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Friday, April 17, 2009

“The Laurentine Spy” by Emily Gee (Reviewed by Liviu C. Suciu)

Order “The Laurentine SpyHERE (US) + HERE (UK)

INTRODUCTION: With the turmoil surrounding the sff imprint Solaris, I just wanted to take this time and thank the editors & writers there for the great reads they have offered so far and express my hope that the imprint will continue to prosper and publish many more books. One such great read was Emily Gee’sThe Laurentine Spy” which hooked me so completely that as soon as I finished reading the novel, I immediately reread it again to pick up any nuances that I might have missed the first time around. Then I read it once more just for the pure enjoyment of it as well as buying a copy of Ms. Gee's debut novel “Thief With No Shadow” which I also enjoyed, if not quite as much as “The Laurentine Spy”.

For some books it is easier to convey why I liked it and why I think it's a book people should read. For others, it is harder because the enjoyment is of a more personal nature and will depend on how much a reader appreciates certain things like character interactions, wordplay, the build-up of suspense, etc. “The Laurentine Spy” is incontestably of this second type, so while I will do my best to explain why I enjoyed the book so much, I also urge readeers to check out an excerpt and decide for themselves if the writing style matches their taste, since so much of the novel’s attraction rests on characters and atmosphere, rather than action, plot or elaborate world-building.

SETTING:The Laurentine Spy” is set on an alternate Earth-like planet at roughly a late preindustrial stage, corresponding to 18th Century Earth, and is divided into several power blocks, most notably The Corhonese Empire and The Laurentine Protectorate. There is not much backstory on either but we discover that the Empire has several power centers including the Citadel, where a dissolute imperial prince and his powerful Consort lord over a Victorian-style court, though with a little decadent Roman twist. The Protectorate seems a more liberal society, at least for common people and women at least, but is led by a very rigid high caste with elaborate rituals and a habit of throwing out the non-comformists. This is where our heroes come from.

The world of the novel contains “remnants” of sorcery, which stem from the still celebrated Burning Day several centuries in the past when “witches”—both male and female—were burned at the stake all over the world. Since then, the “Eye”—as the power of the witches is known—is becoming more and more diluted as witches continue to get burned. But there are those that use witches in secret for their own purposes like the Spycatchers for example.

“Three” aka Saliel aka Lady *** is a young Laurentine woman posing as the only survivor of a disaster that overtook a Corhonese Island province that took refuge at the Citadel. There, she pretends to be a low-level noblewoman in mourning for her family, but the Consort has plans for her. Saliel spies for money and a chance at a better life back home.

“One” aka Athan aka Lord *** is a high caste Laurentine nobleman, posing as a middlebrow dissolute Corhonese noble who decided he liked the Prince's court and its women during his “rite of passage”, and has extended his stay. Athan’s reasons for spying are quite different from Saliel’s and are slowly revealed throughout the novel.

The third spy, known as “Two”, poses as a butler though he does not play a major role in the novel.

The identities of the spies are actually revealed to us early on. However, they meet with their spy master, “the guardian”, all masked, so they do not know each other. It's better for the reader to start the book off fresh, therefore I didn’t include their names above.

Lastly, Lord Grigor is the sinister Corhonese spycatcher with a justified reputation for getting results, while the Consort is the true power behind the Prince and is a hard woman to deceive.

FORMAT/INFO:The Laurentine Spy” stands at 416 pages and is divided into eighty numbered chapters. The narration is in the third person from the POVs of Saliel and Athan, and takes place in the present of the novel. The ending is excellent and fitting while the book is a standalone, though I would not mind revisiting its universe. April 28, 2009 & May 5, 2009 marks the North American/UK Mass Market publication of “The Laurentine Spy” via
Solaris. Cover art provided by Larry Rostant.

PLOT HINTS AND ANALYSIS:The Laurentine Spy” is a romantic fantasy as well as a tension-driven novel. In fact, the book’s first 300 pages are some of the most suspenseful I've read in a long time. It starts with our heroes helping to thwart a dastardly action by the Corhonese. The Consort is no fool though and already suspects that Laurentine spies have infilrated the Citadel. Therefore, she persuades the Prince to enlist the famous spycatcher Lord Grigor to investigate, and from there the suspense builds...

Included below are a couple of quotes that will illustrate both the atmosphere of the novel and the slow, but inexorable build-up of suspense. The more pages you turn, the more you can feel the tension surrounding our heroes as they reach the crux of their mission, with doom only a misstep away. This build-up is remarkably well done, especially when things do not go exactly to plan and Saliel and Athan have to deal with the unexpected and the almost unthinkable.

Quote OneSaliel must face the consequences after her and Athan’s spying prowess resulted in a disastrous defeat for their “hosts”:

They spent their days indoors, now that it was autumn. Saliel disliked the Ladies’ Hall, with its heavy ceiling and narrow, shuttered windows. Two hundred women sat and sewed, but the Hall seemed to swallow them. They shrank, becoming doll-sized. She raised her head and looked around, seeing tapestries, sofas with brocade cushions, ornate side tables. The colors she wanted to see—warm reds and yellows, vivid blues and greens—weren’t there. The noblewomen wore the colors of virtue: dark colors, pale colors, dull colors. And gray, the color of mourning. The seamstresses had been busy in the past three weeks; fifty ladies wore gowns of ash-gray silk. And for each gown, a dead man. Saliel bent her head over her embroidery.

“Noble ***.”

Saliel looked up. One of the Consort’s attendants stood before her, her face round and placid. “Yes?” “The Royal Consort wishes to speak with you.”
Saliel laid down her embroidery frame. She glanced up at the shuttered windows as she stood. Soon I shall be gone from this place. It was hard to comprehend such freedom. She inhaled deeply, imagining fresh air in her lungs. It will be as if I’ve grown wings and can fly
.”

Quote Two — As Lord Grigor pays a visit to the Citadel, Athan does not yet realize why he is so dangerous. Luckily, Lord ***’s reputation for stupidity shields him for now:

He turned back to watch Druso. Athan sipped his wine and forced himself to relax, settling deeply into the soft cushions. Beside him Druso lay sprawled, fondling the whore while she divested him of his breeches.
“I hear that you like redheads.” The pale eyes turned his way again.
Not particularly, he’d intended to say, but instead his mouth said, “I’m partial to the color.”
The spycatcher turned and beckoned.
Athan frowned at his wine. What possessed me to tell the truth? He put the glass down and watched with resignation as the red-haired courtesan crossed the salon.
“She’s the one you wanted?” he heard Lord Grigor ask.
Athan closed his eyes. “Yes,” he made himself say, as the whore slid onto the cushions alongside him.
“My thanks
.””

The dual persona of the main characters, as both Number 1 and Number 3 and as Lady *** and Lord *** are perefectly handled, as are their interactions with the rest of the Citadel court, most notably with the recently married Marta, the Consort and the sinister Grigor.

The last 150 pages of the novel are more standard fantasy as well as being a bit rushed with lots of things happening, but it is still quite good and enjoyable.

In the end, I thoroughly enjoyed Emily Gee’sThe Laurentine Spy” which has emerged as one of my favorite books of the year so far. Highly, highly recommended...

8 comments:

ediFanoB said...

After reading several positive reviews of Thief With No Shadow I bought the book. But so far I didn't read it.
Now your review brought up the book in my mind. I think I have to do some changes of my to read pile.
And even without reading Thief With No Shadow I ordered The Laurentine Spy in January and expect delivery within this month.
Now your great review gives my a lot of reasons why I ordered the book.

Liviu said...

Thank you for your kind words; this book is a *very personal* favorite and I made sure everyone knows.

I ordered Thief immediately once I finished this one and I read it on arrival, and while I liked it, not as much as this one though, it's clearly a very typical *romantic fantasy* with the same tropes you could expect from any romance writer in a fantastic setting which actually could be a historical one with some modest changes.

Laurentine Spy though transcends the romantic fantasy genre, the way Poison Study by M. Snyder which was another *very personal* favorite did.

Sometimes I just love books with the resourceful "poor or at least not as exalted" girl, the disdainful or at least stiffer "upper class" boy, their adventures together and so on - sometimes it is the other way around, but somehow the "poor girl, rich boy" cliche seems to be more prevalent in my readings than its reverse - at least if they have that "extra" element that is so hard to define

Saliel and Athan, Fawn and Dag, Phoedre and Joscelin, Yelena and Valek...

Shelley said...

Hi, my name is Shelley. I'm new to the blogging world. I added you and look forward to reading all your reviews!!

http://bookfanaticblog.blogspot.com/

Liviu said...

Thank you for your kind words; will add your blog to our list on the main page

ediFanoB said...

Thanks for your comment Liviu. Now I even more curious to read Thief With No Shadow. It will be my next reading :>)
This will be a new experience for me because normally I don't read *romantic fantasy*. But I tried to stop thinking in narrow-minded categories. It is more important for me that I like the story, the characters and their world.

Hi Shelley, I'm now a follower of your blog :>) You book taste is different from mine but maybe I can discover some books which I normally would have a look at.

Shelley said...

I'm trying to branch out into reading more Fantasy so I will be frequenting your page quite often. The book The Laurentine Spy looks good. I'm going to pick up a copy. I'll let you know what I think!

Liviu said...

Well here we have all kinds of speculative fiction - a lot of sf too from the PKD nominees reviews recently to the Clarke nominees to come, a lot of weird fiction - either new weird a la Mieville or just "mainstream" weird, lots of short fiction reviews - anthologies and magazines, so hopefully there will be stuff for everyone.

I hope to complete the index of reviews in a week or two - I estimate we have somewhere between 3-400, I know I have 72, and I am sure Robert has many more, with Cindy and Fabio getting now into gear too, and then I will do the interview index.

The monthly spotlight index is up, so check our site since we really have lots of sff stuff.

impossiblewriter said...

Wow, you're an amazing reviewer! :) I wonder if you could review my book! haha... :)

God bless,

Taylor J. Beisler
www.taylorbeisler.com
http://www.eloquentbooks.com/ArintSaratir-WarriorsLight.html

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