The Black Hawk
by Joanna Bourne, historical (2011)
Berkley, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-24453-1
What do you want from Joanna Bourne's The Black Hawk? If you are readers of her previous books, you may be expecting a breathless knicker-blowing romance featuring Adrian Hawkhurst, a former nobody from the streets who eventually became the knighted Head of the British Intelligence Service. Well, if that is what you are hoping to get, you may wish to hold the candles and Emmy-winning theme song. If you are expecting a conventionally formatted love story, you may be taken aback by the number of flashback scenes here. But if you are looking for a solid story that mixes romance and convincing spy shenanigans, well, hop onboard and let's see how you will like the journey.
It's pretty hard to give a synopsis of this story, since it doesn't have a strong story that takes place in the present timeline. When the story opens, Justine DeCabrillac, our heroine and a member of France's secret police, is stabbed by an unknown assailant and collapses right at the doorstep of our hero. As Hawker takes her in and tries to save her, he also learns that someone has been collecting a series of knives that are uniquely his and using these knives to kill a number of French spies in London. Clearly, someone is trying to frame him for these murders. But who? And why? While Hawker ponders these questions, we flash back to those days of long ago when he and Justine were hardened and precocious kids on the street, who were already far wiser beyond their years as they served as spies-in-training for their respective masters. During that time, England and France were conveniently allied, but alas, what would happen when they had to work against each other?
The fact that Adrian Hawkhurst, formerly known as Adrian Hawker, goes by the moniker Black Hawk aside, much of the spy elements in this story is pretty believable. What I really like here is that Justine is allowed to hold her own political beliefs. True, Ms Bourne gives a nod to common convention by making Justine wanting to save everyone under the sun while Hawker, as a male, is allowed the privilege to be more pragmatic, but she also breaks convention a bit by allowing Justine to actually hold her own opinion about Napoleon, France's ties with England, and her role in the big picture. Many romance heroines are happy to merely echo the political beliefs of their fathers or their husbands, so it's a nice surprise to come across a heroine like Justine. This makes up for the rest of her character, which is about 85% cliché - she had been abused, so she is now tough (but still soft enough to want to save kids and kittens everywhere regardless of whether is it humanly possible to do so); she is all cold inside from what she does for a career that it takes a while for her to accept Adrian as a lover; even then, it's for that Memories to Last a Lifetime thing that every other heroine loves to do because it's so cool to be a martyr to love. Also, while Justine can do her stuff, she is never allowed to be as good as Hawker - she spends most of her time in the sickbed in the present timeline - because we can't have anything eclipse the glory of the Black Hawk, but on the bright side, she can walk the talk somewhat. Ms Bourne has a history of passing off inept heroines as capable ones, so it is a relief that Justine isn't allowed to be on her feet long enough to muck up things.
So yes, Justine is about 85% cliché, and that isn't so bad here. Justine may not be a heroine that I would remember in a week, but she is not a stale and uninspired retread of an overused stereotype either. Ms Bourne does a good job in making Justine come off as a coherent character with a distinct personality, despite the many familiar things about this character.
Hawker, like Justine, is many ways a cliché, but he is also a bit different here and there. He's everything that comes packaged in that box labeled "Spy hero in 19th century London". But like Justine, he is capable - far more capable, of course, because he is set up to be the reason why romance readers are supposed to swoon while reading this book. But unlike other heroes of his ilk, he doesn't brood or go all emo on unsuspecting passersby. Instead, he behaves exactly like a spy boss would, imagine that. He also doesn't force himself to be an alpha male. He is just this capable fellow who can kill you without breaking a sweat. This makes his unabashed emotions for Justine all the most delicious to follow. He reminds me of Mary Jo Putney's hero Lucien Fairchild - both are men who are secure in their position of power, capabilities, and masculinity that they just do their thing without trying so hard to be this ultra-arrogant oversexed cartoon character.
I'm not sure how Justine and Hawker can have a relationship that is this sanguine, as a part of me keeps thinking that, perhaps, there should be a bit more conflict about their loyalty to their countries. But it is probably a good thing that the romance goes as smoothly as it is, mostly hampered by external conflicts, because this book isn't long enough to accommodate any more conflict without falling apart. As it is, this is an actually enjoyable tale. Note that I said "tale" and not "romance" - it's hard to separate romance from the rest of the plot, because in this one, the romance is interwoven tightly with the rest of the story - the plot is the development of the relationship between Hawker and Justine over the years as they eventually come to a full circle, cleaning up the loose ends of a plot that brought them together in the first place. Along the way, there are separations, which allow Hawker and especially Justine to develop as individuals instead of one half of a destined couple. The secondary characters all play a role in this story, and any references to previous books are subtle enough to be Easter eggs for readers who have read those books without distracting readers who are new to the series.
While the identity of the villain is predictable - heck, if you have seen the movie Salt, you may have an easier time figuring out things long before the main characters get a clue - the story is engaging and even suspenseful at many places. This is all to a combination of solid pacing, insistent characterization, and elegant narrative. I'm a jaded reader of spy historical romances, because I have lost count of many times I've come across such books that have me wondering how the folks in those books even passed spy school. Here, however, the spies behave like genuine spies. They act like one, talk like one, and they mostly think like one, although Justine also occasionally dips into standard hysterical romance heroine territory when she tries to save everyone and everything even when it's simply not possible. Therefore, The Black Hawk is a very enjoyable tale. It would've been a keeper if some of the more predictable elements in the story hadn't be so... well, predictable.
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