Joanna Bourne’s highly anticipated third Spymaster novel, The Forbidden Rose, not only lives up to my expectations, it exceeds them. Bourne stepped outside the box with this series by making the latest installment a prequel instead of a linear sequel. Readers are taken back in time, to the Terror in France, to see how gruff Doyle and his partner-in-all-things, Maggie, met and fell in love.
Marguerite de Fleurignac is a former aristocrat helping smuggle people out of France and away from Robespierre’s bloody agenda. British agent William Doyle knows exactly who she is when he helps her out of a tough spot. Though they introduce themselves to one another as Maggie and Guillaume, they all-too quickly see beneath the facades and learn to rely on each other. Of course, danger lurks around every corner, perhaps from within their network of allies itself!
And what’s brilliant about The Forbidden Rose is that any reader who has been following Bourne’s work knows that a Happily Ever After is not just a lock, but a pretty darned long-term lock. So that’s one worry down. All we have to do is sit back and enjoy the journey, and Bourne’s richly crafted characterization and her beautiful prose. I swear to God, if I could ever have a love triangle with people’s writing, it would be a torrid, devastating affair between Tessa Dare’s words and Joanna Bourne’s.
Pretty much by page 24, I was grinning with admiration. “He was a handsome boy, unlike his master who was ugly as several shades of sin, in all of which he was doubtless proficient.” It was a simple description of Adrian and Doyle that made me actually want to kiss the page. And the further I got in the book, the more I wanted to start writing Bourne epic love letters. Or maybe just middle school-style notes scribbled with “Will you go out with me? Yes, no, maybe. Circle one.” I really love how Bourne not only wields her English, but also her English-as-French, always making dialectical distinctions between how Hawker, Doyle and Maggie each speak. It’s something she began in the first novel, Spymaster’s Lady, and continues to do with excellence here.
Knowing Maggie and Doyle were going to be fine didn’t take away one ounce of suspense, one ounce of investment. Instead, it provided a solid foundation amidst the whirlwind of spy games. And Bourne, who has already seeded much about Adrian’s past throughout the previous books, introduces readers to Justine, his “one that got away.” A brave, ruthless young woman with myriad secrets of her own, even at 13 she and Adrian are a perfect match. A key moment with her almost brought me to tears. Several moments nearly brought me to tears, because Bourne’s entire cast of characters is so well-drawn, and everyone has a part to play.
Sure, we can correctly surmise that Justine and Adrian’s book is coming (and thank goodness for that!), but Bourne doesn’t write her characters as if “sequel” is some big, shining, foregone conclusion. She just writes them as wonderful, bold, passionate people who have stories yet to be told. And as long as she keeps cultivating her novels with such care, such precision, the bloom won’t go off the rose.