There has been a long delay between the release of the audio version of Ms. Bourne’s début novel, The Spymaster’s Lady, and audios of the other books in the series, but at last, we’re now able to enjoy this, the prequel to that book and can look forward to listening to the remaining books in the series as they are issued over the next few months.
The Forbidden Rose takes place several years before The Spymaster’s Lady and tells the story of William Doyle (who appears in a major secondary role in that book) and how he met his wife, Maggie, aka Marguerite de Fleurignac, daughter of an eccentric marquis.
The story opens shortly after Marguerite’s home, the Chateau de Fleurignac, has been looted and burned by radicals. Posing as a lady’s companion, she encounters two travellers – Guillaume LeBreton, a huge, mountain of a man, and his servant boy, Hawker. LeBreton – in reality William Doyle, a British spy – is well aware of Marguerite’s true identity, having travelled to Normandy in order to track down her father.
Marguerite, whom Doyle immediately nicknames Maggie, has important secrets of her own as well. She runs La Flèche, an organisation working across France to help ferry remaining aristocrats out of France and across the Channel to England. With the burning of her home, her network of contacts in disarray and threatened by the Secret Police, Maggie is anxious to get to Paris to find her father and discover whether her friends have been arrested or killed.
It’s difficult to say much more about the plot without spoilers, so suffice to say that the storyline is satisfyingly complex and Ms. Bourne vividly recreates the world of post-Revolutionary France in which danger lies around every corner. Her spies, operating without the benefit of modern technology, are people who live by their wits and cunning, much of their work being unglamorous and un-heroic. Yet they are heroic in their dedication – even Hawker, street-rat-turned-apprentice-spy, who never wavers in his loyalty towards his mentor.
Doyle is a delicious hero, completely at ease in his own skin and confident in his abilities. Not handsome in the conventional sense, he’s a man of quiet subtlety and strength, with a dry sense of humour whose sheer competence is so incredibly attractive, that it’s easy to understand why Marguerite, a level-headed and practical young woman, would lose her head (pardon the pun!) over him.
Marguerite is wonderfully “French” in her outlook and a worthy match for Doyle. Like him, she is not what she seems to be and has acquired many skills during her time as head of La Flèche. She is independent and clear-sighted, possessing a mind capable of both whimsy and great pragmatism.
We met Adrian Hawker in The Spymaster’s Lady too, and meeting him again here, as a twelve-year-old with a much older head on his shoulders, provides valuable insight into his character. Rescued from the street-gangs of London, he is a kind of apprentice to Doyle who is not only training him as a spy but more or less bringing him up, showing him what it is to be a man and a decent human being.
The romance between Doyle and Maggie is simply beautiful, full of yearning and wonder and imbued with the real sense that these are two people living on a knife-edge who know that life is precarious and could come to an end at any moment. The sexual tension between them is breathtaking:
She wanted this. It would be so easy, so natural, to take this pleasure. To let her body answer his. There was no one on earth to stop her. Except herself. Except herself.She said, “I wish . . .” I wish I could lie with you. I am afraid and alone and I would be comforted by you. She picked one drop out of the sea of what she wished and put it into words. “I wish I were the miller’s daughter and you were the farmer’s son and we could play foolish games in the stable loft. I wish you were someone I could . . .”
“Be foolish with.”
“Yes.” She sighed. “But I am not the miller’s daughter. I have never owned such simplicity. I do not live one minute without calculation.”
“Pretend I’m someone you can kiss.” His lips came down softly over hers.
The book is beautifully written throughout, full of utterly gorgeous prose and wonderfully inventive descriptions.
Tantor Audio is to be applauded for the decision to engage Kirsten Potter to narrate this and the other books in the series. She did a splendid job with The Spymaster’s Lady and it would have been difficult to imagine anyone else bringing these stories to such vibrant life. I confess that having a narrator read in one accent while performing the characters using another is not my personal preference, but Ms. Potter quickly won me over with her superbly nuanced narration and her ability to employ a variety of accents, tone, and timbre to differentiate between the French and English characters in the story.
The differentiation between the characters is very good. Doyle and Adrian are easy to tell apart, Doyle being predominantly well-spoken, his voice pitched suitably low as one would expect of such a large man, while Adrian speaks in a jauntier, (mostly) cockney-like accent at a slightly higher pitch.
Ms. Potter’s French-accented English is very good indeed and she switches between numerous characters of both sexes with great ease and fluidity. Her portrayal of Marguerite was spot on, expertly capturing her world-weariness as well as her more playful side.
I did notice a handful of mispronunciations, usually in the English dialogue or internalisations. For example, “glad” was once oddly pronounced “glarhd”, and “quay” was pronounced as it is spelled rather than as “key”, as is usual. Also, Adrian’s dialogue is often peppered with an Antipodean twang, which is a little distracting at times, although not so much so as to dim my enthusiasm for Ms. Potter’s performance overall.
There are also a few very minor production issues with what I assume are “drop-in” edits, when the pitch and resonance of Ms. Potters voice would change suddenly for a few seconds and then return to the way it had been before. I mention this because I know that some listeners like to be warned about things like this in advance, but it in no way took me out of the story or detracted from my enjoyment of the book.
The Forbidden Rose combines two wonderful elements – a thrilling and superbly written story with a truly wonderful performance from a very talented narrator. Audiobooks don’t get much better than this.
Breakdown of Grade – Narration: A and Book Content: A
Unabridged. Length – 11 hours 4 minutes
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