In her regency era romance Moonlight Masquerade, Ruth Axtell tells the story of a Rees Phillips, a merchant's son, who is vying for promotion in the government by agreeing to spy on a widowed countess - French by birth - who, with her powerful connections in both England and France, could well be a spy herself. Posing as a butler, Rees infiltrates the house and begins his observation of her. Are her suspicious actions merely coincidental, or do they point to treason? And if she is a spy, what of his changing heart? To what lengths can he go to protect her without committing treason himself?
Having accidentally read A Heart's Rebellion, Axtell's sequel to this novel, first, I found that most of the mystery surrounding Celine was lost (my mistake!). However, it is not a large part of the novel - the dance back and forth between Rees and Celine is far more important, as they secretly observe each other and ultimately form a relationship of sorts. However, it is definitely more a romance than a spy novel. I would have enjoyed a bit more thrill of flirting with danger, though at least their relationship is fairly solidly built, for all that they cannot completely trust each other.
In spite of the complexity of French politics at the time, with Napoleon on the throne, old Jacobin supporters running around, the aristocrat emigrees making noise from England, and other more moderate factions vying for power, Axtell does a good job portraying the history without bogging down. She only skims the surface of those murky waters, but she does a good job conveying the fact that the politics were both complex and volatile. It was not just for or against Napoleon - there were many sides, some of which were approved by the English, and some of which were not. Which were good, which were bad, which were right, which were wrong? Regarding English daily life, I liked that as a merchant's son, a navy man, and a clerk, Rees had absolutely no experience with service, so posing as a butler is a challenge for him. It keeps it real and brings challenge to his role as a spy.
Based on the two books I have now read by Axtell, I believe she is well researched in the Regency era, which comes out in detail in her novels. Her book is a solid, enjoyable read, and it put me in mind more of Baroness Orczy's classic The Scarlet Pimpernel than of Jane Austen's novels. 4 out of 5 stars!
1. Moonlight Masquerade
2. A Heart's Rebellion