Fantasy and romance — both inspire terror, derision, and diehard fans. Together, they can create a passionate fairytale, or a lumbering target for jokes and snark. The Laurentine Spy by Emily Gee adds a spy thriller element to this skewbald mélange. Rather than an epic of tender romance amidst the knife-edged world of political espionage, The Laurentine Spy is a tepid fizzler, frigid in romance, dull in political thrill, and just fantastical enough to defend the magic of coincidence and deus ex machina.
Sariel and Athan are Laurentine spies in the Corhonase court. By day, they play their respective roles of docile lady and foppish lord. By night, they report on the latest gossip and try to puzzle out Corhona’s battle plans. Which involve beards. To maintain secrecy, the spies meet under cloaks and do not know each others’ identities, real or acted.
But a guy can dream, and Athan’s been dreaming awfully hard about his nameless fellow spy — just as his alter ego Lord Ivo fantasizes over the flame-haired Lady Petra. If you, clever reader, can suss out the direction of our spy thriller, then you must have left your cave in the last 50 years.
The plot thickens when our heroes must outmaneuver the infamous Spycatcher, a sadistic hunter brought in when the court’s major domo suspects spies. Our heroes’ emotional baggage and conflicting interests only complicate things further.
Except The Laurentine Spy is very uncomplicated.
The reader never learns much of the Corhona Empire or the Laurent Protectorate. Corhona is proud and ironlike while Laurent is vibrant and hierarchical. Emily Gee clearly has interests other than world building, which is understandable — except that her world lacks substance and leaves her characters with nothing to walk on. More insight into the culture, the past, or even a few choice adjectives would have done the book a marvelous service.
Likewise, the plot has none of excitement that one would expect out of a fantasy, spy, or romance novel. Magic is barely touched upon, serving only as a convenient means to provide a dash of conflict. The espionage, which gets about as interesting as “chat up the admiral’s wife,” offers nary a moment of quickened breath or rapid page turning.
One might think that the former two fail because the novel is a romance. Not quite. While Gee’s tastefulness is commendable, there were steamier conversations in Victorian embroidery classes. Beyond heaving bodices, the emotional element of the romance is likewise stunted. Romance simply happens with minimal fuss and far too much obvious setup.
As for our heroes, Athan and Saliel are believable characters with fears and aspirations, As far as compulsion or charisma, though, a pair of stealthy, emotionally conflicted chickens would work too.
The bland writing does not help matters. Prose is like spice. It may overpower the book, fade into the background, or set a dish ablaze with life and fire. Emily Gee sprinkles on a little salt and pepper when she should be dumping in the cumin and curry powder. Her turns of phrase and writing style never jut out or draw snickers and add nothing to placid characters and a tepid plot.
As a relatively new writer, Emily Gee should be making each book an unforgettable hit to the jaw. The Laurentine Spy is not such a literary assault. Still, her first novel, Thief with No Shadow, earned her two shortlists for the Romance Writers of America RITA awards, so she does have her fans.
There are certainly worse things to read if one is stuck on a long airplane ride. And that is precisely it—The Laurentine Spy is not godawful. It’s not a mutated abomination that one can enjoy snarking or giggling over. It’s just dull. One should skip The Laurentine Spy, unless there is a long flight ahead and the only other option is Ann Coulter.