Britain and France have a long history together. Okay, much of that history consists of having wars with one another. But if you look at the past as a whole, having wars is pretty much what Britain did. First, it fought at home, its various tribes jockeying for position, struggling with invaders, taking over other tribes. Then later, after it discovered sailing as a disciplined science, Britain took that fight around the world. An international hello, so to speak, but with a punch in the face, rather than a civil greeting.
So yes, Britain fought with pretty much everyone. But France still occupies a special place in the British mindset. After all, when you trade land and royalty back and forth for so long you can’t help but get to know one another, at least a little. Twined through that long familiarity and remembrance is a sense of fascination, and more than a little bit of envy. Because while the British had a strange alchemical endurance that allowed it to survive and absorb invaders
(which likely led to its decision to become an invader), the French had food, fashion, and fun.
Which is probably why the Regency period is the favourite setting for historical romances: it showcases both British military might and French style. Georgette Heyer did it first, of course, but her followers are legion. One of the newest, and most intriguing, is Joanna Bourne.
Bourne’s first novel, Her Ladyship’s Companion, came out in 1983. Then her job with the US State Department took her out of the country, and she stopped writing fiction. Over the next twenty-odd years she worked around the world, living in France and England, but also Nigeria, Iran and Saudi Arabia. When she retired, she returned to the US and took up writing again. Which was a stroke of astoundingly good luck for readers.
I first heard Bourne’s name from a friend, one who doesn’t often recommend books to me. I discovered that Bourne had two books released within six months, which is a sign that your publisher thinks you’re deserving of attention. The
Spymaster’s Lady hit stores in January of 2008, and My Lord and Spymaster in July that year. Both novels were nominated for RITA Awards, and this past July My Lord and Spymaster won the award for Best Regency Historical Romance.
The recognition doesn’t doesn’t surprise me: Bourne’s delicacy with scene and plot, her care with language, and her extraordinarily well-developed characters are all praiseworthy. But what she does best of all is create the sense of connection so highly sought after and hard to quantify: that connection between action and consequence; between hero and heroine; between the reader and the book.
I want to concetrate of the first of her two novels (since Her Ladyship’s Companion has been out of print for two decades, I figure I can call her second novel ‘the first’). The Spymaster’s Lady is set apart by more than its excellence. Unlike most Regencies, much of the action takes place in France. The heroine, Annique
Villiers, is French. The hero, Robert Grey, is English. Both of them are spies, players in the Great Game. But given who they are, and the countries they represent, only one of them can win. Thus the tension is established from the very beginning. The ‘Albion plans’, the detailed schematics for Napoleon’s invasion of
Britain, are at large. Thousands of civilian lives are at stake, on both sides of the Channel.
It’s not a game at all; it’s absolutely, deathly serious.
Annique is the Fox Cub, one of France’s best weapons in the Game. Practically raised by the French Service, she is an observer without peer. Having spent her childhood and youth on the battlefields of Europe, she thinks the British are interesting and slightly mad. She loves her country and her people, but she is not a blindly obedient patriot. She is also blessed with an eidetic memory, and holds the Albion plans in her head.
The voice of Annique — practical, wry, inwardly honest even when outwardly lying — makes The
Spymaster’s Lady an utter delight. She is unmistakenly French. Not just her in views and opinions, but in the rhythym of her language. The first half of the book takes place in France, and readers are given to understand
that the characters all speak French, that we are, in effect, reading the translation. And it is an exquisite translation in deed. I read in French enough to recognize that the meter and music of the dialogue (and interior monologue) is spot on. When the action moves to England, her voice is even more pronounced… and charming.
Robert Grey, Head of Section for the British Service, is the perfect foil for Annique. He is solid and forthright, implacable and immovable. So of course he is confounded and amazed by the mercurial Annique. He knows precisely what the body count will look like if he cannot get the Albion plans from Annique — but as a fellow spy, he also understands how deep her loyalties run. He is in awe of her abilities, and frustrated by her stubborness, and drawn to her in ways he never knew were possible.
Annique and Robert are an incredible pair: perfectly matched to complement and complete one another. But Bourne is also gifted with the ability to create wonderful secondary characters. It’s a tough thing to balance: to make minor characters real and fascinating without allowing them to take over the story. William Doyle and Adrian
Hawkhurst, two other British agents, appear in both The Spymaster’s Lady
and My Lord and Spymaster, and they are just the right mix of beguiling and retiring. But that won’t last.
Bourne has already revealed that Doyle and Hawkhurst are the stars of her next two novels. Sadly, she has also confessed that she is a slow writer. As Annique would say, that is news of a horribleness unimaginable. But it gives readers something to look forward to, and that at least, is a good thing.
Chris Szego loves these books with a love of bigness incredible.