Devourer of books with a preference for fiction. Quite good at competitive reading. Happily hoards books of all kinds. Gets stabby going too long without reading.
This is the fifth book in Joanna Bourne's Spymasters series, but as the books are written out of chronological order historically speaking, and some overlap (for those who HAVE read the previous books in the series, there's a really interesting blog post here explaining where the various books fit into the historical time line), it's not actually that big a deal what order you read them in. If you haven't read any of the others, Bourne herself has suggested that readers will enjoy it more if they've at least read The Black Hawk, where you are given useful back story for the hero of this novel (it's also an amazing historical romance).
From the author's website:
Ten years ago he was a boy, given the name Thomas Paxton and sent by Revolutionary France to infiltrate the British Intelligence Service. Now his sense of honour brings him back to London, alone and unarmed, to confess. But instead of facing the gallows, he's given one last impossible assignment to prove his loyalty.
Lovely, lying, former French spy Camille Leyland is dragged from her safe rural obscurity by threats and blackmail. Dusting off her spy skills, she sets out to track down a ruthless French fanatic and rescue the innocent victim he's holding - only to find an old colleague already on the case. Pax.
Old friendships turn to new love and Pax and Camille's dark secrets loom up from the past. Pax is left with the choice - go rogue from the service or lose Camille forever.
So Thomas Paxton, known to most of his friends as Pax, is a high ranking spy for the British Secret Service, but was actually trained as a child to be a deep cover spy for the French. The French trained dozens of Cachés, orphaned children and teens, indoctrinating them into following the ideals of the Revolution, and becoming secret agents, assuming the identity of dead (or murdered) British children so as to spread their agents throughout Britain. As many of the other Cachés, Pax hated the French agents who trained him, and did his best to escape the influence of his French masters quickly, by giving them irrelevant information and then disposing of his handler. At the beginning of this book, he has just confessed to his superiors in the Secret Service that he's a French spy and a traitor, and is expecting them to dispose of him.
Of course, Pax has proven himself an excellent spy for Britain, and his bosses don't really want to kill off such a useful asset. They do need him to prove himself loyal without question though, which could prove difficult as Pax recognises one of the faces from his past, another Caché agent, trained to assume the identity of Camille Leyland, niece of the two spinsters responsible for creating Britain's ciphers and cracking the codes of foreign correspondence. Camille has grown to love "the aunts" and when she is blackmailed, she goes to London to hopefully outwit and possibly murder whomever's responsible, to make sure they stay safe. Once she realises that the blackmailer actually has the real Camille Leyland and won't hesitate to kill the woman if Cami (or Verité as the Cachés named her) doesn't agree to his demands, she is forced to reevaluate her plans to make sure the Misses Layland get their real niece back safely.
Camille isn't aware that the man who is blackmailing her is a very dangerous Frenchman long believed dead. Pax recognises him and as their pasts are intertwined, much like Pax and Camille's, he vows to stop the Merchant once and for all, even if it means risking his future with the Service by disobeying direct orders. Working together with Camille for the first time since they were children, Pax discovers that he is developing feelings for his old companion, and will do anything to keep her safe.
I actually re-read The Black Hawk to remind myself of what happened with Pax and his revelations to his superiors about being a French double agent. The action of this book actually overlaps with the latter half of Bourne's first book in the series, The Spymaster's Lady as well. Hawker, hero of The Black Hawk and scene-stealing supporting character is all of the other Bourne Spymaster books, including this one, insists on helping his old friend, despite under orders to stay off active duty due to a recent gunshot wound. It's always fun to see Hawker from the many different points of view he's presented with in these books. Sadly, Pax is a bit bland in comparison. I never really cared about him as a supporting character in the other books, and while he was perfectly fine here, he didn't really wow me, so to speak.
Camille was a fun heroine, though. Bourne always writes very interesting women, who are just as capable as secret agents, if not more so, than the men. Unlike Annique, Maggie and Justine, who worked actively as spies for at least a while, Camille has not really ever actively worked in the field. She was placed in the Leyland household while she was still a child, and managed to escape the control of her French masters relatively quickly. She's lived a quiet life, using her intelligence to help her "aunts" create and crack codes, but has never been able to forget that hers is a stolen existence and one day it will be time to pay. She's willing to do what she has to in order to keep her loved ones safe, and is completely flummoxed by meeting Pax again and falling in love with him. During their joint quest to bring down the Merchant, Camille/Verité also reconnects with family she believed was lost forever. Instead of being a friendless orphan facing a possible treason charge, she has an extensive family in London, ready to fiercely stand for her.
While Pax wasn't the most charismatic of heroes, I always enjoy Bourne's stories and her beautiful way with language. She conveys foreign languages excellently, even when everyone on the page is speaking English. It was entertaining to see the established cast of spies, Doyle and Hawker included on a new adventure. As far as I can tell from Bourne's website, her next book is about Justine's little sister, who has seemed very intriguing in previous books.