Beauty Like the Night, the eagerly awaited sixth book in Joanna Bourne’s widely acclaimed Spymaster series, tells the story of Séverine de Cabrillac, whom we first met as a very young child caught up in the revolutionary terror of late eighteenth century Paris in The Forbidden Rose. Ten years after being brought to England by William Doyle, Sévie ran off to war where she joined Military Intelligence and gained an impressive reputation as a spy, a woman who took many names, who wore many disguises, who was always frighteningly effective. Returned to London and now in her late twenties, she operates a small investigative agency – and is still frighteningly effective. But her involvement with politics and espionage is far from over, as is shown when she becomes involved in the hunt for a murderer, a missing child… and a traitor.
Séverine’s reputation for getting results as an investigator is every bit as remarkable as her reputation as a spy. Clever, uncompromising and tenacious, she is known to never back down or be frightened off, and it’s said that once she is involved with a case, it’s as good as solved. Her name and reputation are partly responsible for leading Raoul Deverney to her bedroom late one night, when he casually requests the return of a twelve-year-old girl named Pilar, who has been missing since the murder of her mother – his wife – some three months earlier. The girl is not his daughter, but she has in her possession, an amulet, a family heirloom he is anxious to recover. Séverine knows nothing of the girl or the amulet and is, not surprisingly, rather alarmed by the sudden appearance of a man bearing a knife at her bedside. Yet nothing of this shows in her demeanour as she coolly denies all knowledge of both girl and amulet, assessing the intruder and deducing he’s either mad or deadly – quickly realising he’s not the former. Their discussion ended, he disappears into the night, but not before he has promised they will meet again – and ventured a brief touch to her cheek, which Séverine finds oddly unsettling.
Raoul Deverney is well acquainted with the name of de Cabrillac and has no doubt that the woman he encountered in Spain a decade earlier could have committed or been involved in the murder of his estranged wife. But would she be party to the kidnap of a young girl? He can’t be so sure about that. Yet his search of his late wife’s apartment revealed the words ‘amulet’ and ‘de Cabrillac’ scratched into Pilar’s bedframe – so there’s no question Séverine is involved in some way. He just has to work out how.
That first, late-night encounter between Raoul and Séverine sets the tone for their interactions throughout the story. Both are cautious, fiercely intelligent and almost terrifyingly capable; they don’t trust easily or often and find the strong attraction that sparks between them to be a major inconvenience. But it’s impossible to ignore. The sexual chemistry between the pair is delicious and understated, which makes it even better; there’s no overdone mental lusting, just a simmering attraction that builds inexorably as they join forces to investigate murder and treason.
Readers of the previous books will already know that Séverine is part of the inmost circle at the top level of British intelligence, very much one of a close-knit family united by bonds of friendship and loyalty, if not by blood. Her brother-in-law is Adrian Hawkhurst (Hawker) and her adoptive father is William Doyle, both of them incredibly shrewd, intelligent and dedicated men who do what must be done to protect England from the threats it continues to face. Some of my favourite parts of the book were the interactions between Hawker and Doyle and I loved those little touches that reminded me of how far Hawker has come from the scruffy, teenage street-urchin of The Forbidden Rose. It’s obvious that these two know each other so well that verbal communication is almost unnecessary – although Hawker’s never going to shut up so that won’t happen! – and that they would do anything for each other. It’s a wonderfully written friendship/familial relationship (they’ve always been like father and son) that gladdened my heart whenever they appeared on the page. Their relationship with Séverine is equally well-done; they are protective and want to be even more so, but recognise that she can take care of herself and would not thank them for their interference, especially when it comes to her complicated relationship with a certain handsome former freedom-fighter and possible traitor.
I liked both central characters very much. Séverine is an admirable heroine, confident in her abilities yet not oblivious to the fact that her way of life can a dangerous one, and Raoul is the sort of hero I always fall for. Intelligent, witty and coolly competent (because there’s nothing sexier than a man who knows what he’s doing!), he’s perfect for Séverine and it’s clear that theirs is a meeting of understanding as well as hearts, and that they will go through life as equals. If I have a complaint it’s that he’s probably TOO perfect – but I was so charmed by him that I really didn’t care.
The historical romance sub-genre is littered with spy stories, and some of them are very good. But then one reads a book by Joanna Bourne and the difference between ‘good’ and ‘great’ is brought into sharp focus. It’s not just that Ms. Bourne’s writing is sublime, the relationships are well-developed and the characters are attractive and well-rounded; it’s her amazing subtlety, her ability to convey things that aren’t said, and the way she imbues her characters with incredible spirit and intelligence but allows them to be vulnerable, too. Séverine is tough and capable, but she is haunted by some of the decisions she made during the war, most notably the one which ultimately led to the death of the young French officer with whom she had fallen in love. And when Raoul – who is every bit as formidable as Séverine (and possibly more so in some areas) – realises that Pilar was shamefully neglected, his wilful blindness is brought home to him and he is assailed by the guilt which ultimately drives him to find her.
The story is insightful and intelligently written, boasting an engrossing plot, a well-developed cast of secondary characters and two compelling and well-matched principals who thoroughly and obviously relish the challenge to their wits and their hearts presented by the other. It is perhaps not as high-stakes as some of the earlier books in the series, but it’s no less enjoyable for that; there are still plots to be foiled, evil-doers to be defeated and truths to be uncovered – and I was glued to the story every step of the way.
Beauty Like the Night is a great read and a terrific addition to what is easily one of the finest series of historical romance novels around. Unlike most of the earlier books in the series, this one can work as a standalone, although I think readers will get more out of it if they’re familiar with the other stories and characters – and if you haven’t read them, my advice would be to do so at once. You’re in for a rare treat.
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