Beauty Like the Night by Joanna Bourne

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Beauty Like the Night is the first book by Joanna Bourne that I’ve read, but it definitely won’t be the last. (Somewhere, in Scotland, Redheadedgirl just sat up and went “what?” and isn’t sure why). This book was so good.  It’s got a bad-ass heroine, a richly developed world, an element of mystery, and a delicious slow-burn romance.

For me, hands down, the best part of this story was the heroine, Severine de Cabrillac. She was orphaned during the French Revolution and adopted by a British Intelligence agent. She worked as a spy for military intelligence in Spain during the Peninsular War. Now she sometimes works as a spy, and in her spare time runs a detective agency. She’s cool and collected, a keenly observant, and has zero time for the shithead member of the ton who is spreading rumors he deflowered her (she was deflowered long ago, okay? And it was awesome. Fuck that guy). At one point in the book, she punches a guy straight in the junk.   I want to hang out with Severine so badly. So, so badly.

The daughter of aristocrats, Severine fits in well among the ton, but her history and training as a spy means she’s equally comfortable (and invisible) among the working class. As a result Beauty Like the Night isn’t set purely in a haute ton ballroom. I loved that about it, too.

So Severine is living her best life, punching would-be assassins in the crotch and solving mysteries, when she’s approached by Raoul Deverney, a half-French, half-Spanish winemaker aristocrat who is also a jewel thief (more on that later). Raoul’s estranged wife was murdered in London and his twelve-year-old daughter Pilar is missing. Raoul wants Severine to find Pilar.

Severine doesn’t trust Raoul, which is a good instinct because, like I said, he’s also a secret jewel thief known as the Comodin. His family jewels (insert ball jokes here) were stolen during the Peninsular War and he’s been stealing them back, like you do.

Anyway, while Severine doesn’t trust Raoul, she also knows that being alone on the London streets is not a great situation for a twelve-year-old girl. While she’s working on that case, she’s also helping her British Intelligence family foil a plot to kill Wellington, and planning the downfall of the little shit who is spreading rumors about her virtue among the ton.

Severine never operates in a vacuum. She’s got a strong support system of family and friends and that made me so happy. She’s at a ball where said little shit’s friends are trying to make her miserable (not realizing that she’s a spy and detective and is probably armed and just junk-punched a guy):

She’d been waiting for a direct approach from Robin’s set. They’d sent Brandy to deliver it. She preferred this, frankly, to slippery whispers in corners.

He brayed, “Evening, Sevie, sweet. Evening, Lady Lucinda.” When enough heads had turned in their direction, he added loudly, “Lovely dress, Sevie. Quite the scarlet woman, aren’t you?”

Maman had taught her how to deal with presumption before she was seven. A de Cabrillac, one who had been a spy for years, who bore the marks of torture by Spanish guerrilleros and the scar of a French bullet, is not put out of countenance by a jumped-up fop strutting about in a ballroom.

She turned her back on him without reply. Beside her Lucy said coolly, “We have not been introduced,” and did the same. A duke’s daughter can turn her back with the clang of disapproval heard from Soho to Suffolk.

Lucy linked arms with her and they strolled in the direction of the dancing. “Have you seen the Lawrence portrait of Wellington? Lovely brushwork. The real man looks surprisingly like his portrait.”

Brandy was left gape-mouthed behind them. No cut was ever more direct.

Huzzah for female friendships!

But more about the romance. Because Severine and Raoul are both dangerous, not-entirely-honest people, there’s an air of two predators circling each other during their “courtship.” And by courtship I mean the pants feelings both of them have as they dodge killers and search London’s underbelly for Pilar.

Severine was in love once, but her lover died in the war and she’s closed that part of herself off. In Raoul, however, she finds someone who respects the fact that she’s deadly, and who complements her nicely:

“I will reassure you with my mild behavior. Now we hold hands. Come. Dance is a civilized art. It’ll take the taste of fighting out of your mouth.” His lips twitched. “You don’t have to like me or trust me, mademoiselle. It’s a dance, not a kiss.”

She surrendered–with reservations–to Deverney’s urging and let him lead her into the music, among the waltzers. His hand was light on her back, feeding tiny guidance to her body, warm and persuasive. This was not a bad vantage point to watch for a secondary attack. She could study every corner without being obvious about it. Deverney, damn him, knew what she was doing. He marked a slow and staid course around the room, a waltz of sufficient dignity to please the most starchy matron. He turned their steps to let her see what she needed to see. They could have been fellow agents, partnered together, working at the same operation. He knew, before she did, what path she wished to take through the dancers. He listened to her body even as he spoke to it. His awareness of her was as worrisome as whatever plans hid behind his face.

Raoul is an anti-hero, and a delightful one. He’s untrustworthy, but abides by a code of ethics that sets rules in place for his behavior. Both he and Severine occupy a moral gray area that makes sense given their professions. It also means that it takes a lot for the two of them to trust each other. That trust, and budding love, is intertwined so carefully through the suspense element of the book which unfolds in a wonderfully organic way.

The lust they share for each other is always present, however, and Raoul articulates it, and their relationship, perfectly:

“Never doubt this.” He stopped her. His hand closed around her elbow, gentle as wind and unyielding as carved oak. “I was thinking about your breasts the whole time, Severine. Your beautiful little breasts that were showing over the bodice of your dress.” His voice stayed steely calm but his eyes kindled to fire. “That’s why I kissed you. Your male colleagues can explain it to you if it’s not obvious.”

“I can see the obvious from time to time. I also recognize lies.” She sounded, in her own ears, like a sour old spinster.

There, stopped in the middle of the pavement, Deverney spoke softly. “You swim in a sea of liars among the criminals of London, the spies of Europe, and the nest of glittering vipers you call the ton. That egregious plum pudding of self-satisfaction, Robin Carlington.”

“I won’t talk about him.”

“Wise of you. By comparison, my kisses are wholesome as new milk. I am–let me be immodest for a moment–a sophisticated lover, a much-sought-after partner for dalliance. I failed myself and you. In the middle of what should have been a pleasant waltz, all I could think about was carrying you off to an empty bed chamber.”

“And theft.”

“I planned that for later in the evening. Larceny didn’t distract me from you for an instant. For that hour I was entirely a rutting oaf. I was greedy, when I should been all consideration. I offered you fumbling kisses behind the arras instead of flowers to match your beauty. Clumsy of me. An insult to you. Last night you saw me at my least calculating.”

“Perhaps.”

“Someday I’ll show you my cynical, manipulative side and you can compare the two.”

That snippet is just one example of the amazing dialogue this book has to offer.

Despite all that, there were two things that bothered me a bit about the novel. For one, there’s some slut-shaming of Raoul’s estranged, late wife. She was legitimately an awful person, but for lots of reasons, and her decision to have sex with whomever she chooses shouldn’t be among them.

Also

Click for spoilers!
Pilar is under Severine and Raoul’s noses the entire time, which seems implausible given the fact that Severine is supposed to be a gifted detective and Raoul is no fool. Granted Raoul hasn’t seen his daughter in years (maybe ever, I’m not sure, she’s not actually his kid), and Severine never met her at all, but it felt a little off.

So while it’s not a totally perfect book, Beauty Like the Night is an excellent example of action/adventure in historicals, and it’s got an amazing heroine and anti-hero to boot. Now excuse me while I order the rest of the series.

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