The Spymaster's Lady by Joanna Bourne
Good historical romances always feel like guilty pleasures for me - overindulgent but ultimately satisfying. The Spymaster's Lady is no exception, and you don't have to look any further than the cover for a hint at what I mean:) But in a refreshing twist, though the plot is filled with melodrama, the characters themselves are rather understated for romance.
The book places the classic spy vs. spy love trope in the time of Napoleonic France. Annique and Grey find each other in a French prison and form a fragile bond just long enough to escape together. But the bond doesn't last long: Grey lures this famous French spy into English hands, and he plans to take her back with him. But, of course, a relationship ensues, testing the loyalties of both Annique and Grey. Can a spy truly trust the motivations of another spy, no matter how close the relationship feels? Bourne explores this question well. The narrative drags as we follow the intricacies of both the English and French Secret Services, but (plug your ears, Ms. Bourne) I think the story still works if you skim some of these parts:)
But my topic for today isn't the plot or the characters themselves. Instead, I'd like to focus on the dialogue. Specifically, the author addresses head-on an issue I've come up against in my own writing: How do writers portray dialogue between characters who speak different languages natively? Too much fumbling turns a dialogues into farce (not always a bad thing), but just a bit of fumbling can look like a writer's awkward prose instead of foreign constructions. In the Stockholm Diaries series, I've taken the easy way out: All my Swedish heroes have at some point lived in English-speaking countries. That, together with the fact that Sweden starts their students on English in first grade, makes their native-like English not too much of a stretch.
But, as I mentioned, that's the easy route.
Bourne takes a harder route, and the results of her success are strong characterizations. Annique is the character with non-native sentence constructions. This gets complicated, as her internal narrative is smooth (we're to assume she's thinking in French), and when the plot has them all speaking in German (though we read this part in English, of course), they all have the same kinds of sentences. However, when Annique speaks with Grey and the other spies, she has her own sentence peculiarities, giving her charm but also validating her own perspective, even when she works against the others: she's not like everyone else.
Confused yet? What's interesting is that the narrative itself flows smoothly; it's only when I look closely at what Bourne's doing that I see how difficult this would be to pull off. I love the idea, but I think I need a few more books under my belt before I attempt non-native nuances in the dialogue!