Sebastian's Lady Spy (Secrets & Seduction #5) by Sharon Cullen
'Sebastian's Lady Spy' is Sharon Cullen's 5th book in her Secrets & Seduction series.
Lets follow the book description: 'Sebastian Addison has a powerful secret. To society he is the Earl of Claybrook, the patriarch who raised his siblings after the death of their parents. But to the king, Sebastian is Britain’s top spy—a position that has taken an emotional toll on him.'
Sounds promising, I thought. A hero with a double life, troubled by his conflicting duties to his title and associated responsibilities on the one hand and his country on the other hand. Gaelen Foley's Lord of Fire had a similar premise and I enjoyed that book a great deal. It was interesting to read and learn about the psychological implications of the spy trade, which by its very definition is about dishonesty and secrecy, for a man who was brought up with ideas of honour and aristocratic conduct.
However, no problems of this sort are actually tackled in 'Sebastian's Lady Spy' and I have yet to figure out how in particular Sebastian was struggling with his situation. Sure, there were moments of him thinking 'but is it worth it?', however who does not sometimes grapple with work-life balance dissatisfaction. All in all he seemed way more concerned about his mounting desire regarding Gabrielle's luscious curves and sun-kissed skin than with any inner turmoil regarding his so-called powerful secret.
'Contessa Gabrielle Marciano has also been living a lie, her title a cover devised by the Office of Intelligence. The femme fatale was plucked from a life of crime and prostitution and trained to restrain her passionate nature. Until she meets the earl. For three deeply sensual days and nights, Sebastian and Gabrielle drop their masks, indulging in pleasures that seem too good to be true. Then the lovers go their separate ways.'
As for the titular lady spy, Gabrielle was the only thing that came close to a highlight in this book. In the services of the Crown's spy apparatus since the age of 12, she is a well trained agent, skilled in combat and in possession of a quick mind as well. Like most people who can trust their abilities, she is confident, capable and of independent spirit. She is certainly an interesting and likeable character which is why it is such a shame that she is paired with Sebastian and generally doesn't get much to do in terms of spy shenanigans.
And that is a general problem of the book: It has a lot of promising ideas but most of them are just not leading anywhere and remain underused. For example, in one scene Gabrielle and Sebastian discuss her past. He is all rage-y when he hears that part of her job is to sleep with targets - fair enough. But then she explains to him nicely and patiently that she has no regrets, that her life is much preferable to the alternative and that she in fact enjoys what she does: 'You don't understand, do you? It's not a sacrifice. I like what I do. I like that I can travel and see a world I never would have had the opportunity to see. I like that I can help… '. What could have led to an interesting and larger conversation about the sex trade, morals, and women's agency in it, however, is immediately cut short in the most stupid way possible a few pages down the line when Sebastian decides that she has no idea what she wants and is talking about: 'She claimed she was happy with her life, but he wondered. The Office has made her into something different. Has taken the little girl she'd been and turned her into a lethal weapon…' Way to disregard and override her expressed will. Why introduce a capable heroine just in order to have her undermined by the hero all the time?
Seven months later they reunite when inside sources report that an English aristocrat has been aiding France in a plot to topple the Crown. Their objective: to find the turncoat. Their greatest challenge: to keep their wild, wounded hearts from derailing a mission of life and death.
Look, I don't want to give too much away of the plot as to not kill the suspense. However, don't expect too much in terms of clever twists and turns worthy of a spy story. Gabrielle and Sebastian kind of stumble through the plot and it seems that the conclusion of the mystery rather finds them than the other way around. Let me just say that at the end our lethal, well trained super spy Gabrielle saves the day by letting herself get captured to provide a distraction to keep the villain entertained long enough until the men arrive to deal with the violent stuff. And yes, I am rolling my eyes really hard right now.
In addition I was really appalled by one subplot of the story. It involves a secretly gay character who is blackmailed into abducting the heroine in order to keep his secret. It's fine of course to have non-heroic or even villainous gay characters but is it really necessary to resurrect the prejudice that gay men constitute a security risk due to potential blackmail in order to drive the plot forward?
Aside from the misleading plot summary, questionable characters and plot devices, I really struggled connecting with the story and characters overall. Too often the writing felt anachronistic to me - not just regarding the use of language but also in the description of relationships, interactions and the main characters' motivations. So while some might enjoy this story as a quick read with some suspense and a unique premise, I remain underwhelmed.