This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
Having enjoyed great success with the Black Library, their subsidiary for printing tie-in fiction for their games, Games Workshop recently decided to go even further with Solaris, the Black Library’s shiny new imprint devoted to publishing original (as in not based on a gaming or other franchise) fiction. I’ve been interested to see what sort of material they’ve been putting out, which is how I came to pick up Emily Gee’s The Laurentine Spy without giving it enough scrutiny to realise it was a fantasy romance novel.
Not that examining the back cover blurb would have really helped me in this respect; for a romantic fantasy or a fantasy romance The Laurentine Spy is awfully coy about being romance-adjacent at all. In contrast to, say, Erastes’ Transgressions, it goes in disguise, infiltrating the fantasy shelves disguised as generic fantasy. Perhaps Solaris find it easier to classify their books as SF/fantasy, rather than try to break onto the romance shelves, or maybe some enterprising editor is trying to slip in a broader range of titles but doesn’t want Games Workshop to realise they are publishing Girl Books. Whatever the case, The Laurentine Spy pulled a fast one one me, but I honestly don’t mind: as well as having a strong and reasonably satisfying romance plotline (caution: I have never previously read a romance novel, so I might be completely wrong on that) it’s also a gripping pseudo-Renaissance-Regencyish espionage adventure with low-key but interesting magic and enough violence to satisfy my Khorne-inspired thirst for blood.
The premise starts out simple and rapidly becomes complex without becoming needlessly so. Saliel, our heroine, and Athan, the hero, are both spies for the Laurentine Protectorate in the citadel of a Prince of the Corhonese Empire; Saliel pretends to be Lady Petra, a meek and naive unmarried lady of the Consort’s retinue, and Athan’s cover identity is Lord “Donkey” Ivo, a boorish, moronich bachelor who gads about the brothels in the town of an evening. They are not aware of each other cover identities, for the Laurentine agents in the city only meet in disguise, in nighttime meetings presided over by the sinister “guardian”. Romance readers amongst you have already guessed what comes next: through sheer coincidence, the Prince and the Consort decide that it would be seemly for Ivo and Petra to marry, causing much consternation for Athan and Saliel. Saliel is upset because she hates Ivo, unaware that the personality she observes is itself a cover for Athan’s true self, whilst Athan dislikes the idea of marrying a Corhonese lady, for the marriage of the Corhonese nobility are horrible, loveless, mechanical affairs in which the man is basically expected to have his way with his wife with no regard for her enjoyment of the process, and besides – Athan has eyes only for the anonymous form of Saliel. The stage is all set for them to discover each other’s true identities, abandon the horrible repressive trappings of the Corhonese sex life, and fuck happily ever after.
Except it’s not quite that simple.
Entering the fray is Lord Grigor, a Corhonese spycatcher intent on rooting out the Laurentine cell. Lord Grigor has the Witch-Eye, as does Saliel, but their magic takes slightly different forms: Grigor can make people tell the truth when he maintain eye contact with them, whilst Saliel can only mesmerise people for a minute or so (more than enough for some handy pickpocketing); likewise, Grigor is a protected asset of the Corhonese state, whilst Saliel’s true status is not known to her Laurentine superiors – for in both the Empire and the Protectorate, the official punishment for witchcraft is death, without exception. On the other hand, the guardian has discovered information suggesting that a crucial codebook is secreted within the citadel, and he wants Athan to copy it (with Saliel using her close connection to the Consort to make a copy of the key to the Prince’s chamber of secrets). So, on the one hand Athan and Saliel are desperate to wrap up their tour of duty and leave the citadel (they are due to be replaced anyway); on the other hand, they are completely dependant on the guardian and his contacts, for without their help escape is impossible, so they aren’t going anywhere until they copy the codebook. All the while, the guardian is trying to make sure they don’t realise that they are married to each other, because if they could co-operate it would weaken his hold over them, and the spycatcher is closing in.
The first chunk of the book, which concerns itself with the goings-on in the citadel, is primarily an espionage story with romance elements; the last 150 pages or so, covering Saliel and Athan’s flight to Laurentine territory with the duplicate codebook, is primarily a romance story with espionage elements, as Saliel and Athan’s relationship can finally develop freely without the constraints of secrecy and cover identities. I have to say that I preferred the citadel section of the book to the escape, but it wasn’t the romance elements that put me off – it was the fact that the journey to freedom part seemed so very rushed. This might have been purposeful; the structure of the citadel chapters suggests a restrictive and immutable daily routine – Saliel sows by day, she and Athan attend balls in the evening, and then she goes off to bed and he trawls the brothels – and in the dead of night they give their reports to the guardian – whilst the giddy pace of the travelogue part of the book suggests a hectic flight to safety, during which only the briefest impressions of the places visited can be picked up. Nonetheless, it does mean that the citadel does feel like a much more developed and vibrant and complex place, simply because it is: it is tempting to think of Gee’s world as consisting of two basic areas, “the citadel” and “everywhere else”. Furthermore, the fast pace means the progression of the romance feels too quick; Saliel goes from violated and shocked to passionately in love in what feels like a very short period of time, because even though vastly more time passes in the story it does so over a vastly shorter page count.
Oh, yeah, the whole “violated” bit. Now, I admit that I am well out of my usual territory here, and my Fantasy Rapeometer isn’t calibrated for romance, so I could be completely wrong about this, but Gee includes in The Laurentine Spy a scene which I think qualifies as one of the few times I felt a rape added something to a fantasy novel.
A bit of context: as I mentioned a little earlier, the Empire is a horrendously hypocritical, misogynistic society, especially when it comes to the sex lives of the nobility. (The Protectorate, by contrast, is much more relaxed on that score, but is hopelessly, insanely riven with class-based snobbery; one of the things I did like about the escape sequence was how the inequities of Corhonese society become less and less visible and the inequities of Laurentine society become more and more apparent as Saliel and Athan get closer to home.) It’s the old story; gentlemen have the right to frolic with whores as much as they like, and have the right to screw their wife whenever they so desire on top of that, whilst women of noble birth are expected to stoically suffer their husband’s attentions as a sort of chore at best, a weekly night of misery and degradation at worst (only commoners and whores enjoy sex!). This system of institutionalised rape is deeply ingrained in the life of the Corhonese court, putting Saliel and Athan in a horrendous situation; Saliel can’t refuse to marry Athan-as-Ivo or refuse to sleep with him on their wedding night, since that would attract all he wrong sort of attention, and likewise Athan has to keep up the appearance of being an absolutely typical brutish husband; if they simply abscond, they will soon be caught without the guardian’s help, and the guardian hasn’t told them that they are marrying each other, so they can’t even conspire to sit around making grunting noises for five minutes to maintain the pretense. Both Athan and Saliel are convinced that they have to fool each other, as well as the society around them, and so Athan goes ahead and roughly takes Saliel, having no care for her enjoyment of the act because that in itself would be suspicious, and Saliel submits to him.
Now, I’m not qualified to work out whether that’s a good romantic rape scene or a bad romantic rape scene; our editor is probably better able to judge. But as a condemnation of the guardian and the spying profession as a whole, as an example of how it forces Athan to commit a horrible act against Saliel under the threat of exposure, torture, and death if he refuses to play the role assigned him, it’s pretty fascinating. What is especially interesting is how this is almost as damaging to Athan as it is to Saliel; he’s under no illusions that what he’s done is rape, and the fact that he’s capable of doing it to save his skin and serve his country shakes him to his very core.
Again, romance readers in the FB readership know full well how this is going to pan out: Athan and Saliel are going to sort it out between themselves, Saliel will eventually forgive Athan for what he did and Athan will fuck Saliel again, only properly, so she knows that it doesn’t have to be a completely miserable process, happily ever after cottage by the sea babies unicorns and rainbows. In fact, the rapesquerade incident is only one of several issues that Saliel and Athan have to work through before their relationship is cemented, although it is the first; there’s also the small matter of their widely varying stations in Laurentine society (anyone who doesn’t expect Athan to renounce his noble family in order to marry Saliel, a commoner, is clearly soft in the head, although Gee does do a good job of making sure the process isn’t completely easy).
The other problem is the whole witchcraft deal, which in its own way is the least interesting it; Saliel points out the witchcraft thing, Athan pulls a bit of previously hidden metaphysic out of his arse to prove that it’s OK, and that’s it; there’s no real resonance or connection to actual human emotions because it’s a dilemma that doesn’t exist in our world and never did, unlike rape and class anxiety. It’s an irritating aspect of the resolution of the romance plotline; my other problem with it is that we start seeing less and less of the story from Saliel’s point of view during the escape from the Empire, which is a bit of a shame because I like her more than the slightly wet Athan. I can see why Gee did it – the romance plot hinges on Saliel’s objections to their union being overcome, so it would be difficult to maintain tension if we were following her thought processes all the time – but the romance plot is so comfortably predictable I almost wish Gee would drop the act and stop pretending there’s any doubt about the pair getting together.
That, however, is a non-romance reader’s objection to the book, so Gee’s target audience probably won’t care. As far as fantasy goes, however, I think that The Laurentine Spy is top-notch. Gee even writes really tense and gripping fight scenes, so there’s fun for everyone. Highly recommended, unless you really don’t like the idea of a rape victim eventually succumbing to the charms of a rapist.