Portugal, December 1807. Jack Reid, the British agent known as the Moonflower (formerly the French agent known as the Moonflower), has been stationed in Portugal and is awaiting his new contact. He does not expect to be paired with a woman—especially not the legendary Pink Carnation.
All of Portugal believes that the royal family departed for Brazil just before the French troops marched into Lisbon. Only the English government knows that mad seventy-three-year-old Queen Maria was spirited away by a group of loyalists determined to rally a resistance. But as the French garrison scours the countryside, it’s only a matter of time before she’s found and taken.
It’s up to Jane to find her first and ensure her safety. But she has no knowledge of Portugal or the language. Though she is loath to admit it, she needs the Moonflower. Operating alone has taught her to respect her own limitations. But she knows better than to show weakness around the Moonflower—an agent with a reputation for brilliance, a tendency toward insubordination, and a history of going rogue.
It’s always a sad day when a long-running series comes to an end, especially one I’ve enjoyed as much as Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series, but I suppose all good things must come to an end. And with The Lure of the Moonflower Ms Willig has done her fans proud and brings the series to a close on a high, with a fast-moving storyline featuring the Pink Carnation herself, now working alone and undercover in Portugal.
Jane Wooliston is an intelligent and determined young woman, who has cleverly run her network of spies and agents from Paris, under the noses of the French, for several years. But everything fell apart when (in The Passion of the Purple Plumeria), her younger sister Agnes went missing in the company of a schoolmate, Lizzy Reid, and Jane and her chaperone/second-in-command, the formidable Miss Gwen had to return to England in order to find the girls. Their disappearance was linked to the Jewels of Berar which had been sent to Lizzy by her brother, Jack – who was thus the unwitting architect of Jane’s downfall and her subsequent decision to wind up her operations in Paris and go it alone as a British agent.
She is sent to Portugal in late 1807 in order to trace Queen Maria, who was supposed to have left the country with her family, but who has instead been spirited away by a break-away group of loyalists who intend to use her as a figurehead to rally resistance to Napoleon’s forces. The queen is elderly and quite, quite mad – but with French troops scouring the Portuguese countryside, time is running out and Jane must find her first and get her to a place of safety.
Having no first-hand knowledge of the country or the language, Jane is going to need help, so an agent is assigned to her, one with a reputation for unorthodox methods, insubordination, brilliance – and a history of working for both sides.
Jane’s contact – the Moonflower – is none other than Jack Reid, stepson of her former companion (information she decides to withhold) and the man she holds responsible for her current situation. He isn’t wild about the idea of being paired with a woman, and least of all the Pink Carnation herself, but he quickly realises that regardless of her experience of running missions and of intelligence gathering, Jane is out of her depth when it comes to the unpleasant realities of moving through difficult, inhospitable terrain in the depths of winter – and that she needs his help.
As they travel, Jane and Jack develop an – at first grudging – appreciation for each other’s talents and skills. Both are used to working alone, Jack literally, and Jane because as the head of her organisation, she answered only to herself; so there are adjustments to be made on both sides and I enjoyed watching their relationship progress from that initial reluctance to work with anyone else through admiration and understanding to attraction and something more.
Both protagonists are well-defined and I particularly enjoyed finally being able to get into Jane’s head given that she has been so enigmatic throughout the series. She has to learn that sometimes two heads ARE better than one, and I loved watching her growing awareness of Jack and the way she finds herself unable to maintain her customary sang-froid around him. And Jack is a delicious hero – extremely capable, slightly grumpy and down to earth, he comes to see Jane as an equal and recognises that sometimes it’s necessary for her to put herself in the firing line if they are to succeed in their mission and doesn’t come over all “I’m the man therefore I must take all the risks”. The fact that he is of mixed race (his mother was an Indian princess, his father, Colonel Reid, is a Scot) means that Jack is, as he himself says, “neither flesh nor fowl”; his parentage barred him from occupations open to the British, while also exiling him from his mother’s family. Ms Willig makes an interesting comparison between Jack’s “invisibility” because of his ethnicity and Jane’s – because she’s a woman.
I found the ending to be a little weak in terms of the espionage plot, although I did enjoy reading the beginnings of Jack’s reconciliation with his father, and the epilogue which gives us a glimpse of what lies in store for Jane and Jack as the Mr and Mrs Smith of the Napoleonic era!
In the modern day portion of the story, former grad-student Eloise is about to marry her fiancé, Colin Selwick, and on the day before the wedding, everything is completely manic. The pace is befittingly frantic and I found myself giggling frequently at the outlandish pronouncements of some of Eloise’s relatives and her own ironic asides. The inclusion of an improbable kidnapping plotline in this portion of the story was perhaps a little over the top, but it didn’t get in the way of my overall enjoyment.
It’s all too easy, when you read a book as fast-paced, engaging and funny as this, not to fully appreciate the huge amount of research that has gone into it. But making it look effortless is a great skill and one that this particular author has demonstrated time and again. While this is the final book in the series (for now, at least!) and most of the plot threads are tied up, there are a few things left hanging that Ms Willig discusses in her comprehensive and entertaining notes at the end. If she ever finds the time to return to the world of the Pink Carnation and to actually write some of the stories she mentions having ideas for, then I have no doubt of her finding an excited and very appreciative audience.