The Spymaster’s Lady by Joanna Bourne (audiobook) – Narrated by Kirsten Potter


She’s braved battlefields. She’s stolen dispatches from under the noses of heads of state. She’s played the worldly courtesan, the naïve virgin, the refined British lady, even a Gypsy boy. But Annique Villiers, the elusive spy known as the Fox Cub, has finally met the one man she can’t outwit…

British spymaster Robert Grey must enter France and bring back the brilliant, beautiful-and dangerous-Fox Cub. His duty is to capture her and her secrets for England. When the two natural enemies are thrown into prison, they forge an uneasy alliance to break free. But their pact is temporary and betrayal seems inevitable as the fates of nations hang in the balance.

Rating: A- for both story and narration

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the audiobook version of this story, which was excellently narrated by Kirsten Potter. I’m not really a fan of American narrators being used to narrate stories which are set at least partly in Britain and in which the majority of the characters are British, but Ms Potter did superb job on the characterisations and accents, although she opted to read in her native accent.

I’m also not normally someone who seeks out spy plots in historical romances. I don’t actively avoid them either, and it has to be a pretty good storyline to attract me – but I’ve heard and read such good things about this particular book that I’ve had it on my TBR pile for quite a while.

Annique Villiers was put to work as a French spy when she was just a child, and over the years has acquired a reputation for efficiency and cunning which has earned her the nickname “fox cub”. At the beginning of the story, she has been captured and imprisoned along with a couple of English spies whom she later identifies as Robert Grey and Adrian Hawker. Grey is, in fact, a Head of Section for British Intelligence, a man whose ruthlessness and brilliant mind have made him a man to be feared among Britain’s enemies. Adrian’s life is in danger – he has been shot – and the three form an uneasy and reluctant alliance in order to make their escape.

This reluctance and uneasiness continues throughout the book, as Grey and Annique continually butt heads; she feels honour bound to try to escape at every opportunity, while he knows he can’t let her go because she is the key to the discovery of the Albion Plans, plans which detail the arrangements for the projected invasion of England by Napoleonic forces.

There is also the added complication of the incredibly potent sexual attraction they feel for each other which, no matter how often they tell themselves how stupid it is, just won’t go away.

The plot is intricate with lots of twists and turns, and there is a supporting cast of French and English agents, and a big twist towards the end which I didn’t see coming (but then I’m never very good at seeing things like that!)

The romance between Grey and Annique is sensual and earthy, yet Ms Bourne perfectly captures Annique’s inner conflict. She also brilliantly conveys the uncertainty of the nineteen-year-old girl who has never been in love or felt such overwhelming attraction while continuing to project the world-weary outer shell and sang-froid she has assumed as part of her defence mechanism.

Grey is delicious – a highly intelligent man of action who nonetheless finds himself utterly seduced by Annique’s cleverness and independent spirit. I particularly liked the fact that while they both admitted to the complete impropriety of their desire for each other, neither of them tried to deny it or played hard-to-get. What’s between them feels very honest and there are some truly beautiful moments between them. One that particularly stands out is something Annique tells Grey when she escapes from him at the monastery:

“Plato says that lovers are like two parts of an egg that fit together perfectly. Each half is made for the other, the single match to it. We are incomplete alone. Together, we are whole. All men are seeking that other half of themselves. Do you remember?”

“This isn’t the goddamned time to talk about Plato.”

That made her smile.

“I think you are the other half of me. It was a great mix-up in heaven. A scandal. For you there was meant to be a pretty English schoolgirl in the city of Bath and for me some fine Italian pastry cook in Palermo. But the cradles were switched somehow, and it all ended up like this … of an impossibility beyond words.”

Kirsten Potter is a narrator I’ve been aware of for some time, but this is the first of her audiobooks I’ve listened to. I already knew that she uses her own American accent to read the story, and I enjoyed her reading very much. Her voice is mellifluous and soothing and her natural accent isn’t especially pronounced, which meant I didn’t find it intrusive or out of place.

She provided all the characters with clearly defined and appropriate voices and I was especially impressed with the way she maintained the slight French accent she chose to give Annique. Her interpretations of Grey and Adrian were also very successful, although in each case, there were some mispronunciations – of both English and French words – which did stick out a bit. Her characterisation of Doyle was less successful, as was her interpretation of Grey when he was being “Robert”, the simple, West Country fisherman. In both cases, Ms Potter opted to use something less “upper-class” sounding and attempted something close to a Cockney accent, but unfortunately, the changes she made to the vowel sounds made them sound more Australian than Cockney. (I remember saying the same thing of Angela Dawe’s interpretation of Ian’s valet, Curry in The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie), although in that audio, the accent is much more pronounced and is pretty much 100% Antipodean to my ear). On the positive side, Ms Potter slips into the Aussie twang infrequently, (and avoids what I like to call the “Dick van Dyke syndrome”!) but being I’m somewhat anal about accents, once I’ve heard it, I can’t unhear it, and subsequent occurrences are all the more noticeable. But that is probably just a quirk of my ears.

I was both surprised and … not surprised that Ms Potter didn’t attempt to provide the fisherman Robert with the West Country accent that Ms Bourne mentions more than once in the text. It would be difficult enough for a British narrator to pull off while not making Robert sound too much the “country yokel”, so I can understand the narrator’s decision to leave it alone. But given it’s one of the main reasons given for the fact that Annique fails to recognise him when she reaches England, I think there should have been more of an attempt to follow the author’s instructions.

But even allowing for those negative points, this was a highly accomplished performance, and one I definitely intend to listen to again. It seems that this is the only audiobook so far produced of this series of novels by Joanna Bourne, which is a great shame, because I enjoyed the story very much and reviews indicate that the other books are of a similar quality. I thought that the relationship between Grey, Adrian and Doyle was very well written and I’d certainly like to see and hear more of them. I really hope that the other titles are given the audio treatment in the not too distant future, and that if at all possible, Ms Potter is chosen to narrate them.

Oh, and one last thing. Whoever decided to stick that Goddawful guitar power-ballad thing under the last 30 seconds or so of dialogue should be taken outside and shot. It utterly ruined the final part of the story, which wasn’t inconsequential and completely pricked my emotional balloon! Sometimes I really wonder whether the people who produce audiobooks actually LISTEN to them.


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