Jo Bourne’s Spymaster Series

[asa book]0425219607[/asa] You know better than to judge a book by its cover, right?

It seems to me that it has been a long time since I came across a new historical romance series that really caught my attention. It’s always wonderful to find an author who can tell a story, knows the historical period, and writes beautifully.

Jo Bourne‘s Spymaster series starts with The Spymaster’s Lady, a novel set in Napoleonic France and England.

The story centers on a young French woman (Annique) who has grown up as part of a small community of elite spies. Both her parents, all the adults in her life, live the Game (as they call what they do).  Her own career began at the tender age of ten, when her mother sent her into dangerous situations dressed as a boy. Annique  is very good at what she does. Her character is intelligent and witty and contemplative; she is also  deeply insecure and frightened when the story opens, and with good cause. She has recently lost her mother and she’s been captured by another French spy, senior to her, who has reason to wish her ill.

Annique is immediately intriguing, for her personal history and the terrible burden of secrets she carries, secrets that will cost (or save) many innocent lives. Napoleon is planning on invading England, and she has seen the document that outlines that plan in detail. When the novel opens Annique has already begun to doubt her commitment to Napoleon’s cause.  She says of him: “It is Napoleon’s passion to conquer, not to rule. There will be no peace.”

So we meet Annique when she has been locked away in the cellar of the senior spy who wishes her dead. Also there are two British spies, one of whom is badly injured. The three of them join forces to escape and then  to evade capture as they flee toward England.

I don’t want to give more away, because the plot is complex and quite cleverly put together. I will say that all of the secondary characters are carefully drawn and many of them just as interesting as the primary couple. I found myself hoping that there would be novels dedicated to a number of them.

Bourne writes beautifully. Her style is clean and still prosaic, and her dialog is pitch perfect. I am just about to start the second novel in the series; in fact, it will be what distracts me on the trip home, later today.

Mistress of the Revolution – Catherine Delors

It has been a while since I’ve written anything about the research aspect of writing historical novels, but here I am, mostly because I’m reading [asa book]0525950540[/asa] Mistress of the Revolution.

This is Catherine Delors’ first novel, and I would call it a great success. I confess I was a little worried; the French Revolution has been written about so widely that it’s not easy to capture the interest of dedicated readers of historical fiction. Delors pulls this off, because her character and story are strong enough to overcome background historical events that are – to some at least – too familiar. From her website, about this novel:

In 1815 England, an exiled Frenchwoman, Gabrielle de Monserrat, begins a memoir of her days before and during the French Revolution. Gabrielle, the youngest daughter of a family of the impoverished nobility, recalls her journey through hardships and betrayals by three men in her life.

Which sounds a great deal like other novels and plots. But wait. If you ask Delors directly, you get a much more interesting take on the novel:

My ambition became to make the French Revolution, often perceived as a confusing medley of events and characters, understandable for a reader without any scholarly knowledge of the period. I wanted to explain in an accurate manner how the chain of events led from idealism to bloodshed and international catastrophe, all through the eyes of an intelligent female witness.

And then from the first page of the novel itself:

These tidings from Paris have affected my spirits today. I never cry any more, yet feel tears choking me. I know that I must not allow myself this indulgence, for it is far easier to keep from crying than to quit. Nevertheless, over twenty years have passed since the great Revolution, and it is time for me at last to exhume my own dead and attempt to revive them, however feebly, under my pen.

These things taken together might have been enough for me to order the book, but the kicker was her resources page. Go on, have a look. Now, Lelors is a native of France and as such knew a lot about the Revolution to start with (especially as her father is a professor of history). But she knew she needed more material than what she had learned from second hand historical works and textbooks, and so she immersed herself in memoirs of the time.

[asa left]1591020093[/asa] The sheer number of available memoirs is stunning. It’s not surprising that so many people in that time and place recorded their memories, given the terrible events they lived through (or failed to live through). But these are riches for the historical novelist. I’m particularly aware of that these days as there are so few memoirs written by women who lived in my version of New-York between 1794 and 1824. I am reading one right now — Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Eighty Years & More — and it is so well written and full of excellent detail that it makes me sad that there aren’t more memoirs like this one. Reading memoirs and diaries (diaries are sometimes even better) is the closest I can get to really hearing the voices of the women who interest me.

Delors made good use of the materials available to her, and the results are quite tangible.