Emily Gee – The Laurentine Spy

The Corhonase citadel is a place of virtue and debauchery—and deadly secrets. For the Laurentine spies embedded there, every day brings danger. Nothing is as it seems, whether in the ballrooms and salons of the nobles’ court or the catacombs beneath the citadel.
Saliel has many secrets; her spying is one, her past as a pickpocket in Laurent’s slums is another, but her most deeply guarded secret is the magic she possesses. She walks a narrow path between discovery as a spy and being burned as a witch.

With a sadistic Spycatcher closing in, Saliel and her fellow spies are tested to the limits of their endurance. In the fight to stay alive they must trust each other—or die. Magic may be their only hope of survival…

The Laurentine Spy is Emily Gee’s second novel, published in 2009. I really enjoyed her first novel, Thief with No Shadow, so I was looking forward to this one. The book didn’t disappoint, even though I did have some problems with it. It was an engaging story, focused mainly on court intrigue, the politics involved with it and the trouble the spies within the court have of staying undercover. There is also a big romance angle in the book, which was very enjoyable, though at times very frustrating.

To start off with something I really loved about the book: the world building, even if it was mainly limited to the Corhonase court. Still, the attention to detail within the Corhonase court is very minute. While the subordinate position of women in this country’s society might have made me grit my teeth, I did like how this influenced so many other aspects of Corhonase life. It pervades the women’s court where the ladies lord any modicum of power they have over those lower in the pecking order. It makes them look askance at neighbouring countries that let their women have a relatively free life. There is also the hypocrisy of the girls and married women who lead an almost cloistered life, not being allowed to be alone with any man other than their husband or father or brother, while the men congregate in the courtesans’ salon almost nightly, where ladies of the night are ready to pleasure them at the crook of a finger and which seem to be financed by the king, as far as I could gather from the book. This attitude to women is also a factor that makes fitting in so difficult for our spies, as they come from the far more liberated Laurent, where women are free to do as they please and interact with whomever they want. In Laurent, however, the place/class you come from is far more limiting, for example our main female character, Saliel, is from The Ninth Ward, which means she’s the lowest of the low, not even allowed to breathe the same air as our male protagonist, Athan, who is of noble blood. It was the juxtaposition of these completely different cultures and the effect this has on our protagonists that I found really well done.

The romance between Saliel and Athan was interesting as well, not just because of the complications of their respective backgrounds which only become relevant in the last part of the book, but because of the circumstances surrounding its conception. Saliel and Athan don’t know who they are and how they look, they know each other as One and Three, hooded and cloaked, meeting in the cellars beneath the Corhonase court with their handler. Still they manage to develop feelings for each other that go beyond those of co-conspirators. When both Lady Petra, Saliel’s alias, and Lord Ivo, Athan’s cover, are forced to marry by the Consort, things become even more complicated. Told through alternating viewpoints, the story draws you in and manages to let the reader fully understand both Saliel and Athan, a method I found very effective. However, it is also very frustrating for the reader, as we know far more than the characters and at times you just want to yell at them to open their eyes and see what’s in front of them, especially as it pertains to the romance part of the book. In the end, the romance is resolved in a happy manner, though this was a rare case where it might have been just as satisfying – or even more satisfying – with an unhappy ending.

The major problem of this book was its uneven pacing. I found this very unfortunate, as it tended to make it harder to get back into the book after putting it down. In places it drags a little, as we sometimes get events from both Saliel’s and Athan’s perspective and then not just through their own perception, but that of their alter ego’s as well. However, when the story takes off, it’s enthralling. Another complaint was that the characters beyond Saliel and Athan are rather flat, which isn’t surprising seeing how much page time has to go to Saliel’s and Athan’s development, but at times it does make motivations hard to guess at.

Overall, despite some reservations, The Laurentine Spy is a satisfying tale by a relatively low-profile author who deserves more readers. If you like interesting fantasy with a romantic slant at times and you’ve never picked up an Emily Gee novel, please do so, as the two I’ve read so far are fine works and very diverting reads.