TBR Challenge Review: The Spymaster's Lady by Joanna Bourne

Format: Mass market paperback
Pub Date: January 2008
Publisher: Berkley (Penguin)
Length: 373 pages
FTC: Purchased at a library booksale years and years ago
Why was it in the TBR?: One of the most recommended romances of the last 5 years.

This month's TBR Challenge theme was "More Than One (An author who has more than one book in your TBR pile)." I had several likely candidates for this one. And it took me a long time to settle on which one to read. Since I've had this particular book sitting on my nightstand for about six months, I decided to find out what all of the fuss was about.

While I can see what others loved about this book, it just didn't work for me. Bourne's voice failed to resonate with me, which makes me sad because this book has enough depth to satisfy most romance and historical fiction buffs. And I hate being odd-person out when something seems to be as universally loved as this book is.

Spy romances are tricky things to pull off. Not just because of how historically problematic they are, but because a spy's very nature is to be deceptive. And since I am of the old-fashioned love = trust school, I have a difficult time getting  past the huge obstacle to a Happily Ever After that these books always have. They tend to work better for me when the spies are of the action/adventure variety rather than the intellectual/mind game ones. And, unfortunately, while there is swashbuckling to be had, the many complex lies, false personas, and layers of untruths make the romance of the book fall flat for me. As a historical fiction book, this works on the majority of levels. As a romance, this didn't work at all for me.

Reason one was the heroine. I had a very difficult time reconciling the many-faceted versions of Annique that we meet (not counting her various "cloaks" or characters she assumes). She is blind but deadly, seductive but innocent, sharp-witted but easily duped. Nothing about her character is ever the same twice, which made it difficult for me as a reader. Even when she is actively plotting her machinations, there is a distance between her actions and her thoughts. And very little insight into her emotions at all.

(It may be just my reading of the book, but Annique seemed more competent when she was blind.  When she regains her sight, she starts being easily fooled, easily caught, easily manipulated. )

As for the hero, he tends to get a little lost in the story. Not that he is weak. It's just that the book spends so much time on Annique, that Grey gets short shrift for most of the book. He's also far less interesting to me than the secondary characters. Aidan "Hawker" is an unrepentant scene stealer. He gets the best lines, really. I adored him.

" This might be the safest place in England. It still wasn't safe enough, not for what Annique was carrying. 'Leblanc has men and money. He wants her dead. How does he get to her?'
'Artillery through the front door, Prussic acid in the next shipment of coffee beans.' The knife disappeared into Hawker's sleeve. He pushed himself to his feet and started pacing the Bokhara rug. 'Satchel bomb over the wall. Cobras down the chimney. Poison darts. Tunneling in from the basement. Armed thugs at the back door. Your standard mysterious package delivery.'

No one more inventive than Hawker. 'You can't get cobras in England, for God's sake. Talk to Ferguson about the food, though. That's a possibility.'

'I know where to get cobras,' Adrian said.

'You would.'"

Despite this not really working for me the way I had hoped, I'm glad I read it. It is well written, with plenty of rich detail so often missing from today's historical romances.  I'm hopeful enough that I might try another of the Bourne books lingering in the TBR. If only to read more about Hawker.

My Grade: B-


  1. My favorite of this series was... damn, I can't remember the title. The Something Rose.

  2. Forbidden Rose; I agree, it's probably my favorite.

    1. This was written well enough that I'm going to give a different book by Bourne a try. And I know I have the Forbidden Rose in the TBR, so yea! :)

  3. I read this as part of last year's challenge, and....pretty much everything you said. I gave it a C though. A very positive C - but I had issues with Annique's inconsistency and was annoyed by the double standard (it's OK for the hero to kill people because he's a spy but Annique doesn't kill people? Really?!?!) Mostly I was glad I read it because the prose is lovely and the dialogue is really very, very good. Normally a ho-hum reaction would have me weeding out the other books in the series from my TBR - but not in this instance.

    1. In my review tardiness, I forgot that, but YES! The fact that Annique doesn't kill anyone seemed a bit ridiculous. And how much hinged on her 'kill-free' status, too. What others read as intriguing, I found annoying. Ah well. :)

      I gave it a B- mainly because I felt like my reading preferences/prejudices were at least partly responsible for why this didn't work for me. But it could easily have been a C+, too. Not much difference there.

  4. This book didn't work for me either, and actually it sent me in a whole different direction in the mystery dept. which was a good thing as I found Jonelle Patrick's Fallen Angel. jonellepatrick.com for it's info, but it's no where near this kind of story but that's what I wanted. If you want a really edgy read, there's your play!