The Black Hawk, a review

One problem I have with writing reviews is that I don’t like negatively influencing what someone might buy. You know how it goes. Somebody you respect urges you, read this book, and you do and don’t like it. Well, you know, “I love this book and you might, too,” is one thing. But, “This book didn’t work for me and this is why,” has the potential to do something worse, in my opinion, and that’s discouraging someone from reading something they might have loved.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I actually loved a lot about Joanna Bourne’s The Black Hawk.  

The characterization was superb. I loved Hawker. I loved Owl. These characters were sensitively and exquisitely drawn. I sometimes ached for them. Both were children with horrid pasts who grew up scarred yet amazingly strong. She was French and he was English, and both were spies. They were enemies in love, and it worked on every level. This is romance at its finest.

I’ve sought out other reviews and every one I’ve read was written by someone who had read all of Bourne’s previous books and has waited with great anticipation for Hawker’s story. I wonder how much difference it makes that these reviewers opened the book already knowing Hawker at different periods in his life, had already fallen under the spell of his personality and the things he overcame, and entered the story with that knowledge.

Here’s the way it worked for me. I had read one previous book and honestly, really liked it a lot, and honestly, remembered little about it when I opened this one. And when I opened this one, it worked. I didn’t know Hawker’s past, nor did I know Owl’s. And from the earliest pages I was caught up in their story.

[Do you sense a “but” coming?]

This book is told through a series of flashbacks that were perfectly executed. I never got lost, and once I got into each time period (which didn’t take long) I was caught up in the tensions and dramas of the moment. As a novel, this structure worked.

As a romance novel? Here is my “but” and I offer it knowing that few other reviewers have had this problem. I was never able to sink fully into the narrative of the story–despite how beautifully the relationship was drawn–because it was not told chronologically and did not give me the “romance novel” experience of a building tension that left me breathless, wondering what would happen next. I knew from the beginning what would happen next. They would survive to a certain age and position in London. “How” was a question, but I was robbed of much of the drama. When one flashback ended in what could be seen as an ultimate betrayal of one gravely injuring another, I was not left with the devastated individual dealing with the knowledge that their beloved would think it was done deliberately. I didn’t suffer with the other who must have believed that very thing.

Instead, I was whisked back to the present.

It was only when I finished the book that I was able to put all of this in perspective, to understand how I could find the book so well-constructed and emotionally gripping, and yet feel distanced. It was because the very construction that on the one had worked, did not ever allow me to completed give myself over to the story and live through the characters.

I say this knowing that I am in the minority, and hoping I don’t discourage anybody from reading this book. I do wonder if it would have been different, had I entered the book with the same deep background knowledge and affection for the characters as the typical romance reviewer.

As a novel I would give it 5 stars, meaning, I enjoyed the heck out of this book.

As a romance, I would give it 4, and since it was meant to be a romance I will have to stand by that rating.

But hey, if you like romance, read it and let me know what you think. It’s a book worth reading.

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Filed under Books, History, Novels, Review, Romance

6 responses to “The Black Hawk, a review

  1. Firstly, let me confess: I am one of those people who waited for this book with baited breath. Hawker has been a character of great mystery and intrigue throughout Jo Bourne’s novels and to have him unraveled left me hopping from one foot to another with impatience.

    I was prepared for disappointment. Surely it would not be possible for my outrageous expectations to be met? But they were. I loved the strength of voice in this novel. I love the way Jo Bourne can write in a ragged, almost street style which fits so perfectly with a boy from the gutter and then segue into an idiosyncratic french rhythm when writing from Owl’s point of view. Her writing is hugely immersive like that.

    I didn’t mind that we knew Owl and Hawker would survive and meet in London. The reader always kind of knows how romances and detective novels will end: couple together and murder solved. We want that satisfaction, so that’s fine. What’s exciting is the journey the character’s take, the development of their characters, the obstacles they overcome. I thought that Black Hawk had that in spades.

    Usually flashbacks drive me mad. Usually they are clunky. In this case I was surprised at how easily I slid from past to future and how engrossed I became in the intertwined storylines – I didn’t really mind which era I was in, because the plotting was sophisticated enough to keep me engrossed.

    In some respects I think Black Hawk has elements of a mystery novel. There are clues and hints, twists and turns – we are moving towards solving the mystery of who tried to kill Owl – and why? But Jo keeps us firmly rooted in romance, through the sweetness and nobility of the real love between her two protagonists, which is in direct contrast to their life experiences – in some ways, the only pure thing that exists for either of them. I loved the scene where they first make love, the kindness and honesty of it.

    I did feel that I suffered with them both, and because Hawker has been such a closed book (if you’ll pardon the pun) I don’t think it is because I knew him so well. But I do think this is an atypical romance – and all the better for it.

    • Thanks for trying again! I honestly agree with all you say. The only difference for me was that I found it easy to put down between sequences. For example (and, avoiding spoilers) the incident I tried to reference carefully–where one of them is responsible for injuring the other, and is horrified to realize that the other one would assume it was intentional? The experience of horror was truncated for me, because I flipped the page and realized we were back to “present” day, that I wasn’t going to see what came next, and I wasn’t really ready to go there. The series of vignettes were each compelling and emotionally gripping, but they each ended, instead of building and building and building to a crescendo.

      I do expect this book to win a Rita!

  2. Kaetrin

    I gave this one a B+ so I think we ended up at the same point. I also think you managed to articulate one of the struggles I had with the book – I had put it down to trying too hard to savour it and therefore becoming disconnected but reading your review, I think that what you said about the flashbacks was very much a part of it too. I didn’t have any trouble following them, but there wasn’t the same tension.

    The problem is, that as I have read all the other books, I knew already about a bit of Justine and Adrian’s history but not tons. The book did need to flesh out the bits we already knew (the how/why they fell in love) and also the how they got their HEA in the “present” of the book. Perhaps it would have worked better for us both if it had been in 2 parts, the past and the “present”?

    Thx for a very interesting post!

    • I was reading another book simultaneously to this one, a book that was not a romance. It was not emotionally as engrossing–it was not written from the deep point of view that allows us to experience the characters and their plights so intensely. Things happened in that book that would have bothered me a lot in a romance but didn’t bother me at all in the context of a different genre, and in fact I found them fascinating and dramatic twists. And it made me think how different I experience a book that is meant to be a romance as compared to a book that is not. In this case, the difference was that the other novel was not HEA, was not a one man/one woman story, but since I wasn’t as intimately living the story, I wasn’t as devastated by things that would have truly been painful in a well-written romance. And in fact, I loved the other book because I had different expectations and reasons for reading that genre.

      And that’s what reminded me of the typical flow of a romance novel.

      Going against the flow, the “beginning/middle/end” without the device of flashbacks to supply them, did not hurt the book, The Black Hawk, or story at all. It may have even made it a better book in that it was intricate and fascinating.

      I’m just not sure that it made it a better romance, when you get down to the emotional experience of reading a romance.

      And now I need to go back and read the books I’ve missed. I only read the first one, which I loved and recommended to several people. For some reason I haven’t read the others. I’ll be interested to see if it changes my experience of rereading this one!

      Thanks so much for commenting! Don’t forget to follow the link to learn how to win a book of your choice!

      • I think The Forbidden Rose is the best, with The Spymaster’s Lady and The Black Hawk vying for second, though the former is currently winning. My Lord and Spymaster was also good and has some special Adrian bits.

      • I look forward to that one. It seems to be a lot of peoples’ favorite. (Forbidden Rose) I read The Spymaster’s Lady and loved it.

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