last week, my repsonse to The Spymaster’s Lady was far from Robin’s own experience of the book and she suggested that I convert the notes I had prepared for a conversational review into this letter instead, so that the review could stand on its own.
Readers who have not yet done so can find a plot summary for The Spymaster’s Lady in Jane’s A- review. Another opinion can be found in Jayne’s A- review. And readers should also be aware that this review will contain spoilers.
The writing in The Spymaster’s Lady is crystalline in its beauty and sharpness. The prose is just gorgeous, scintillating, and as others have noted, the French dialogue and Annique’s POV thoughts in French are absolutely spot on in capturing the cadences of the French tongue. You are a brilliant stylist, a wordsmith of the first order, and I am just in awe of your gift for language.
Therefore, I want so badly to love this book and give it my whole heart, and it is frustrating that I can’t.
My frustration centers on Annique’s character, but I don’t really dislike Annique herself. I feel that she is cute and therefore could have been endearing, but the problem I run into is that I don’t feel that her portrayal is consistent, or that she is all that she is being described as. To explain what I’m saying, I will go through my issues one by one.
First, we are told that Annique is an amazing spy, but as a good friend of mine pointed out when we discussed the book, every time Annique and Grey grapple in any way, he always gets the upper hand. When he wants to entrap her in chapter two, he succeeds (and he does it by using her thirst for water against her, as if she were a wild animal). When she tries to escape in the carriage, he stops her. When she tried to escape again (being softhearted and not wanting to kill him in the process), he knocks her away and hurts her. When he decides to drug her with opium so that she won’t attempt another escape, she does not detect the opium in her coffee, even though she’s blind and so her other senses are supposedly acute. And on it goes… He gets the upper hand every time, and puts one over on her more than once in the process.
There were a few times when Annique was able to do something that showed a bit of competence, especially toward the beginning of the book. I would get my hopes up that maybe the strong, successful spy described in everyone’s POV thoughts would materialize, but then Grey would set out to best her again, and she’d fall for his next trick. This made the feel stymied, especially in the book’s first half. By the second half, when Annique began to give away the most important state secrets she possessed to a man whom she thought was a complete stranger, I had given up my hopes that there was a brilliant female spy to be found in the pages of The Spymaster’s Lady.
Second, Annique also seems too vulnerable and innocent to me for someone who has been spying since childhood. I felt that her innocence and sense of wonder were childlike to a point where the age and power gaps between her and Grey were disturbing and made me uncomfortable at times, most especially when they were having sex.
There are places where the dialogue reinforces Annique’s extreme youth and inexperience, for example, Adrian actually says to her “Annique, you will not grow up to be big and strong if you don’t eat your vegetables” (I realize this was a witty remark, but it encapsulates the way I saw Annique). And Grey says, “You’re not a child, Annique. Stop acting like one.” Adrian calls her “Ma pauvre” and Grey, “My little halibut.” To me these sound like the kinds of things parents say to children. It made me feel that the heroine was being infantilized.
Third, I feel that Annique’s virginity is very improbable given how she makes her living. When Grey realizes that she doesn’t have much sexual experience, he has this thought:
How many men, Annique? Not many, I’ll bet. Did your masters keep you unawakened so you could play the boy more convincingly? Their mistake. It left her vulnerable. Achingly, ignorantly vulnerable. He’d use that against her, sooner or later.
It’s that “Achingly, ignorantly vulnerable” that I have a problem with in a character who is said to be a super-competent spy. And I also don’t understand why staying a virgin would make it easier for Annique to act the part of a boy. It’s my opinion that one is either a good actor, or a bad actor. I don’t see how sexual experience or lack thereof makes a difference.
Since I don’t feel that it’s a logical motive to keep a spy a virgin, especially when she already knows how to act the part of a courtesan and could no doubt glean important secrets through sex, I feel that the real reason for Annique’s virginity is to telegraph to readers that despite her being a French spy, Annique is a good girl and pure of heart. And using a heroine’s sexual ignorance to show that she is virtuous is admittedly not my favorite trope in romance.
I felt that the virginity=virtue trope was reinforced by the way Grey at first thought of Annique as both evil and a whore, and even tried to dress her in a whore’s clothing until he came to the realization that she was not an evil killer and not sexually experienced. The two realizations coincided with one another and came at the same point in the story.
This reminded me a bit of some of the romances from the 1970s and 1980s, like Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower, where the hero thinks the heroine is a whore and treats her badly until he finds physical proof of her virginity. I am glad that Grey did not go that far, but he did treat Annique coldly at first and his realization that she was neither sexually experienced not evil came on the heels of a scene in which they come close to loveless sex, so I was very strongly reminded of this “whore or virgin” trope.
A fourth reason why Annique’s character does not work so well for me is that she is a paragon. Vulnerable, brave, supposedly smart and said to excel at her job, brilliant at memorization, virginal, pure and gallant — not a personality flaw in sight. Nothing to give her a shade of gray. And that, especially when combined with her improbable virginity, makes her less than believable for me, and harder to relate to.
A fifth problem I had with the book was not in Annique herself but in the British spies’ reactions to Annique. Not only was she a paragon, but I kept feeling I was being told (in the hero and his friends’ thoughts and dialogue) what a paragon she was. How clever, how brave, how good, how expert a spy.
The hero and the secondary characters’ going on about Annique’s virtues made me feel that I was being told how to interpret Annique’s character. In other words, it felt heavy-handed. And since I did not agree with their assessment of Annique as a great spy, the feeling that I was constantly being told that she was something that she wasn’t was extremely frustrating to me.
There were times when other things felt heavy-handed to me as well, for example, there’s a conversation between Grey and his men when he tells them that Annique was in Bruges when some of their fellow spies died. Adrian and Doyle start recapping who died there, who they served with in the past, and how it was supposed to be an easy exchange of the Albion plans for the gold. But I saw no reason for Adrian and Doyle to be telling Grey that — he’s the section head spymaster, so he already knows all this. Which makes me feel like the information is there only for readers, and not because it is a natural subject matter for the characters.
Something else that felt heavy-handed to me was Annique’s admiration for the English spies. It was like the mirror image of their admiration for her, and those were places where I felt that rather than being left the room to interpret the characters of Grey, Doyle and Adrian for myself, I was being told what to think of them.
And that brings me to another topic, which is that the way entire British Service behaved around Annique seemed out of character for spies and interrogators who needed the information she held so badly.
In a nutshell, my problems with The Spymaster’s Lady all come down to the issue of believability. Spying is a rather ruthless and dirty business, and that was not reflected in the book, at least, not to my satisfaction.
I had difficulty suspending disbelief and that’s where I feel that I needed more — more competence from Annique, whose ineptitude only grew in the book’s second half, more ruthlessness and shades of gray from all the characters, more showing and less telling me (via the chorus of Annique’s admirers) what to think and feel. One of the things I look for in a book is room for interpretation, a place for my own imagination to connect with the characters, and for all the gorgeous writing, I don’t feel that I got that here.
At this point I have reached page 311 (chapter thirty-three), but the more I read, the more frustrated I grow. I don’t think I’d have made it this far if not for my original commitment to Robin. I’ve now read well over four-fifths of the book, so I could force myself to finish, but then I’d have to grade it, and there is simply no grade I could give The Spymaster’s Lady that would be reflective of both my appreciation of the beauty of the language, and my growing frustration that I did not find this book believable, realistic, or convincing. The more I read, the more the latter overshadows the former, and so, I think it best that I stop here. DNF.