Dear Ms. Diener,
Having recently read and enjoyed a historical novel set in the 16th century and dealing with intrigue and assassins, I was intrigued when In a Treacherous Court fell into my hands. Realizing it was a debut sharpened my interest, since I’m always on the lookout for new authors, especially those whose work is something a bit different from straight historical genre romance.
The principal characters of In a Treacherous Court are Dutch artist Susanna Horenbout and English courtier John Parker. The “treacherous court” of the title is that of Henry VIII. John meets Susanna’s boat as it arrives from the Netherlands; she has accepted a position as a personal illuminator to the English king (it was unusual at the time for a female to hold such a position, and Susanna has to continually deal with prejudice against her for her abilities and her sex).
Parker’s first meeting with Susanna is anything but smooth, as Susanna has just had a man die in her arms. On the ship’s departure from the Netherlands, an English merchant by the name of Harvey raced on board at the last minute, pursued by several men. He got away, but was wounded, stabbed in the lung. Over the course of the journey, Susanna nurses him until he eventually dies. Before dying, Harvey entrusts Susanna with a secret for the king’s ears only. On hearing this, Parker tries to get Susanna to reveal the secret t o him; he’s the king’s man, after all. But Susanna is stubborn and willful; she promised Harvey she would only tell the king himself, and so that’s what she’s going to do.
Parker and Susanna set off for London, but are repeatedly attacked, both on the way and once they’ve arrived (even after Susanna manages to give the king Harvey’s message). The number of attacks really is overkill; Parker mentions at one point that they have been accosted five separate times (I think in the course of a little over 24 hours), and I was glad he gave a number so I didn’t have to count them up myself. It was a little ridiculous. Still, it serves to let Parker know that whatever enemies Susanna has inadvertently acquired, they are extremely desperate and determined to silence her. It also makes Parker realize how protective he feels towards this woman he’s known for so brief a time.
There were things I liked about In a Treacherous Court – competent writing, sympathetic characters and a good eye for period details, to name a few. The things I didn’t like were fewer but a bit more problematic. The plot – having to do with machinations of the Duke of Norfolk and the pretensions of Richard de la Pole to the throne of England – was both confusing and a bit boring to me. I just didn’t really care that much what these characters were doing or why they were doing it. While I normally say that good writing and characterization trumps a mediocre plot, in this case the writing and characterization lacked the spark to really carry the story and overcome the ho-hum plot.
I did like that Susanna was a strong heroine; during her many moments of peril, she fights hard for herself rather than just waiting for Parker to save her. Their relationship worked fairly well for me too; each recognizes the attraction pretty quickly and there is not a lot of drama or mental lusting involved in their getting together. The only downside to this is that there is then not much tension in the romantic relationship, and since I didn’t have much of a stake in the suspense plot, I did miss having something really compelling to latch onto. To be fair, the book never lagged or bored me, but on the other hand it never really engaged me entirely.
The depiction of Susanna’s devotion to her craft was well-drawn but could’ve been fleshed out a little more (no pun intended); the same could be said of Parker’s troubled backstory. I wouldn’t even have minded a bit more about court life, and I have to say that the court of Henry VIII doesn’t interest me that much, maybe just because I’ve read so much about it already. Basically, I think the book needed a little bit more of something to round out the suspense plot, which really spent the majority of the book front-and-center.
The author’s note at the end informs the reader that John and Susanna were real people, who really did hold the positions noted in the book and and who eventually married. Knowing that they were real makes me wonder if a more interesting story could’ve been crafted from their courtship and marriage.
Ultimately, In a Treacherous Court felt short and a bit unfinished to me – I think it had to do with it taking place over a short period of time, and so much of that time being taken up with action. Readers who really like suspense and action and/or stories set in the court of Henry VIII, and who appreciate quiet, subtle romances may respond more positively than I did. As it was, my grade is a B-.