"Beauty and the Spy" is Julie Anne Long's third Regency-set historical romance and I am happy to report that her writing seems to be getting more polished with each book. I was one who *liked* but did not *love* her debut effort, "The Runaway Duke", so I was expecting to be slightly underwhelmed with "Beauty and the Spy" as well. I was vastly pleased to discover that "Beauty and the Spy" lives up to all the positive buzz that it has been generating. Although there has been no shortage of Regency nobleman/spy heroes in recent historical romances, "Beauty and the Spy" has a very fresh feel to its characters and prose that transcends its well-traveled storyline.
This book is the first in a series of stories about the three young daughters of Richard Lockwood, a respected Member of Parliament (and spy!), and Anna Holt, his mistress. When Richard is murdered while trying to expose a government traitor, Anna is framed for the crime and must flee the country. She leaves her three little girls (Susannah, Sylvie and Sabrina) in the care of Richard's friend, James Makepeace. Seventeen years later, Susannah Makepeace, is a lovely, pampered young lady, having been raised by James, a wealthy importer (and spy!), as his own child. When James himself is mysteriously murdered, Susannah's well-ordered existence is shattered when it is discovered that James was deeply in debt. Penniless and jilted by her handsome, titled fiance, Susannah accepts an offer to go live in the country with James's relation, Aunt Frances.
Almost immediately upon arrival in the country, Susannah stumbles over the hero of the story, Kit Whitelaw, a viscount (and former spy!) and heir to the local earldom. Kit has been forced to rusticate by his father who has become concerned by his son's increasingly wild behavior while in London. Kit has been assigned by his father the task of creating a folio of the local flora and fauna, and as Susannah happens to be a talented artist, he engages her help for the illustrations. It soon becomes apparent that someone is trying to kill the unsuspecting Susannah, and Kit is forced to solve the mystery of her birth and expose the traitor who killed Richard Lockwood in order to protect her.
Kit and Susannah are both very engaging characters--attractive but charmingly imperfect. Susannah is unabashedly materialistic and a bit spoiled, but she has a restless, slightly reckless heart that is a perfect match for Kit's own. Kit has the requisite history of an unhappy love affair in his youth that led him to harden his heart to all women, but amazingly he never seems like a cliche. The story is very well-written and moves along well with only minimal dragging in the second half. There are still too many plot coincidences for my taste, that is only a minor quibble. The villain (and villainess!) are pleasantly nuanced for evil-doers in a historical romance.
In summary, "Beauty and the Spy" is a well-written historical romance with a very engaging hero and heroine. Julie Anne Long's prose is a pleasure to read and refreshingly free of the usual romance cliches. The next book in the series ("Ways to Be Wicked") is the story of Susannah's wilder sister, Sylvie, who has been raised by a French opera dancer. The preview at the end of BATS looked delightfully original and I look forward to that story as well.