Whenever I'm about to start a new Joanna Bourne book, or even an oft-read book, I get this fillip of excitement. I know I'm in for a great reading experience.
I've been a fan of Bourne since her first book, The Spymaster's Lady. The romance book world was abuzz when that book was released. People felt the way I did—we were watching the launch of a legend in romance. Was it the story? The action? The plotting and pacing? The characters? The dialogue? Well, it was everything, and it dazzled us.
What I noticed first and last and always was the writing. When you read a Bourne, you realize how well-crafted her prose is. It's not just beauty and elegance of phrasing but it is the carefully chosen nuance and shades of a nuance that'll portray that particular detail layered with that particular emotion just at that perfect moment in time.
For example, look at how she reveals Pax's character in Rogue Spy:
The woman he'd been watching tossed another wide circle of crumbs and her cloak flowed like water falling. Sparrows hopped and scuttled madly left or right around her feet. He's do that lone, self-contained figure in chalks, the sweet curve of her cloak laid in burnt sienna over indigo. He'd thumb in one soft smudge of pale amber under her hood, where the plane of her cheek showed.
Bourne shows here that not only is Pax a very observant spy, but he's an artist of some skill who prefers to work in chalk. He looks at the world like it's a painting he can emulate.
What does it take to be perceived as a coachman? See in The Spymaster's Lady:
Across the courtyard, Will Doyle was playing coachman, pacing the off-side horse, a big piebald mare, in a wide circle around the inn yard, watching its gait.
Here's another example, where in one fell swoop, she reveals the character of Justine, Séverine, Maggie, and Doyle and the political climate of the story in The Black Hawk:
Her sister was well cared for. She was held within that mansion as in careful cupped hands. She was given the pretty riding habit and sleek, playful pony. Given the tutor — he had been a great scholar in France before he was broken and tossed aside by the Revolution. That was another soul Marguerite gave refuge to. Alert, dangerous veterans of the war, some missing an eye or an arm, patrolled the perimeter. Three monster dogs coursed the grounds after dark. If there were any peace and safety in the world, William Doyle folded it around his wife and the children in his house.
I find that I have to be very alert when I'm reading in order to not miss gem after such gem. And they are on every page to be discovered on the first read-through or the tenth.
Right at the very beginning of her books, Bourne launches the reader into a chaotic and agonizing scene for one of her protagonists. The stories take off with a bang and the action never lets up. Take a look at the beginnings of three of her books:
She was willing to die, of course, but she has not planned to do it so soon, or in such a prolonged and uncomfortable fashion, or at the hands of her own countrymen. —The Spymaster's Lady
The past caught up to her in the rain, in Braddy Square, six hundred yards from Meeks Street. —The Black Hawk
The end of her own particular world arrived early on a Tuesday morning, wrapped in brown paper and twine, sealed with a blog of red wax. —Rogue Spy
You immediately know something about the three heroines and the dire situations they face. They're at the end of their rope, so the only way to move forward is for them to be extremely resourceful. And the reader is thus launched into the story, dying to find out.
In the midst of all the angst of on-stage and off-stage physical and emotional action, Bourne's stories are romances, not just thrillers with love scenes. These days, it is rare to find this: love scenes that are organic—that are there because it's a natural progression in the characters' growth arc for them to be intimate, that are never of the "X number of scenes with Y positions" variety sprinkled with a liberal hand in the narrative at the expense of actual story. From The Spymaster's Lady: Lovemaking is of the mind, not a grappling of anatomies.
What was highly intriguing to me about The Spymaster's Lady and Rogue Spy is how those two storylines fit jigsaw puzzle-like with each other. Even as the first was part-way through, the latter was taking off, and the two heroes, Grey and Pax crossed each other and interacted with each other in the other's storylines. Bourne does this over and over again with her characters and other books. How in the world does she keep those tiny details straight in her head to avoid making mistakes within the books and across the books? Quite impossible to maintain such a detailed book bible.
Many times in series, characters who're going to be heroes or heroines of their stories show up in the first book as minor characters with not much happening to them. Not so with Bourne's stories. Her sequel heroes have their stories start from the very first book even if they're minor characters. So while each book is a standalone, reading the books in order makes for a far better reading experience, because it allows you to weave a rich tapestry of Bourne's world, and in her world, every tiny detail counts.
Note that the order of publication is not the order of the series, since Bourne has written books out of chronological order in her series.
I really like how she's grounds her characters and the storylines with a great concept of home for these rootless spies. Number 7 Meeks Street is their headquarters. This is where they come to confess their darkest moments and find succor. Within its walls, these assassins find peace to examine their lives and choose new directions. Galba is their taskmaster, secretive and ruthless, and yet he exerts a benevolent influence over the motley societal misfits.
From The Spymaster's Lady:
"One more thing..." Galba had become grave. He moved the inkwell upon his desk a finger's breadth to the left and stared at it, his lips compressed and twisted at the corner, as if the inkwell had blighted many hopes. "We heard of your mother's death, but not how it happened. Will you tell me?"
Her point-of-view worldview is masterful. Her characters don't slip out of, well, character. They don't see things they can't, they don't infer things that only others would know, and so on. When you're in one character's head, you're enmeshed in that character's personality, knowledge, experience, and vision.
I could go on and on about what I find fascinating about the writing and the world of Joanna Bourne's stories.
[A complete aside: May I gush on about how very much I like the cover of Rogue Spy? There's human interest, there's drama and atmosphere, there's a historical feel, there's a romance feel, it's classy and understated—just the perfect cover.]
I'm giving away one print copy of Rogue Spy to a commenter. This offer is good for U.S. and Canadian readers only. Deadline for commenting is Thursday, November 6, 2014 11:59pm Pacific Time.
Please tell me: Have you read any of Joanna Bourne's books? If so, which one is your favorite and why? If none of her books worked for you, why not?