Sunday, November 24, 2013

Book review: The Emperor's Agent, by Jo Graham

This invigorating follow-up to The General’s Mistress finds its heroine, Dutch courtesan-actress Elzelina Ringeling, aka Ida St. Elme, in a tough spot. It’s 1805 in Paris, and she’s being blackmailed by Fouché, the Minister of Police, into informing on people from her past. A crucial choice on her part brings her to Napoleon, who charges her with flushing out a spy who’s been feeding his invasion plans to England. Arriving in the coastal city of Boulogne, she finds herself in way over her head. There are many highly-placed suspects, and as she tries to scout for the traitor, she’s forced into the company of Michel Ney, her soul mate, who had previously left her to marry someone else.

Elza is one of the most distinctive characters in Napoleonic-era fiction. She is based on a real person whose provocative journals (Mémoires d’une Contemporaine) gained her considerable renown, and through her eyes, we observe both the feminine demi-monde as well as the camaraderie and banter among officers in the Grande Armée. A woman of her times, Elza acknowledges gender constraints while boldly fashioning her own way of life within them. Dressed as her alter ego Charles van Aylde – or in shedding her male garb when slipping into bed with an understanding lover – she can embrace the other side of her nature.

With this sequel, Graham brings readers fully into the realm of historical fantasy as her reincarnation themes become more prominent, and Elza comes to accept her clairvoyant abilities. One of the most enjoyable aspects is that the novel’s mystical tone isn’t limited to these scenes; the descriptive language simply glows as it awakens us to the realization that all around us is a place of marvels. Not only a beguiling story of political espionage, self-discovery, and deeply felt love in early 19th-century Europe, it also gives us a creative and enchanting way of envisioning these characters’ world.

The Emperor's Agent was published by Crossroad Press in September (290pp, $15.99 pb / $27.99 hb / $4.99 ebook).  This review first appeared in November's Historical Novels Review.

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