Joanna Bourne writes steamy historical romances involving a group of English spies operating during the Napoleonic Wars. They’re funny, smart, and tightly plotted. What’s more, she does a beautiful job of evoking unique voices for her characters, especially the odd grammar and diction of characters whose first languages aren’t English.
The first book in the series, The Spymaster’s Lady, is full of over-the-top plot twists, but the characterization is so great that you just roll with it. Well, the first twist is so beautifully done that it hooks you, and I wish I could talk about it without spoiling the lovely surprise. Everything after that reveal gets a little goofy and improbably coincidental, but by then you don’t care, because you’re sucked in to the mystery: who is this French spy, and what on earth has she done with the map of Napoleon’s invasion plans?
The second, My Lord and Spymaster, is one of my favorite books ever despite the awful title. The protagonists are shipping owners, both making their fortunes smuggling stuff past blockades. They’re very snarky and self-aware. The heroine has a huge problem: the hot guy she just met (and really likes) is probably a traitor, and what’s worse, he’s trying to frame her father for the deeds in question. In order to clear her father before he hangs, she has to prove her lover did it… only she’s starting to think maybe he didn’t, and where does that leave her?
The third one, The Forbidden Rose, is a prequel set during the French Revolution. It’s exquisite. There’s a big set piece involving underground tunnels and a prison break that’s just visceral. The characters don’t push my buttons the way the smugglers do, but objectively I’d say the book is the best written of the bunch. You could start with it.
The latest, The Black Hawk, takes everyone’s favorite supporting character, a snarky, broody, angsty dude, and gives him a properly angsty romance. I don’t recommend starting with it, since it relies on backstory from all the others, especially Rose. But oh, it’s grand when you get there.
These books are some of my favorite historical romances. They’re not about dukes and duchesses and flowing ballgowns (although those can be fun too, and I’ll talk about some authors who do them well in a later post). These are about the work that goes into planning or stopping a war: flirting with a general who’d like to kill your father, scooping a bullet out of someone while you’re kneeling in the mud, sifting through handwritten shipping schedules by candlelight.
“Is this a kissing book?” Yes. Pretty explicit.
“Which one should I read first?” Your choice: any of them except The Black Hawk.
“Is this one of those unfinished series that’s going to leave me hanging?” Bourne is working on at least one more, but each story is self-contained, and there are no cliffhangers to worry about.