The Counterfeit Mistress
Madeline Hunter’s medievals were special to me. Sadly, I haven’t found her 19th century historicals to be as strong. At first, I thought The Counterfeit Mistress was going to be a truly laughable spy story. When it turned into a decent romance and then a simple adventure, it was at least a step up, but the book just didn’t live up to my hopes. There are flashes of the old Hunter here, but on the whole I may just have to content myself with her backlist.
Marielle Lyon is smuggling prints into France, and Gavin Norwood, Viscount Kendale, thinks he knows why: he believes Marielle is a French spy. However, Marielle and Kendale are overwhelmingly attracted to each other, which prevents Kendale from turning her into the authorities. With the shared experience of past trauma and future plans for revenge in France, the two might make a good team – if they can just learn to trust each other.
This is the third book in a series, and I definitely felt like I missed something by not having read the earlier books. The biggest issue was the abrupt mutual lust: by page 35, Kendale was letting Marielle seduce him. I just can’t believe in a romance that’s 90% pre-existing condition. Later, Hunter introduces a male character – presumably the sequel bait – whom Kendale hates due to something that happened in a previous book. Hunter won’t tell us all the details, I suppose because she wants me to buy the other book. Vastly, vastly annoying.
For the first third of the book, Marielle and Kendale act like the world’s least competent spies. Marielle, who claims to be the daughter of a comte, talks about helping her father remove his boots – the duty of a servant, not an aristocratic daughter. During Marielle’s seduction, Kendale somehow fails to notice his legs being tied to a chair. A native French speaker tells Kendale that although Marielle claims to be from Provence, she speaks with a western accent. Kendale stares at him blankly until the guy gently points out that Provence is in the south. Sometimes I wondered if Hunter was writing some kind of satire on the excessive professionalism of characters like Joanna Bourne’s, who can be blinded and more effective than Kendale and Marielle.
Had the book been a full spy story, it would have been a pretty laughable D read. But it shifts tone partway through to a Regency-style courtship narrative with a few strong moments. The French emigre community showed historically accurate snobbery, and Hunter did point out how problematic it was to be a broke snob. Once I’d spent some time with Marielle and Kendale, I began to believe in the relationship, at least a little. I really appreciated Kendale’s refusal to offer marriage to Marielle without knowing what her true story and agenda were – it was the smartest thing he did during the entire book. The cameos of the heroes and heroines of previous novels were much less grating than in most books of this type (which I know is faint praise, but it’s what I’ve got.) The previous heroes, Kendale’s friends, were not particularly nice to him, but at least they had distinct (if immature) personalities. The previous heroines distinguished themselves by having complex attitudes towards Kendale, but I was irritated by how blindly loyal and trusting they were towards Marielle without doing anything to help her or defend her to Kendale.
The last third of the book is an adventure story/rescue mission, which I don’t want to describe in too much detail to avoid spoilers. I will just say that I’m back in that problem of the first third, where I can’t be sure if it feels overly simple because the author isn’t a natural adventure writer, or because maybe this is what real historical rescues were like, but we feel let down because we expect everything in fiction to exist on a grander scale. Unfortunately, the book wasn’t quite historical enough for me to credit her with the latter.
As you can probably tell, the book is disjointed. Well, I would have preferred the consistent quality of some of my favorite old Hunters, but at least that’s better than being consistent at its worst.