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Judith James

REVIEW: The King’s Courtesan by Judith James

REVIEW: The King’s Courtesan by Judith James

Dear Ms. James,

I vaguely recall hearing about your two previous books, Broken Wing and Libertine’s Kiss, and being a bit intrigued. They sounded like a bit of something different, with unusual settings and good reader buzz. When the opportunity came recently to read The King’s Courtesan, I jumped at the chance.

The King's Courtesan	Judith JamesHope Matthews and Robert Nichols both have traumatic pasts; Hope was raised in a brothel by her madam mother, who sold her to the highest bidder when she was just fourteen. Ten years later, Hope has risen in the world; she’s one of Charles II’s many mistresses. In spite of her somewhat tawdry profession, Hope has managed to retain her sweetness and innocence.

Robert’s story is even more tragic; he was only twelve when, with his parents away, Cavaliers invaded his family home and killed his beloved sister. Tormented by her memory and his own guilt at not saving her, Robert fights for the Puritans, soldiering while hunting down his sister’s killers. Once the war ends and Charles II is restored to the throne, Robert returns to his country manor, but the memories still haunt him; one of his targets has evaded him all these years. His life only becomes more empty and painful when he receives a royal decree ordering him to surrender his lands. Rebels against Charles II enjoyed a general amnesty, but it just so happens that Charles owes a powerful man a favor, and what the man wants is Robert’s estate.

All is not lost, though; when an old friend of Robert’s (the heroine of a previous book, Libertine’s Kiss) finds out about his lands being confiscated, she complains to the king (another friend and former admirer of hers, apparently). Charles decides to kill two birds with one stone: he has been trying to find a husband for Hope in order to make her more respectable. Charles is to be married to the Portuguese Infanta, and Hope, knowing her presence at Court will not be welcomed as easily by the new queen as that of Charles’ official mistress, the aristocratic Lady Castlemaine, has asked for his permission to retire to the country. She has money saved and only wants to live a quiet and respectable life. She cares for Charles, even loves him a little, but she knows he cannot really love her and would prefer to have her freedom. Charles balks at this, and schemes to wed Hope to a man who is respectable enough to restore her honor (at least the pretense of it) within the Court. Robert Nichols needs something from him, and so Charles summons him to London; he figures he’ll get Hope married off to Robert, sent off to the country for a while, and sometime after his marriage she can return to Court and to Charles’ bed.

I liked the set-up here relatively well; Robert and Hope are somewhat evenly matched in that both are at the mercy of their powerful king, and don’t actually have a lot of say in the matter of their own marriage. Robert at least is given the respect of being told about it ahead of time (Charles also graces him with a new title and some extra lands in addition to returning Robert’s original lands to him, to sweeten the pot). Hope, on the other hand, ends up tricked into marriage and bundled off with Robert to his country estate practically in the blink of an eye. She is furious with Charles, and furious with Robert as well, thinking him nothing more than a base fortune-hunter (this after feeling an overwhelming attraction upon first meeting him). For Robert’s part, he is attracted to Hope as well, but angry about the marriage and feeling like a cuckold already.

So, the story here is pretty straightforward. Robert and Hope are tied together, at least for the time being, and full of misunderstandings about each other. This leads to a dynamic that I’m less fond of: the bickering hero and heroine. Robert and Hope have a basic pattern that they cycle through on the way to and after arriving at his estate: make goo-goo eyes, get along briefly, get into a dumb fight, sulk. Lather, rinse, repeat. I was tired of it after the first go-round.

I think one of the reasons I was interested in this book was the feeling that I got that it was a bit “old-style.” And it is. But I forgot that this is a double-edged sword – those old-style romances have aspects I really like and miss (different settings!), but they also have aspects that I don’t care for (rather overly traditional and conservative gender characterizations).

Ultimately, it’s on characterization that the book really started to falter for me. Robert is a stock character – brooding, tortured soldier who feels that no one can love him because of the blood on his hands. Hope is, to be a bit flip about it, a hooker with a heart of gold. She’s had a hard life, sure, but it hasn’t kept her from being extraordinarily pure of heart and fairly pure of body. It turns out (quelle surprise!) that Hope is less experienced than advertised…considerably less experienced than one would expect of a girl raised in a brothel, sold at 14, and mistress to a king. Since the “experienced heroine” hook was part of the attraction of the book for me, I found Hope’s innocence and sweetness rather irritating. That is already not my favorite type of heroine (though it can work in some books), and I already resent the age-old romance dynamic of angelic=heroine and cynical and worldly=hero. Throw in the lack of truth in advertising, and I’m a pretty annoyed reader.

Not that Hope is entirely a softy – she deals fairly well with the at-first hostile staff of her new home, and she has a reputation of being somewhat saucy (one of the things that attracted Charles to her in the first place). Perhaps it’s in Robert’s eyes that Hope seems the most childlike and angelic:

His thoughts were filled with a sad-eyed elf with violet eyes.

She patted it absently as she watched out the window, looking for all the world like a lost little waif.

She looked as fragile as a child and he felt like a great bloody oaf.

A couple of things: descriptions of heroines that compare them to children, when observed from the POV of the hero, should be sparing to nonexistent in romance. It’s really kind of yuck. Also, maybe it’s just me, but at this point, when I hear “elf”, I think “Dobby” from the Harry Potter books, and I’m not sure that’s what the author is going for. It didn’t help that the “elf” nickname eventually sticks as Robert’s chief endearment for Hope.

In any case, the contrasting of the big, brutish hero and the tiny, childlike heroine got old pretty quickly. As did the many descriptions of her raven hair and violet eyes. (Now I’m remembering another negative of older-style romances! Constant mentions of the heroine’s physical attributes! Though my favorite will always be the Jennifer Wilde book that was told in the first person by the heroine and still managed to work in mentions of her auburn tresses every couple of pages.)

The prose in The King’s Courtesan is mostly competent, if a bit uninspired, but I had to laugh at the following pronouncement by one of the hero’s friends:

For my money, he’s been married to that cold dark bitch called war.

No. Just no. Someone – editor, crit partner - someone should have put the kibosh on that laughably melodramatic line.

Reading this over, I wonder if I seem unduly harsh. The King’s Courtesan is not a *bad* book; but it’s not a very good one, either. My grade: C.

Best regards,

Jennie

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What Jayne is reading/watching in mid August

What Jayne is reading/watching in mid August

My entries for this feature might end up being sporadic as I often don’t know what I’m going to read next until I eye my TBR print stacks or flip through my menu screens on my ereader. I’m just as spontaneous in my movie watching, too. And once I start a book, the odds are I will either finish it or drop it early so I usually don’t have too many DNF reviews. With that in mind here goes.

Powder and Patch, Black Sheep by Georgette Heyer – see the reviews already posted.

Unnatural Fire by Fidelis Morgan – this is a book I bought after seeing it raved about in the Bas Bleu catalogue. The first in a mystery series set in post Glorious Revolution England (1690s), it features down on her luck noblewoman Countess Ashby de la Zouche and a former servant of hers who solve crimes. It’s warts and all London with all its questionable hygiene and Fleet Street Prison. I started reading this a few weeks ago and put it down for some reason. Maybe the imaginary smells were getting to me but I do plan to pick it up again.

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Spellcast by Barbara Ashford – this is from a box of advanced reading copies that Jane sent me. Maggie lost her job in NYC and after her ceiling fell in on her, she decided to sublet her apartment for the summer then just drive and see where she ends up. The end up spot is a small town in Vermont and to top it off, suddenly she finds herself auditioning for a summer stock group. The tone is hilarious but something made me flip to the end to see if I’d get a HEA. The answer is unclear but due to the fact that I enjoyed Ashford’s writing style, I plan to give this one another go too.

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A Rather Remarkable Homecoming by C.A. Belmond – the fourth entry in this series about a “by marriage” cousins (no blood relation) who inherited some lucre, made some more then fell in love and got married, it picks up with Penny and Jeremy arriving home from their honeymoon to find a new mystery/sleuthing mission awaiting them. Though not as good as books 1 & 3, I still whipped through it and liked it but didn’t love it. Full review will be done.

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Yankee Doodle Dixie by Lisa Patton – the sequel to Whistlin’ Dixie in a Nor’Easter it follows Leelee Satterfield back to her hometown of Memphis, TN. At loose ends after selling the Inn she’d run in Vermont, Leelee finds that her new life in Memphis isn’t quite the return to Home Sweet Home that she thought it would be. It’s the same breezy style as before and I enjoyed seeing Leelee and her 3 best friends again but felt I was reading a rerun of book one but with more heat and humidity. Full review will be done.

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Space Slugs by Frances Pauli – After our recent fun discussion about penguin shapeshifters, I remembered that I had this ebook arc loaded on my ereader and decided, “WTF why not?” I’ve barely begun it and don’t think that the space slug will be the heroine (at least I think it’s a female) of the romance but it’s early days yet.

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After that I have a few books in mind I might try next including The King’s Courtesan by Judith James because I liked the first book in the series and Swept Off Her Feet by Hester Browne because a friend of mine tried and like it.

*****

Hula Girls – it’s 1965 in northern Japan, and the mine that supports most of the town is shutting down. The company plans to develop a “Hawaiian” resort and a number of young women apply to be hula dancers there. Facing criticism from their friends and family, can they stick with it and thereby have jobs or will they cave to public pressure? This defines “heartwarming” though that also applies to “predictable.” I could tell when each phase of the movie arrived and pinpoint what would come next. It’s cute but never rises much above that level. Why watch it? It’s got some great hula dancing once the women really get going.

Yojimbo – This is the second Kurosawa film I’ve tried and as I told my kitty when we started watching it, Kurosawa had one more chance to win me over after the DNF of “The Hidden Fortress.” Win me he did with the story of an “at large” samurai in 1850s Japan who comes to a small town being torn apart by rival gangsters. Remade many times by Western directors, it’s got humor, drama, greed, violence and some amazing sword fighting plus one fancy Dan who prances around with a pistol. After this one, I’m ready to try more of his films.

Random Harvest – Greer Garson and Ronald Colman meet in post WWI England, fall in love, marry then are separated by – oh, I’m not sure – lotsa years of every melodrama known to man before finally! reaching their HEA. It’s finely acted and not overplayed melodrama in tasteful English fashion but way too much “piled on piled on” for me. Everything but the kitchen sink sagas have never been my thing but I can see how, if they are your thing, this would be very satisfying at the end.