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I've not really felt able to concentrate on anything too heavy book-wise just lately and have instead been reading light romance novels, a couple of which have proved to be surprisingly good. One of those which more than exceeded expectations was this offering from Joanna Bourne, who is an author I haven't read before. Once I got past the extremely cheesy cover complete with bare-chested hero, the book was a refreshingly entertaining read and I shall certainly be looking out for more of Ms Bourne's books in the future.
Annique Villiers is known as the Fox Cub and has been spying for the French since childhood. She's outfoxed every British agent she's ever met but now finds herself in a French prison cell awaiting torture and death at the hand of the corrupt French spy, Leblanc. Her fellow prisoners in the dungeon turn out to be the British spymaster, Robert Grey, and his wounded young co-conspirator, Adrian Hawker, and Annique finds herself helping them to also escape from the vile Leblanc. The escape plan succeeds but when Annique tries to bid the British farewell, she finds herself captured by Grey and travelling across northern France on her way to London but Leblanc is in hot pursuit and determined that Annique will die before she reveals secrets he'd rather were left unknown.
When I think of spies, it's generally in terms of such programmes as Spooks or the less realistic James Bond movies but espionage isn't a modern invention and all countries have been spying on each other for centuries and as France and England have been at war on and off since 1066, both sides have utilised men and women from both sides of the divide in the intervening millennium.
Most historical fiction set at the time of the French Revolution and written by authors of British descent tends to tell the tale from a British perspective but in this book, the reader is given the benefit of seeing matters not only from the British point of view but also from a French one as well. Annique Villiers is a young French spy who is entirely loyal to those abiding principles of the Revolution Lliberty, Fraternity and Equality, having been raised by parents at the heart of the Revolution and been used by her mother as a courier of messages since she was very young. Robert Grey, on the other hand, is a spy working for the British government intent on maintaining Britain's old order of monarchy. The author doesn't make judgements about either side and instead manages to highlight both the good and the bad in both philosophies whilst at the same time showcasing her excellent storytelling abilities.
As all the protagonists in the book are engaged in spying for one side or another, there is a fair amount of political content but this only skims the surface sufficient to explain the political situation in both countries at the time and never goes into so much depth as to be boring. The mixing of fictional and real characters from the period adds a great deal of authenticity to this novel and the author has imbued her story with an excellent sense of time and place. I don't profess to know a huge amount about Revolutionary France or its politics during that chaotic time but it really isn't necessary to know more than the bare essentials to extract enjoyment from this story. It is, after all, a romance rather than a historical treatise.
I feel that in several respects this novel has drawn quite heavily on the Scarlet Pimpernel books by Baroness Orczy especially with regard to Robert Grey who is a figure of mystery not only to his French enemies but also to most of his British compatriots, very much like Sir Percy Blakeney, although they differ in their demeanour. Whereas Sir Percy affected a foppish air, Grey is masquerading as a plain country-bred man turned soldier caught up in espionage through his time in the army. His young companion, Adrian provides an excellent foil to Grey's world-weary attitude to war, with his puppy-dog eagerness to fight the good fight in the name of Britain.
Like Adrian, Annique has been involved in espionage and battling the British since childhood and was used by her parents as a means of passing information. She has a photographic memory which has proved invaluable over the years and it's partly because of the knowledge she carries in her head about Napoleon's plans for an invasion of Britain that Leblanc is so hell bent on ensuring she never sets foot on British soil. He does, however, have an ulterior motive.
To begin with Annique comes across as something of a zealot with regard to her support of France. I'm sure, even the most patriotic Frenchman or woman must have thought that things had gone a bit too far when, after they'd finished with the aristocrats, they started chopping everybody else's heads off left, right and centre. As the book progressed, she became more open to the idea that there were other equally valid arguments to the one that she espoused. She was a curious mix of clever and devious blended with youth and innocence.
As with most romantic fiction, this is written in the third person which allows the reader to see into the thought processes of all the major players and unusually for a book of this kind, the hero and heroine are pretty complex characters and far more realistic because of their complexities.
The secondary characters are every bit as well drawn as Grey and Annique and I suspect that subsequent books may tell their stories in more depth. I'd certainly like to read more about Adrian who was a very engaging character. The only person who comes across as a bit of a cardboard cut-out is Leblanc. He's supposed to be a wily French spy but appears here to be something of a blundering idiot and it's a wonder he's managed to maintain his exalted position within the French political hierarchy without being sent to the guillotine himself.
Despite that minor quibble this is a story with lots of action and adventure and with plenty of plot twists and turns as well as having a very believable romance at its heart. Although I warmed to Grey rather more than I did to Annique, she did grow on me as the story progressed and as life-changing information is revealed to her I became more sympathetic as she grapples with the decision as to where her true loyalties should lie.
I enjoyed this book far more than I anticipated from the picture on the front or from the blurb on the back which just goes to show one should not judge a book by its cover. Having said that, I do feel that publishers of historical romantic fiction are missing a trick by displaying such blatantly sexualised cover art. People two hundred years ago simply didn't go around with their shirts open to the waist displaying their bronzed and manly six-packs, at least not in polite company. A more demure cover would be far more appealing. I also think that more people would read these books if they weren't given such cheesy titles. This is a well written book with an engaging plot and extremely well drawn characters but it isn't immediately obvious either from the cover or the title and lots of people will have a problem getting beyond that. If you can get over that barrier, you'll discover an entertaining and historically authentic novel.
This book is available in paperback from 1p plus postage and is also available in Kindle format for £4.79.