New Zealander Emily Gee's The Laurentine Spy is a book full of promise, or at least it makes a lot of them. It promises intrigue and adventure and a pleasing blend of genres: the double-dealing and espionage of a spy thriller, the glamour of historically-influenced fantasy, the thrill of magical adventure, and all the sparks of a romance. It promises an interesting world populated by interesting people. It promises a fun, stand alone novel for fans of Gee's 2007 fantasy debut, Thief With No Shadow. Unfortunately, in the fevered attempt to pack all of these genres and ambitions into one relatively slender package, Gee's promises go unfulfilled.
Gee envisages a world divided between two empires, Laurent and Corhona, which are caught in a sort of pre-industrial cold war. Most of the action takes place in a luxurious Corhonase citadel occupied by an unnamed prince, and strategically important for some unknown reason. The Laurentine spy of the title is Saliel, a former pickpocket now masquerading as the meek-mannered Lady Petra. Saliel and two other spies report back to a 'guardian' who acts as their liaison with the home base, but the Laurentine agents know each other only by numbers, not by name or face. Gee gives the reader a little more insight, splitting the book's point-of-view between Saliel and Athan, the spy she knows only as One. While Saliel spends her days gleaning information from gossip and generals' wives, Athan frequents the citadel's lavish brothels as the dim-witted, well-endowed Lord Ivo. They both live in constant fear of betraying their double identities, but Gee ratchets up the pressure further still with the introduction of a very skilled and very menacing spycatcher. Meanwhile, the guardian is demanding results, and he doesn't seem to care much about what or whom he sacrifices to get them.
The book builds its story on layers of secrets, and Gee does a fine job of balancing hidden identities and pumping her proper Corhonese court scenes with palpable tension. In addition to her role as a spy, Saliel is keenly aware of her undisclosed past in Laurent's slums, and even more threateningly, her magical powers. In Gee's world, witches are burned at the stake, regardless of nationality or political affiliation. Saliel possesses a minor form of magic, the ability to catch a victim's eyes and hold him or her unconscious and immobilized for minutes at a time, but it's more than enough to get her killed. She is constantly torn between using her powers to aid her cause, and burying them as deeply as possible to stay alive.
There is a sense of claustrophobia throughout the book. We see life through a very narrow focus, squarely aimed at Saliel and Athan. We don't know much about the overlying political struggles between Laurent and Corhona. We don't know much about Laurent at all, though a few well-placed details suggest it's no utopia. However, it's clear that the international political machinations are more or less beside the point. The story isn't about Laurent, it's about the Laurentine spies, and after extended periods working under cover, they just want to go home. Saliel especially shows little patriotic fervor; she plays this game for one reason only, the hope of getting a nice cottage somewhere when she's finished.
While the narrow vision sometimes gets tiresome—I found myself longing for a few interesting side characters and begging the heavens for some comic relief—it serves the story well, at least in the first half. It reinforces the characters' fear, loneliness, and ongoing battles to preserve their public personae.
The shallow world-building is more problematic. The interpersonal politics of Corhona's upper class are dissected in a fair amount of detail: aristocrats in the citadel live together and follow strict codes of conduct. Both men and women's marriages are arranged by the Prince's Consort, an intelligent and intimidating woman, and Saliel's chief adversary. It's a world divided starkly between virtue and license, where men like Athan visit courtesans almost every night, while married to proper ladies who ought not to enjoy sex, much less seek it out. This sort of dynamic suggests the world is derivative of Renaissance Europe, especially Italy, but that's the most sense we get of timeline. We can read about this world, but not see it. There is no indication of the fashion, the technology, the religion, or the landscape. How long has witch burning been a popular recreational sport? How did the Consort reach her position? Why is Saliel's slum background such an unusual stigma? In the entire novel, there is only one detailed description of a piece of furniture, specifically a framed mirror, and that's for plot purposes. Though there is certainly something evocative about the intimate settings of drawing rooms and gardens, there is no physical reality to go with the feelings. Gee depends almost entirely on her audience's willingness to fill in the blanks with whatever stock fantasy setting they choose.
Nevertheless, for the first few hundred pages of the book, I was cheerfully willing to—well, not overlook this flaw, exactly, but to tolerate it. After all, Gee had given me some decent sneaking and spying, an unrepentantly creepy villain in the form of the spycatcher, and plenty of sadistically delightful misdirection between the main characters, who remain oblivious to each other's identities even as the Consort goes about arranging their marriage. More importantly, she had also given me one last promise: the promise that all of this well-paced, tension infused build-up was leading to a spectacular finale.
And here we have something of a dilemma.
The last segment of the book follows Saliel and Athan in their desperate escape from the citadel and their subsequent journey through hostile and hazardous lands, with the spycatcher still on their heels. Instead of bringing the story to a crescendo, the final two hundred pages or so compound the flaws of their predecessors, while turning some of the book's strengths into liabilities. The pacing is erratic, sometimes drawn out, more often hasty and rushed. The first stage of their journey, a dangerous crossing of a frozen plateau, is written so perfunctorily that I wondered whether it was necessary at all. There is still very little sense of the cultures we encounter, and the people and towns are flatly summed up as "unappealing and dismal" (p. 292) or otherwise dirty, unpleasant, and not yet home. Even when we come closer to Laurent, to familiar territory which is evidently meant to contrast sharply with Corhonase culture, the descriptions remain cripplingly generic. Saliel finds a foreign inn "So much nicer than the citadel," (p. 315) but all we know of this inn is that it is cheerful, simply furnished, and smells of generic fantasy foods. The town features "narrow and cobbled" streets (p. 314) and wooden signs above shops, but the people are faceless and the images bland.
The tone of the book remains oddly claustrophobic, even outside the world of spycraft and Corhonase citadels. This cramped atmosphere derives in no small part from the fact that the two main characters mostly sit inside their own heads and self-flagellate. There are endless introverted variations on "I owe him an apology" and "This is my fault." They brood; they mope. They long for happier days, while only occasionally giving us any sense of what happier days might have looked like. Perhaps the story gives us so little of the outside world to emphasize how much the protagonists have turned their gazes inwards. But I never felt like I was inside Saliel or Athan's minds with them—I could only read the play-by-play narration of what's going on in there.
And much of what's going on in there revolves around our heroes' burgeoning relationship. This was, for me, perhaps the most unsatisfactory aspect of The Laurentine Spy. It's not just the lack of chemistry that kills this courtship. The love story—inevitable, predictable, and off-putting—seldom reaches palatability, much less romance.
Maybe it's natural that in a story based on intrigue and deception, an infatuation would have to build on fantasy. Athan spends the first portion of the book fantasizing about both Saliel, still an anonymous fellow spy, and her Corhonase alter-ego Lady Petra, whom he imagines in much more anatomical detail. By the end, he's having to reconcile these fantasies with what he learns of the real Saliel—and not particularly enjoying the experience. He clings to his image of her as an innocent in need of protection, while simultaneously preoccupied with whether she is, in fact, pure enough to warrant his manly and possessive affection. Meanwhile, Saliel has spent most of the book nursing an active dislike for Athan. And not a passionate and sexy "I'd as soon kiss a Wookie" sort of dislike, either. More of a slightly nauseated, "Please don't touch me" sort of dislike.
It's difficult to see this sort of dynamic blooming into One True Love, and it would take a lot more than Gee's sporadic, overly scripted treatment of Athan and Saliel's bond to convince me. It doesn't help that the changes in their relationship are often conveyed through italicized thoughts, as opposed to genuine interaction. Once again, Gee seems to be waiting for her readers to fill in the blanks.
The Laurentine Spy isn't without its high points. It has some pulse-raising sequences and some pages that demand to be turned. At its best, it has an atmosphere thick enough to get into your head and under your skin. But ultimately, Gee relies too much on her readers' indulgence. She expects them to fall in love with her heroes because they are heroes, and swoon for their romance simply because it's been predicted since page nine. Most of all, she trusts that they will come to the book already well equipped with a familiarity of and a fondness for the genres in play. And frankly, that's the sort of reader who could just as easily find something better.
Rosalind Casey's poetry and prose has appeared or is forthcoming in Goblin Fruit, MindFlights, and The San Antonio Express-News, but she mostly engages in the fine art of criticism or, as her father keeps reminding her, coming down from the hills after the battle and shooting the wounded.