by Kiersten Hallie Krum
Full disclosure: I was sent an ARC copy of Rogue Spy by Joanna Bourne (who I frequently refer to/call “Miss Jo” for no reason other than that it seems right and fitting to me to do so) with only the request to review it if I so felt inclined.
And I do.
Here be (mild) spoilers. Proceed at your own risk.
There are some books that you dive into and plow through in a messy gorge of gluttony, sucking down each word as fast as your eyes can send the message to your brain, like empty calories you can’t wait to consume over and over again. Then there are those books that you savor like a long, gourmet meal with several courses. A banquet of words whose delicious flavor lingers on your tongue long after the pages are read.
Rogue Spy is such a feast.
The Napoleonic and post-Napoleonic era are two of my personal favorite historical eras that aren’t Medieval. It’s a time rife with political intrigue as France and England deal with the complex and complicated fallout first from the horrors of the French Revolution and then from the mad rush of Napoleon’s rise and fall. The fashions are some of my favorite too as the elaborate (and, to me, ridiculous) panniers and headdresses and wigs of the 18th-century are reigned in by the austerities of the militaristic style from Napoleon’s influence.
Joanne Bourne’s novels thrive in this era. Her books are labyrinths of intrigue, deception and loyalty constantly vying for the upper hand even within the bastions of Meeks Street, the home base of Bourne’s British Secret Service. These are characters whose lives have been intertwined for decades, often without them knowing the lengths of those connections until current intrigues bring those secrets to life. Men and women of ruthless commitment who find themselves at a point where all the lies and secrets and deals and old loyalties are challenged with calamitous results. Whether French or English, Bourne’s characters are passionately patriotic (sometimes not to the expected side) and face their most conflicting crucibles when their devotion to duty wars with the demands and desires of their hearts.
Camille Leyland has lived with the Fluffy Aunts since she washed ashore as a 12-year-old waif, the lone survivor of her family’s massacre. When threats and blackmail threaten her idyllic life, she recalls the training of her youth and sets out to confront a vicious French terrorist and save the innocent whose life she stole…only to find her old friend, Thomas Paxton, already on the case. A product of the same “charm school” as Cami, Pax has spent 10 years as a ruthless assassin for the British crown…and a French spy in the belly of the secret service. Now unveiled, he’s come home to Meeks Street confession in hand to accept sentencing from the men who made him only to recognize Cami before he can get to the door and thus stray from his expected path.
In Rogue Spy, Bourne brings back her Cachés spies whose origins were deeply explored in The Black Hawk, those abandoned children brutally trained in all things English and all things murderous that they might infiltrate English secret service as sleeper agents at key social levels. With the fall of Napoleon, the Cachés children, now grown, are left to acclimate to the society to which they’ve become accustomed even as lingering zealots of the Revolution pose an ongoing threat. Pax and Cami formed a unique bond while “students” at The Coach House where they each played roles in keeping the other children alive whenever possible and at great personal risk. After ten years apart, they come together to capture Cami’s blackmailer–a man for whom Pax also has a blood debt–only for that friendship, forged in horror, to cinch into a passionate bond.
This is quite a cerebral story. Cami and Pax are constantly thinking, one reasoning the pathways of the other, their knowledge of each other so intimate and intricate, they can anticipate the other’s movement and reactions move by move. Yet for all that, they do not know one another as man and woman and the shifting of that perspective quietly and quickly rocks their worlds because these are people who do-not-have-time. The whole of the book takes places over a matter of a few days and the stakes on all sides are very, very high.
We talk about erotic romance here at Lady Smut a lot. About bare, sweaty chests and BDSM and sexual power and sexy shoes. It’s good to be reminded how much eroticism can be expressed in much less erotic language or raw depictions. How the restraint of attraction can be as arousing as its enactment.
That had been the smell of him last night. That was what she’d tasted on his skin and breathed in his mouth when he’d kissed her and she’d kissed him back. The scent that snuck past her defenses and struck wanting into her flesh. In the daylight, on this open path, in the midst of children rolling hoops and pigeons chasing bugs through the grass, madly, and stupidly, and immodestly, with great exactness and specificity, she wanted him. Her body was not wise.
This is not to say there isn’t a full course of overt passion:
Pax’s hands closed convulsively. Not by his will. Not by his intent. He couldn’t help it. Where she wasn’t soft skin, she was the slide of the thin cloth that barely wrapped her up. Her breasts grazed his chest, swift and startling. Her belly slipped across his. She was everything womanly–strength, softness, mystery. Since she was Vérité, she added a good dollop of deadly to the mixture.
He had a cockstand the size of a pine tree. You don’t think of her that way, a voice inside him said. But he did. She’s not twelve anymore. He wanted her in the most straightforward, simple, earthly way.
Pax and Cami do not have the time to pussyfoot around about their emotions and desires and they don’t need to as they’ve already such a deep understand of one another. But they’re also accustomed to making life and death decisions on the turn of a coin and so don’t waste time pretending on those rare occasions when they don’t have to pretend.
Cami: “I’m not here because of any threats you made.”
Pax: “I know. You’re here because I kissed you. It changed everything. You couldn’t walk away from that. I can’t walk away either.”
It’s refreshing in a media era that thrives on delayed gratification for romantic couples to have two characters be so baldly forward about their emotional entanglement. The delayed gratification in Rogue Spy isn’t built around if so much as when. When Pax and Cami make love, it’s absolutely an act of love, and it’s passionate and sweet and lovely because it is weighted with so much emotional fulfillment that has for so long been denied to both of them. I’m working really hard not to ruin the spoiler aspect of this moment because it rolled out so smoothly without a single anvil sighting anywhere and I want all of you, lovely readers, to be as touched and charmed by it as I was, but dayam Miss Jo.
They sat on the bed and she enjoyed every nuance of undressing him for the first time. There could be only one first time, though there would be many other times, if they lived.
“I’ll paint you naked if we both live. I’ll paint you in red silk and rose petals.”
She had never, not once, considered the possibility of being covered in rose petals. Her voice became husky. “You hollow me out until I’m full with wanting you. I can’t hold anything back. This is no light moment for me.”
“It isn’t light for me either. There’s been no one else. No one but you.” She watched him follow his own fingertips as they journeyed from her mouth, down her neck, to the pulse in the hollow of her collarbone. He said, “You hold me in the palm of your hand, Cami.”
To be told, so simply, that she had so much power. That she was the first woman he felt this for. It left her without words.
He slid her shift off, down her arms. “Let me unveil you. Let me see.”
Pax views the world through a painter’s eye, constantly choosing what image he would paint with what color and in what light to bring out the soul of the moment, which makes tactile descriptions form on the canvas of the mind.
The Fluffy Aunts are an absolute delight.
Pax ‘s interactions with fellow spies and best friends Adrian Hawkhurst (The Black Hawk) and William Doyle (The Forbidden Rose) show the steel bonds formed by their deadly work and liven the tense proceedings with the needling required from such bromances. They’d kill each other if they had to, but they’d bleed out alongside their friend for doing it too. Hawk’s a smart ass, so of course I love him, and I’m glad to see him have a secondary role in the proceedings. The brief references to his injuries and current personal predicament remind the informed reader where Rogue Spy fits in Hawk’s ongoing story and whet the appetite of the uninformed to find out what the hell he’s talking about.
My one and only complaint was the surfeit of Baldoni references. The Baldoni are an excellent addition to Bourne’s ever-expanding world, but after the first third of the book, I almost began a drinking game for every time they were name checked, but realized in time that I would then too quickly become too drunk to keep track.
Okay, one more nit pick. It’s been a while since I’ve read The Black Hawk and My Lord and Spymaster where I suspect much of Pax’s back story plays out leading up to the beginning of Rogue Spy, but I don’t remember. I could’ve used a bit more of a refresher course as to how he got to his opening predicament. His allegiance is crystal clear, but the path there less so.
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