RevWar Espionage: Nobody Does It Better

RevWar reading: an early favorite

RevWar reading: an early favorite

America’s “first” spies seem to be all over the place these days. Spy thrillers in general are ever-popular  — how many times have you read recently that The Americans is “the best show on television“? But I keep crossing paths with fresh storytelling around America’s much earlier spymasters and secret agents.  Revolutionary War tales have always captivated me, and been a mainstay of my decades as a romance and historical fiction reader. Now there are swashbuckling RevWar tales coming to life on screens and in new genres and media, from television to graphic novels to interactive living history experiences.

I don’t know how to measure whether these productions represent a significant trend toward renewed mainstream interest in 18th century American history, or part of a larger trend towards historical drama (the TV series in particular) but I do know I am enjoying the chance to see heroes in tricornes and mobcaps match wits and swords with villains who don’t always reveal themselves merely in the color of their red coats.  Here’s my list of new RevWar spy stories, probably incomplete (I’m pretty sure there must be RevWar fans who are gamers, hence games, but that’s foreign territory for me), with just a few brief impressions.

AMC’s Turn  This high profile series from AMC follows in the footsteps of HBO’s John Adams, but takes real history in a more traditional direction for television — towards twisty plotlines, sexy intrigue, constant threats of danger, and violence.  It’s coming back for Season 2 in about a month (April 2015). I admit I probably had overly high expectations for this show, given the sheer numbers of romantic and heroic novels set in this period that I’ve read. I’m a fan, but largely because of the setting, the attention to details of social history and everyday life in British-occupied North America, and quality of the production, rather than any sense of emotional connection to the characters. My connection to the story feels as if it’s happening via the evocation of history I already know and care about, rather than happening through my experience of these individuals and their particular stories.

The bad guys seem more interesting, in spite of Simcoe's sociopathic behavior, than the good guys...

The bad guys seem more interesting, in spite of Simcoe’s sociopathic behavior, than the good guys…

It’s an ensemble cast, and I have some favorites – dueling spymasters Ben Tallmadge (Seth Numrich) and John Andre (JJ Felid) are a delicious contrast – but the two principal leads, Abe Woodhull (Jamie Bell) and Anna Strong (Heather Lind) just don’t make a strong enough impression, and as they occupy the center of the plot, it all somehow just feels too flat. I keep wanting to like Abe more, or care more about him as an unsual/unlikely Everyman kind of conflicted hero, but … it’s not happening. Anna is the more ballsy hero here, with nothing left to lose, but again, it’s not powerful enough. The center doesn’t hold. Fortunately, there are enough charismatic secondary characters, especially those fighting for the “wrong” side (not in the pic, but well worth mentioning is Angus MacFadyen’s Robert Rogers), and connections to historic events and places that I find compelling, for me to keep watching.

Sleepy Hollow OK, this show with its OTT apocalyptic horror elements is not a true spy drama, but it’s supernatural time travel mystery is embedded in RevWar history and myth, and spins a hilariously fun yarn that links Washington’s inner circle of strategists and spies to saving mankind from satanic forces of evil and the Four Horsemen. It’s the opposite of Turn in that it’s got a charismatic relationship at its center that kept me watching even after I tired of the surrounding elements, which in this case involve a lot of crazy antics with zombies, witches, sin-eaters, and curses.

tom-mison-1024_zps327669edMore of a badass than he appears on the surface, Tom Mison’s Ichabod Crane is the embodiment of an 18th century scholar soldier, an eminently watchable hero in the Dunnett mold (though I suppose I am stopping short of a full-blown Lymond comparison here, because the supernatural elements of this show are too silly for me). As brass tacks foil for Crane’s hilarious encounters with 21st century customs and technology, Nicole Beharie’s Abbie Mills strikes just the right balance between eye rolling and empathy. Cryptography and code breaking are important tools for driving the storyline, so I’m counting Sleepy Hollow in my collection of RevWar spy storytelling.  While we’re talking about television, I haven’t yet seen History Channel’s Sons of Liberty, but it may end up here on the list too, if there’s enough spying going on.

RevQuest @ Colonial Williamsburg I’m the kind of parent whose children are likely to complain that every family vacation was interrupted by detours and pit stops at every national historic site or house museum that could be crammed in to the itinerary. So we’ve been to a LOT of these places, including the biggest and most well regarded of the big living history attractions (for those interested in early American history) like Plimoth Plantation and Old Sturbridge Village. And I’ve probably adopted the Massachusetts habit of dissing places like “Tory” Virginia when it comes to comparing bragging rights about Revolutionary sites and significance. So I wasn’t expecting to be as wowed by Colonial Williamsburg as I was when I took the tweens there last April. A huge element of the wow factor was their tremendously fun and elaborate interactive real-time spy game —  RevQuest.

d140aac835f780c3ff1abeed3b0f7e0dScavenger hunts for kids are ubiquitous at educational and historic museums these days, but RevQuest takes that kind of experience to a whole new level. You get props, you must pick up and decode secret messages, you have to notice and approach other members of the “resistance,” and you send messages to your handler via secret system (there are segments of the quest that test your codebreaking skill via text messaging). It’s challenging and fun enough for older kids — we saw lots of teens and young adults on the sprawling quest that takes the better part of a day to complete (participants wear a bright scarf you’re issued when you sign up) — and families can play along together (there’s also a more traditional scavenger hunt map for younger kids). It’s a fantastic lens through which to experience a day in the revolutionary city, and each year the quest is re-framed with a new storyline and set of clues. Last year’s “The Old Enemy” placed participants in the role of senior agent responsible for brokering the alliance with France, to obtain much-needed stores of gunpowder. My daughters were captivated by the experience, and the piece that really made it work was learning some spycraft along with real history about the American situation and strategy during the early days of the war against Britain. I can’t tell you how great it was to see my reserved, somewhat shy daughters, emboldened to approach and interact with the interpreters playing the roles of fellow secret patriots.

5137bd1ed9ecf.preview-620Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales Another YA-related phenomenon, this series of graphic novels was launched in 2012 with the story of American hero spy, Nathan Hale. In truth, only the first book, One Dead Spy, and the cleverly arch conceit that frames the series, has anything to do with RevWar spies, but we think these books are so much fun, I had to include them. And get this, the extremely gifted author/illustrator is actually named NATHAN HALE. For reals!

Donner Dinner Party and Big Bad Ironclad are also, rather unbelievably given the subject matter, very witty.  Each tale is a meticulously researched and illustrated volume that delivers an unusual blend of black humor, middle school age-appropriate gross-out japery, and serious historical storytelling that explores and explicates the how and why of some very hazardous (and dark) episodes in US history. The girls and I are eagerly anticipating Hale’s newest tale – forthcoming in April – The Underground Abductor — a tale about Harriet Tubman and her perilous journeys on the Underground Railroad.

Mistress_FirebrandBaloghRenegades of the Revolution I’m going to wrap this post up with a teaser — I have recently finished reading Donna Thorland’s Mistress Firebrand, the third volume in the Renegades series of swashbuckling romances grounded in authentically tumultuous Revolutionary America. Thorland’s dark and dangerous spy romances (The Turncoat, and The Rebel Pirate) weave a complex and glittering web of honor, deceit, loyalty, treachery, violence and courage around her beautifully imagined characters. For me, Joanna Bourne sets the bar pretty high when it comes to historical spy romance, but Thorland delivers, and I’m looking forward to sharing more of my response to the seemingly impossible romance between reckless rebel playwright Jennifer Leighton and ruthless Crown agent Severin Devere in a forthcoming post.

(Full disclosure: Donna is a twitter acquaintance, and was kind enough to send me an ARC of Mistress Firebrand. In accordance with my policy, I’m not under obligation to review, and if I do write about the book, it will be my honest opinion.)

So what do you think? If you’re a reader of American history and historical fiction, do you notice a resurgence of multi-media re-tellings of our Revolutionary history, with an emphasis on the clandestine goings on? Are there aspects of the collective past that are being reframed and/or repackaged, and to what end(s)?

RevWar Romance: Turncoat + Quaker = Badass Couple

THE TURNCOAT, by Donna Thorland

A suspenseful Revolutionary War spy romance set against a finely textured backdrop of intrigue and decadence in British-occupied Philadelphia

For the British: Peter Tremayne, titled, well-connected officer who’s too principled for a career leading a ruthless army of occupation, too honorable for his own good, and too much in love to turn in the woman he knows played a role in his disgrace and is spying for Washington.

For the Americans: Kate Grey, serious, smart Quaker whose tactical genius and boldly calculated courage are roused by Major Tremayne along with her first taste of true desire.

The Turncoat (Renegades of the Revolution, #1)

Brought to you by: Donna Thorland, in The Turncoat (Renegades of the Revolution #1), 2013: Penguin/New American Library.

From the publisher (jacket copy):

They are lovers on opposite sides of a brutal war, with everything at stake and no possibility of retreat. They can trust no one—especially not each other.

Major Lord Peter Tremayne is the last man rebel bluestocking Kate Grey should fall in love with, but when the handsome British viscount commandeers her home, Kate throws caution to the wind and responds to his seduction. She is on the verge of surrender when a spy in her own household seizes the opportunity to steal the military dispatches Tremayne carries, ensuring his disgrace—and implicating Kate in high treason. Painfully awakened to the risks of war, Kate determines to put duty ahead of desire, and offers General Washington her services as an undercover agent in the City of Brotherly Love.

Months later, having narrowly escaped court martial and hanging, Tremayne returns to decadent, British-occupied Philadelphia with no stomach for his current assignment—to capture the woman he believes betrayed him. Nor does he relish the glittering entertainments being held for General Howe’s idle officers. Worse, the glamorous woman in the midst of this social whirl, the fiancée of his own dissolute cousin, is none other than Kate Grey herself. And so begins their dangerous dance, between passion and patriotism, between certain death and the promise of a brave new future together.

Real History AND Romance, again!

Lucky me – two books in a row that offer meticulous and atmospheric colonial history along with a breathtaking and believable romance. Like The Traitor’s Wife, which I reviewed for my previous post, The Turncoat falls on the “cusp” of the romance genre, where it blends seamlessly into historical fiction, and has been published in trade softcover format. But as with many a traditional histrom from Avon or HQN, the bosom&bodice cover image and allusion to a “Renegades” series tell a romance reader what to expect. This is certainly a romance novel. And what a romance novel! I loved it.

Here’s why:

Great hero. Peter is above reproach in many ways that matter; he deplores the inhumanity of the occupying force along with the particular depravity of certain notorious officers. Yet he’s subtle and nuanced – he’s not holier-than-thou and he’s not above using Kate’s attraction to him against her, from their first private encounter to his discovery of her masquerade as a wealthy Loyalist socialite in close proximity to the most deadly senior officers. He’s not an alpha, but he’s a survivor; he has a tortured family history and has twice disgraced his service to the Crown due to an innate sympathy for the victims of his army’s imperial occupation. He’s focused, strong, elegant and tenacious, but not one of those larger-than-life heroes who take up all the space in the book. Which is good, because….

Even greater, Jane-ish heroine. Like my beloved Jane Eyre, Kate is stronger than she knows, smarter than most of the people she encounters, unremittingly sure of her principles, and able to make painful sacrifices in order to act according to her moral compass. Her selfhood is never in question, even when she is brought painfully low it’s clear she’s choosing aspects of her abjection as a form of atonement.  And never at any time does it come across as “feisty” or “spunky” or TSTL-foolhardy, like some heroines who dash around madly and adorably doing the right thing and saving the day. This is a beautiful portrait of an unworldly young woman who becomes very worldly very fast. She falters, she doubts, she questions her own motives and inconvenient desires, but her strongly pragmatic idealism survives.

Non-icky “deflowering” scene that supports character development. (possible spoiler alert) Yes, Kate is a virgin and yes, Peter is an accomplished lover who senses her “awakening desire.” Blah blah. But Thorland deftly steers clear of the potential pitfalls with this trope. For one thing, I think it’s daring to put her heroine in the hands, literally, of another man, not the hero, for her first overtly sexual experience — this is an uncomfortable yet revealing scene where Kate, wearing her alluring assumed identity, has her first climax with her faux fiance, the curious villain of the novel, and Peter’s look-alike cousin, sadist Bayard Caide. I know, this all sounds convoluted, but it really works to throw the coupling of Kate/Peter into high relief, while exposing layers of nuance and complexity when we read Kate through her alternate identity in the Lydia/Bay scenes.

When Peter and Kate spend the night together the actual un-flowering (why isn’t there a better one-word term for this than the supremely silly “deflowering”??) scene is blessedly unflowery, and unsentimental.  Nor is it bizarrely implausible (worst for me is when these scenes are overly swoon-y and the heroine is suddenly discovered to be a “natural” sex goddess). This is one of the best scenes in the book for allowing the reader to see Peter and Kate as a man and a woman in love, in conversation, and in intimacy, without the burden of false identities or imminent danger. It’s emotionally satisfying. It’s also prosaic yet sexy and compelling.

Fresh look at fascinating history. Here is where l disclose that I have a tweep-ish acquaintance with the author, and we have twitter-chatted briefly about the history in this book, my fangirl appreciation for it, and a shared interest in local historic sites and museums. I have read numerous other fictional treatments of this period and the role of women in Revolutionary War espionage, many also incorporating the legendary figures of Benedict Arnold, Peggy Shippen, and Major John Andre.

As I read The Turncoat I thought a lot about the sentimental turn-of-the-century Janice Meredith, by Paul Leicester Ford (1899), which I read as a teen, and Shadow Patriots by Lucia St. Clair Robson (2005), both of which present Andre as a heroic figure on the wrong side of history. And there are dozens of other novels which do the same. But this is the first I’ve read which offers a darker, less sympathetic portrayal of the dashing, artistic Major Andre. Thorland effectively uses her knowledge of social history and material culture to create a plausibly creepier and more human version of the notorious spy hanged by Washington.

And her background as a curator of historic houses also lends varied textures to the novel’s architectural and domestic settings and deepens the impact of the events that happen therein.

Here are some of Kate’s thoughts on the first night she spends with Peter:

She’d realized in the first few weeks of her adventure in Philadelphia that no matter what the outcome of the war, she had transgressed. There would be no place in polite society, neither the learned salons of Philadelphia nor the forgiving parlors of Orchard Valley, for a woman who bartered her body for secrets. It was simply too sordid.

But this bedroom, borrowed though it was, was not sordid. It was the private retreat of proud parents. There were penmanship and embroidery samples on the wall, framed and hung with care. In the corner was the dressing table of a lady fine enough to receive visitors during her toilette, but not so fine as to banish the toys abandoned beside her chair: the cup and ball, the hoop and stick some toddler must have chased around the room just before they were forced to flee the house.


They lay drowsing on the soft down mattress, curled on their sides facing each other.

“I like this room,” she said, running her fingers through the fringe on the bed curtains. “Whoever lived here must miss it. I don’t think you could be unhappy in a house like this.”

He’d noted the toys beside the dressing table, the penmanship samples… “It feels like a home,” he replied.

Donna Thorland, The Turncoat, 2013, New American Library softcover edition, pp. 243 & 255.

This was a great read, both as historical fiction AND as a romance novel. In my book, that’s always a win-win. My only reservation in recommending The Turncoat to any and all histrom fans who will listen is the level of violence and the pervasive threat of rape which looms throughout Kate’s journey from country girl to notorious spy and turncoat’s wife.  Like other armies of occupation throughout history, the British in the American colonies during the war used rape as one weapon of intimidation against the general populace, as well as for punishing/torturing women suspected of espionage, and the book does include several depictions of rape or torture involving both peripheral and central characters. These scenes are not gratuitous, but the book has a graphic darkness not often found in historical romance.  Yet it IS a romance, and as such, there is a lovely HEA, hard-won and very satisfying.

Postscript: On Badass Couples

Peter and Kate reminded me of some of the compelling things about Jamie and Claire in the Outlander books — they’re both powerful in their own right but somehow become more than the sum of their parts as a couple. Like Gabaldon’s famous characters (headed to a screen near everyone next year…ack.) Peter and Kate endure long separations and harrowing near escapes, they share a sexual chemistry and candor with each other that is verbal and emotional as well as physical, and they each rescue each other and are rescued over the course of their story. Also, the use of violence in this novel is not unlike some of the challenging aspects of Outlander.

I’m a Gabaldon fan though I recognize the unevenness of her unwieldy series, and not much HEA, except at the end of the first book. But I do relish Thorland’s creation of a badass couple, akin to Jamie/Claire, and if she wanted to write them more adventures, I’d happily go along for the ride.

The Turncoat is available in the usual formats and places. I purchased my copy at my local used bookseller.