Berkley Sensation, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-26082-1
Historical Romance, 2014
Unlike most people, I have never found a good reason to join Joanna Bourne’s fan club. Oh, she can write some very elegant prose if she wants to, but she is also the kind of author who can’t bear to have her heroines doing anything even a little bad. Well, that’s usually fine, as we can’t have Mary Balogh monopolizing all the virgin martyrs in the land all the time. Unfortunately, Ms Bourne likes to cast these heroines as spies, hence my constant disconnect with the author’s stories. Spies that can’t bring themselves to lie or do anything bad without giving themselves mental contortions of guilt and anguish every other page – chalk them as wretches that exist only in romance novels.
Rogue Spy features another one of those heroines, and it’s a testament to the lovely double standards of the genre that the man known as Thomas Paxton can be an assassin without having to tearfully dry hump an effigy of Jesus while begging for forgiveness every Sunday, but the woman known as Camille Leyland never gets her hands dirty except once, and that was to protect the women she’d come to see as her family. This story is fortunately painless to read because the author doesn’t overdo the heroine’s “I wish a train would run me over because I’m a worthless human being forced to these horrible, horrible things!” Like a Prayer afternoon special, and at the same time she doesn’t let the heroine try so hard to prove that she’s smarter and more capable than she actually is. After a while, I breathe easier when I realize Camille isn’t going to grate on my nerves, restart the book, and hey, the whole thing is actually quite enjoyable.
Camille and Pax are actually French sleeper agents, part of the Caché program that trained children to be spies from young and later installed them in prominent British families (after killing off the actual kids whose identities these spies would be taking over, of course). Maximilien de Robespierre was separated from his head shortly after these kids were placed with their families, and Camille never had to do anything spy-like for the French. See? Hands clean, just like Alanis Morissette would tell everyone. Instead, she learns from her aunts, cracker codebreakers of the Crown, to be very good at that art and does her part to help the beautiful motherland. Meanwhile Pax becomes an assassin for the Crown, with an impressive list of bodies in his wake as a testament to his abilities.
The story begins when Camille receives a letter informing her that the real Camille still lives – this Camille is in the clutches of the letter writer – and if our heroine wants to know more, she has better meet the writer here at this date and time. Naturally, Camille is duty-born and indebted to her “aunts” to try and save their real niece while keeping her aunts safe from the letter writer, whom she’s convinced is the former agency that ran the Caché program. She bumps into Pax, who doesn’t trust her, and one thing after another leads them to realize that they are both after the same person, so they may as well work together.
And I believe it says a lot about Camille that, when she realizes that Pax hates the man they are both after and Pax is also attracted to her, she doesn’t even once entertain the notion of twisting Pax around her finger so that she can get Pax to remove their enemy while having as little of the resulting mess sticking at her – a plan that would allow her to start a new life under a new identity painlessly. Instead, she’s all about duty to her aunts, to Pax, to the unicorns of the moon, whatever. Sigh.
Now, as I’ve said, I like this story, although that’s probably a faint praise since I opened this book expecting it to be worse. Camille and Pax do work pretty well together, although a part of me will always be disappointed that Camille never gets to do anything here that rocks the familiar “guy protects and gets hands dirty, girl does her best to look like she’s catching up when she’s actually playing the more traditional role” dynamics of the whole story. Pax says that she is dangerous, capable of anything…. and yet, she never can elude Pax or his men, and whenever she faces a sticky situation, her immediate reaction is to resign herself to the inevitable death that she is certain would befall her. There is a very noticeable disconnect between what the author has Pax tell me Camille is capable of and what she lets Camille do in this story.
Another disappointment is the romance, which is basically a diluted version of instant-lust and immediate obsession, with the big gaps in the whole arc padded with some childhood connection shared by Pax and Camille due to them being part of the same spy factory. Oh, and Pax is a virgin – which may actually have some semblance of point if he wasn’t so proficient at giving Camille orgasms and he even goes down on her like a pro. The whole “Pax is a virgin” thing seems like a gimmick for the sake of having a gimmick. Oh well.
The suspense thing goes some way in making up for the disappointing romance and the gender dynamics, but at the same time, the main characters never feel like they are genuinely in danger because the author gives them a vast safety net in the form of secondary characters in the background who are far aware and even more capable than the two lovebirds. While this doesn’t affect the story too much, it does diminish any sense of excitement that may arise from witnessing these two get themselves out of dangerous situations. In fact, the later parts of the book see the author actively trying to undo much of the dark undertones of the earlier parts of the story. Things that are supposed to be dead don’t stay dead, so things are never as bleak as the hero or the heroine imagine them to be – that kind of thing. Again, another disappointing turn of events.
Rogue Spy is a readable story, but I wish it has rocked the boat a bit more so that I would have more enthusiasm about wanting to remember this story. It has a great premise and plenty of potential, so it’s quite a shame that the story ends up swimming in safe waters instead of going places.