REVIEW: Mistress Firebrand by Donna Thorland
British Occupied Manhattan, 1777. With her witty comedies, American actress Jennifer Leighton has been packing the John Street Theater, but she longs to escape the provincial circuit for the glamour of the London stage. When the playwright General John Burgoyne visits the city, fresh from a recent success on the Continent, she seizes the opportunity to court his patronage. But her plan is foiled by British intelligence officer Severin Devere.
Severin’s mission is to keep the pleasure-loving general focused on the war effort and away from pretty young actresses. But the tables are turned when Severin himself can’t resist Jennifer Leighton.
Months later, Jenny has abandoned her dreams of stage glory and begun writing seditious plays for the Rebels under the pen name “Cornelia,” ridiculing “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne and his army and undermining the crown’s campaign to take Albany. By the time Severin meets up with Jenny once again, she is on a British hanging list, and Severin is ordered to find her and deliver her to certain death. Soon, the two are launched on a desperate journey through the wilderness, toward a future shaped by the revolution and their passion for each other.
Dear Ms. Thorland,
I’m coming to expect the unexpected from you. Not only do you set your books in the (lately) little used era of the American Revolution, but you feature plots and types of characters which/who are fresh and unique.
You don’t mollycoddle us with a lot of backstory. I initially felt I’d been dropped in on the action – much like walking into a play during the second act and trying to catch up on the action. Is this because I didn’t read the second book? Dunno but it kept me on my toes. The Widow makes another appearance and proves that women can be just as efficient and ruthless at spying as men. And just as in “The Turncoat,” spying is shown to be the distasteful business it was viewed as before James Bond made it fashionable.
I thought the story showed an even handed portrayal of the times. Not all English are evil and not all Rebels are noble patriots. They’re a mixed bag which makes them so much more believable. Readers might initially be confused by the fact that Jenny and her aunt are living in NYC which is then under British control and are currying favor with the loyalist Tories and British army officers. The fact that theater in America was viewed so differently than today was news to me. The Rebels wanted to shut down theaters? Well, who knew?
Severin is a “fix-it” man and a spy. In modern parlance, he keeps important people out of trouble and covers up any missteps they might make before those reach the headlines as well as forging a place for himself by doing what no one else will. As he has in a way always known, but which is brought brutally home to him, he will always be viewed by the British as “lesser.” In America, he sees in other marriages the possibility that he and Jenny might forge something new and all their own. Jenny’s passion is the theater and the chance that her works will be performed in the great playhouses of London.
Severin and Jenny are, in different ways, both outcasts from their families. Severin’s past is murky and clouded with whispers, scandal and questions of legitimacy. Jenny finds the prospect of settling down to married domesticity drudgery in New Bumpkin (as she and her aunt call it), New Jersey to be mind numbing. Thankfully her famous aunt, the Divine Frances, sees Jenny’s talent and saves her from all that.
Severin and Jenny begin to fall in love one magical yet dangerous night as they flee across NYC from a situation Severin shouldn’t have allowed Jenny to get into and from men trying to kill him for his part in trying to turn a Rebel spy to the Crown’s cause. Until this point, their feelings had been mainly due to their love of literature and plays and both think the other handsome.
But this night they really “see” each other. She will never be the practiced flirt able to turn men around her little finger as her Aunt can do but her charm and literary talent are for Severin a far bigger lure. Meanwhile, Jenny is finally treated as an equal – something she’s been trying for but unable to obtain in the world of the theater which believes women who sell themselves in roles must also do so in real life and where no woman can advance except with a man’s help. They also both play roles: she as an actress and he as a spy. They understand each other. Severin has also grown up around competent, capable women and thus admires this in Jenny.
With the American’s retaking NYC, Jenny and her aunt face an uncertain future. That is until Jenny’s playwriting skills collide with the need for Rebel propaganda and a new career for her is born. It’s one that feeds her desire to write and know that her words are reaching the masses yet it also earns her a place on the British “Most Wanted List of People We’d Like to Hang.”
Then John Andre appears on the scene, showing his ruthlessness and driving ambition. Ironically this further serves to drive home the point to Severin how little he matters to those for whom he faithfully did the dirty work they wanted done. His knowledge is wanted while he himself can go hang. Severin knows that Andre will stop at nothing to gain the leverage needed to advance his career and in his pursuit of the Widow, all that Severin holds dear might be at risk.
This story shows the difficulties in navigating to a new country but in a way I’ve not seen before. Spies, sure I’ve seen them, but a mixed race spy trying to discover a place between two worlds – American and British – as well as Mohawk and Colonist? That was new. Using the world of the theater was also a different way to look at the conflict and how words can shape views, rally waverers to the cause and foment rebellion.
But this is war and people are jockeying for rank, precedence, and power. We all know how petty jealousies seethe among even those on the same side. And people are also going to die. From the first book I should be used to characters I come to like and admire reaching a bad end. Here at least one could choose her own way. Severin gets a chance to display his keen intelligence and deductive reasoning as well as his manly prowess and skill with all kinds of weapons. He has the ruthless determination to win by whatever means necessary. But please tell me, what IS the phrase that was used to woo Severin’s aunt?
I liked the first book in the series, “The Turncoat,” mean to go back and read the second at some point and appreciate that each one is written to stand alone and includes tidbits of history I’d never encountered before. As each twist appears in the plot, I find that it is easy to believe in it as they fit what I know from reading historical accounts – the British condescension for most things American, the lack of opportunity for women in the theater to be anything but actresses, the common perception of actresses, the denigration of people of mixed blood and a world with no effective treatment for diseases. These are all used to shape these characters and their actions and make it simple for me to keep believing the story I’m reading. Each book only seems to be getting better and this one gets an A- from me.