I've always enjoyed a good spy story, but I haven't, until now, read a really GOOD one. Joanna Bourne's The Forbidden Rose was everything I wanted in a spy novel, complete with romance - the kind that (as it does in war) blossoms unexpectedly and with a desperation that, at any moment, either party could be lost.
The Forbidden Rose takes place during the French Revolution, and Bourne does not shirk from showing the ugly side of the revolution - this is no over-romanticized France. It is a land torn by war and a population ruled by fear. Marguerite de Fleurignac is the leader of a group called La Flèche (The Arrow) which transports aristocrats out of the country and across the channel. William Doyle is a British spy who is looking for Maggie's father - apparently, he has a list of people that has served as a hit list, and there is a suspicion that her father is the one behind the assassinations. Things start to get complicated when Doyle stumbles on Maggie in the ruins of her sacked and looted home. Both are suspicious of each other, but they need each other. Doyle knows she is the daughter of the man she is looking for, and Maggie knows that she will get to Paris (where she is certain someone has betrayed La Flèche) more easily with Doyle to protect her. Along the way, of course, they fall in love, though both of them take their time coming to the realization that despite the danger, they will both risk their lives to stay together.
What I loved most about this book was that the danger was always very real. Doyle and Maggie both have honed skills - Maggie from leading La Flèche, and Doyle from his years of spying - but every time there was a situation, there was always a part of me that thought that they might not get out of it this time. I never had the sense that they were superhuman, which can be a problem in some spy romances. Bourne did an excellent job of showing the thought process for figuring out the solution, step by painful step, to each obstacle in their way. They were just really good at figuring out the puzzles.
The romance side was hot, though not particularly explicit. But throughout the intimate scenes, I felt the desperation for these two lovers - they might never see each other again, and that made the discovery of the other both precious and not. Special because it might be the last, but not too precious that they took time about it. They had no time to spare! These were the kinds of love scenes that reached into my heart and gave it a hard tug.
The side characters were all from different factions, and often clashed despite their connection to Maggie and Doyle. This painted a political landscape where you didn't know where your next enemy was going to come from, and I seriously spent nearly every scene wondering if the person they were speaking to was going to betray them. I never knew who was on their side with an absolute certainty. Hawker and Owl were particularly fabulous side characters, because they're so young. The ease with which Hawker performs certain tasks adds to the darkness of the book in ways that seeing an adult do the same things just cannot do. And seeing Doyle pass on his knowledge to Hawker helped to show us that these skills Doyle has come from a natural talent, but also YEARS of experience. Bourne throws in a lot of tips from Hawker's point of view (repeating in his mind things that Doyle has told him) that gave me a new perspective on scenes I'd already read.
I started this book on a whim at school on Thursday - purchasing it from the Kindle store despite agency pricing because I'd heard so many wonderful things about it. Today I sat down to read a few more chapters in my office and ended up staying two hours later than I'd planned to finish it. I could not put it down. Aside from the excellent world-building, the language itself - especially in Maggie's point of view - was lovely and poetic. Maggie sees the world through a lens of spinning a fantastic tale thanks to her hobby of making written records of local stories. That lens took a dark, dangerous world and gave it a beauty that gave me hope for their future.
This book is an EPIC WIN for me.