The Emperor’s Agent by Jo Graham
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
And so my first book of 2017 is done, although it’s a bit of a cheat as I started it at the end of 2016.
I purchased this book as part of a book bundle – I think it was on StoryBundle.com. The relevance of that is that I didn’t buy the bundle for this book and I hadn’t realized until starting it that it was the fifth book in a series. As far as that goes, I think the book functions quite well as a standalone book. Taking a quick look at the descriptions of other books in the series – it appears that only book 4 (the one preceding this one) is directly related to the characters here. So other than not knowing the conceit of the way the world works in the Numinous World series, you’re not out of luck starting here.
Quick plot summary: It’s France shortly after Napoleon assumes power. Our main character is a courtesan and if I understood the various hints in the text, her job is more about being an actress and arm candy than sex, although she may need to sell that aspect of herself in the off season. One thing leads to another and she quickly ends up becoming a spy for Napoleon.
I am a history geek/nerd, but most of my area of expertise is either the ancient world (Biblical times to Roman times) or from America’s founding until now – mostly focused on America with a few bits of knowledge about Europe (like how they spent forever trying to prevent Germany from becoming a unified country) I know next to nothing about France or this time period in France. A huge chunk of the book revolves around an invasion that Napoleon wants to conduct and I kept thinking that if I knew a bit more about French history I’d either know whether it succeeded, failed, or even happened. It would be interesting to see how someone with better knowledge of history would view the plot twist on the penultimate page.
Speaking of which, a quick note about the plot and pacing of the novel. It worked well enough, I gave it 3 stars and, in order not to succumb to “grade inflation” I go by what it says when you hover over the rating. According to Goodreads, 3 stars is “I liked it”. That said, I was expecting the novel to involve maybe a couple spy missions followed by a big one or a couple that led to a greater understanding of the big one. Instead we had one mission that is resolved in the last 10 pages of the book.
Given the book’s cover and, my perhaps misunderstood, mention of her being a courtesan, I thought perhaps the book would involve her using her sexual “abilities” to get info out of people. Nope. It happens once early on and then not again. Frankly, it’s not a big deal – if I wanted a “dirty book”, I’d look for one explicitly, but it was definitely surprising.
That said, the few sex scenes within the book are pretty explicit. What was fun for me, as a guy, was to get that all-too-rare experience (at least outside the romance genre) of sex from a woman’s perspective. Ms Jo Graham did a pretty good job, I feel, of showing how sexuality can function differently for a woman as well as places in which we actually aren’t quite so different after all. Particularly amusing, I thought, was one scene where our heroine was masquerading as a man at a gay bar and handled a sexual situation there without giving away that she was a woman.
Speaking of which, this book also deal quite a bit with gender and sexual fluidity. For our main character, someone happened in her childhood that caused her to be able to fluidly switch between identifying as a man or a woman. Complete with the (so I hear from others and podcasts) accurate fact that she behaves very differently depending on how she’s presenting at the moment. There are also a bunch of flashbacks with her and another character who has to deal with the fact that while he doesn’t consider himself gay, he does enjoy her as the man persona sometimes. For a historical fiction book, it does quite a bit to make one understand the complexity of identity.
If you thought the book was already full of themes and ideas, well, you’re in for one more. Partway through the book, it turns out to contain some spiritual elements – like people fighting on the astral plane Charles Xavier type of stuff. It seems to come out of nowhere, but after reading the descriptions of the other books, this is one thing I can’t fault Ms Jo Graham for – it’s my fault jumping into book 5 of a series about spiritual battle.
In the end my only quandary is who to recommend this book to. It’s not quite smutty enough for my smut-reading friends on Goodreads. It’s not quite romance enough for the romancers. It’s pretty good on historical fiction, but I don’t have enough experience with those to know if the sexual content is to be expected or out of the ordinary. And it’s definitely not enough of a spy novel for the spy novel nerds. I guess it’s best for those who like one of those categories and would like to sample (tappas-style) some other categories they aren’t used to.