Before embarking on a review, Miss Bates experiences a hollowness: fear that fingers to keyboard will produce, to quote Lucretius, “nihilo ex nihilo.” Thus Devlyn’s latest A Lady’s Secret Weapon echoes Miss Bates’s reviewing fears: characters on the edge, whose lives are out of control, emotions at the boiling point, who’ve come to the end of something and don’t know where to go next. Characters whose dedication to a cause has cost them everything. A hero whose licentiousness (love this word!) … for once! … makes sense: for king and country, he seduced, coaxed, and manipulated women into bed to glean information to keep Napoleon from English shores. Dissolute, jaded, heroic, at the mercy of the demon alcohol, Devlyn’s male characters, especially her heroes, in this case, Ethan deBeau, Lord Danforth, flirt with “nihilo,” having assumed so many guises and disguises they don’t know who they are and, of what they do know, don’t much like. There is endearing poignancy and pathos to Ethan and Sydney, our Goddess-Artemis-of-a-heroine. Their quandaries over national security and their reckless-of-the -danger-to-themselves urge to protect the innocent and harbor the vulnerable render them sympathetic to the reader who happily flashes pages on the e-reader. The romantic impetus, however, is secondary, lovely when it arrives, but not the primary raison d’être of Devlyn’s hybrid historical+thriller+romance novel.
Miss Bates loved the way in which Devlyn wove unsolved mysteries and unanswered questions into Checkmate, My Lord (check it out 😉 ) and followed that with more of the same in A Lady’s Secret Weapon. She’s not writing a series per se, but complete and satisfying novels, whose characters recur purposefully in later volumes. There’s no sequel-baiting, but psychologically believable situations and mysteries that the reader wishes resolved. There are narrative threads that carry over because they make sense and arouse the reader’s curiosity through characterization. Devlyn gives you revelations that have you riveted and then promptly and cleverly sets up new mysteries that make you squirmy for the next book. Clever girl. Or maybe it’s that Devlyn makes you really really care about her characters and you’d gladly follow them down a dark alley to their next assignment. No matter which of these writerly tricks is at play here, you’re hooked. Miss Bates certainly is. She does recommend that you read the previous books to enjoy the full effect of this one …. even if you don’t, you’ll still enjoy this one. With one caveat, like Willig’s Pink Carnation series, the author is more and more enamoured of the intrigue and less and less absorbed by romance. Unlike Willig, there’s more delicious angst. Devlyn’s also better than Bourne at pulling-at-the-reader’s-heartstrings; for Miss Bates, there’s a coolness to Bourne’s spy portrayals that leaves Miss Bates cold.
Our hero, Ethan deBeau (fitting name, he’s a looker) encounters our heroine, Sydney Hunt, at the Abbingale House for Displaced and Gifted Children. Sydney, disguised as a Mrs. Henshaw, a rich patroness, is investigating possible abuses at the orphanage. Sydney is a wonderful combination of bravery, vulnerability, intelligence, and the soft heart of those who care for children, the innocent, the vulnerable, the dispossessed, and the poor. On her own initiative and after a harrowing childhood, Sydney started and now runs the Hunt Agency, which places servants in the “right” household, ensuring that the most vulnerable of British society, women and children, are in a good and fair home. Ethan is at Abbingale searching for a child, Giles Clarke, a mystery set up in Checkmate, My Lord. Like a puppet master with entangled strings , these two are the culmination of Checkmate‘s many narrative threads finally come loose. Let it suffice for Miss Bates to say that the revelations are as satisfying as your first morning coffee. Discussing the plot further, however, will definitely lead Miss Bates into giving away more than she ought, so she’ll settle for telling you about the hero and heroine.
Miss Bates loved Ethan and Sydney. They are broken, not defeated; vulnerable, but solid when others and their country need them. When someone is with them in times of danger, that person is safe and protected. They are admirable and resilient in times of crisis; they exude strength and competence. Put yourself in their hands and your world will be righted. Circumstances, however, have not left them open to seizing happiness or love for themselves, only harboring it for others. When they meet, are attracted to and, more importantly, like each other, care about each other, it leaves them reeling and confused. What to do with these desires? These feelings? Ethan’s mission for the secret service agency, Nexus, is to “seduce information from the most beautiful women in the world.” As Sydney says before she trusts him, “his caress was nothing more than the razor edge of a warrior’s blade.” Great little metaphor. Ethan has to overcome his shameful feelings over the actions he took for his country and Sydney has to do the same over mysterious and unsavory events in her childhood.
Ethan’s not really ashamed of what he’s done for his country, but he has regrets and lost his self-respect. When he’s confronted with the wonder that is Sydney, he thinks he doesn’t deserve her. Sydney, on the other hand, also comes with baggage from her lineage; she calls herself a “bastard spinster.” Miss Bates had a little trouble with that. When confronted with the wonder that is Ethan, from what she’s known of the aristocracy, she believes the class barrier can’t be breached. What these two know (given the parameters of their lives and social positions) is foiled by what love can do: make all things possible. One of the pleasures of the novel is that they become friends before they’re lovers. Sacrifice is familiar to them: Ethan for the people of England and Sydney for its vulnerable. She runs the Hunt Agency, ” … in an effort to improve deplorable working conditions for servants.” The reader celebrates when these two selfless people take one tiny selfish step into each others arms.
Don’t think, however, that A Lady’s Secret Weapon is dour. Devlyn imbues the story of Ethan and Sydney with intelligent humour; witness one delightful exchange: ” ‘Careful, hedgehog.’ He allowed his gaze to drop to her mouth. ‘I shall have to polish my silver tongue again.’ Instead of being overcome by desire, she chuckled. ‘Your danger to women – at least to some – lies in your kindness, not your glib tongue.’ Since no one in memory had ever praised him for being kind, he could only assume that he would never be a danger to Sydney Hunt. A rather gloomy realization.” Lovely wit and humour, but something more important too, and one of the strengths of a romance well-told: the hero and heroine recognize the latent best in each other and that is the joy of their connection. The hot love scenes, those are a bonus. 😉 And Devlyn has them … including a clever and witty set of Ethan’s bedroom rules … that, in the end, foil him beautifully. And vindicate our heroine. And yet, he deserves her because he’s just that kind of hero, brave, self-sacrificing, loyal … and très, très beau!
A compelling plot, spy characters who are both larger-than-life and believably human, a poignant, if limited romance and Devlyn’s novel exhibits “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma. (And, please Ms Devlyn, give us the little apothecary’s story next.)
Devlyn’s A Lady’s Secret Weapon was released on October 1st and is available in the usual places and formats.
Miss Bates is grateful to Sourcebooks for an e-UAC via Netgalley in exchange for this honest review.
Miss Bates is quite fascinated by characters who exhibit a combination of vulnerability and strength, like Ethan and Sydney. Who are some of your favourites?