Berkley Sensation, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-26952-7
Historical Romance, 2014
I first discovered this author when I read In Bed with a Spy by chance, and was blown away in the process. I bought her debut effort, The Smuggler Wore Silk, which came out before that other book, and sort of lost it in the huge mountain of unread books in my place until this month’s TBR Challenge theme – historical romance – reminded me to dig that book out.
This is, like the title suggests, a romance with some spy intrigue stuff. But let’s keep expectations to a minimum when it comes to sophisticated spy stuff, because as you shall soon see, spy realness extravaganza is not on the program.
Julian Travers is the Earl of Langford, but for the last ten years, he has been doing spy stuff for the Crown. Why? Because his daddy was a mean arse, his mother died because of him, and he couldn’t go back to his house without being haunted by OH THE ANGUISH, INSERT HEROIC SCREAM HERE angst-o-rama, so a spy it has to be. When the story opens, his cover is blown thanks to an inside mole working for the French, so his boss mandates his retirement. Julian doesn’t want to become a proper earl – because in stories such as this, all earls have to do is to get married and fornicate until an heir pops out, while the estates apparently run on their own, just like how his Parliament seat has its own self-heating mechanism – so he decides that if he catches the mole, they have no choice but to make him a spy again. Then he’ll be a winner, ding-ding-ding! He learns that a woman in his estate called Grace Hannah may be a smuggler that helps send treasonous documents to the France, so if he catches her… WINNER, DING-DING-DING! So off he goes back to meet that woman.
Grace may be close to the local former smuggler, but she’s not some bloodthirsty smuggler queen as much as she is that sweet and selfless woman with little personality other than this drive to blindly jump up to help everyone around her, even if it means putting her own life in danger. Some smuggling buddies found themselves smuggling those incriminating documents without knowing how they got into the mess, so they turn to her for help. She takes those documents with her, because burning them is clearly too sensible an action – and wonders what to do.
That’s basically the premise here. Soon, Julian will end up compromising Grace, and they have to get married, so what happens when she learns that she is suspect numbers one, two, and three on his list?
Now, this is another book spoiled by what seems like too many romance authors’ inexplicable need to have their hero be the absolute best – the best! – in the whole bloody world, only to have the hero underdeliver in that best thing ever department. Often, I’m told here that Julian is the best spy England has ever had. No, really, he is the best – T-H-E B-E-S-T, spelled out as per on the pages. And yet, Grace – a noob when it comes to these things – easily spots him following her, although it is too dark for her to see his face. I sort of expected Julian to don disguises, go undercover, that kind of thing, and yet, he just trails after Grace, acts surly around the place, and when he spots Grace talking to some smugglers, goes AH HA GOTCHU NOW, DON’T WANNA BE YOU, I AM THE WINNER. There is something very… rudimentary about the way the best spy in England is doing his thing here, and I can only wonder whether his boss is only buttering him up while trying to get him out the door without having to pay severance.
On the bright side, Grace may be some selfless ingénue, but her motivations for wanting to run around doing reckless things at night feel more real and down to earth, and hence more believable and even relatable. Also, she can carry herself just fine, and she rarely needs protection from the hero, so I can’t help liking her. However, she doesn’t have much to do here other than to react to various circumstances the plot throws at her. Grace deserves a better story so that her character can be better developed.
In addition to the overselling of his spying abilities, poor Julian is also bogged down with some baggage that feel too melodramatic to be taken seriously, especially considering that he practically ignores his responsibilities to his tenants, staff, and holdings for ten years to basically do the action hero equivalent of bawling like a baby and running away from his personal issues. He also keeps bleating repetitively about his issues, hence wearing out his welcome fast. On top of all this, his ridiculous assumption that he can be a spy again and revert to his old ways once he nabs the French spy only makes him seem simple-minded and uncharacteristically naïve for someone who is supposed to be top in the class when it comes to cunning and stratagem. So, this is one of those rare romance novels where the hero is actually the weaker link compared to the heroine.
The writing is clean and readable, I like Grace, and to be fair to Julian, I never find him particularly annoying or stupid. He’s just basic. That’s why I said earlier that authors can ruin their story considerably by claiming that their hero is the best in everything – if they can’t deliver, like the author can’t with Julian here, the poor character is never going to be taken seriously. If Julian has been a middling agent, or perhaps he has made too many mistakes and is dismissed, and this story happens as a result of his determination to prove to his superior that he can do the job, then his less-than-stellar performance as a spy can be seen as a believable, natural part of his character. But with things the way they are, the poor dear just makes me raise a brow and wonder how the British Empire manages to last this long if this guy is their best spy.