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REVIEW: In a Treacherous Court by Michelle Diener

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.

In a Treacherous Court by Michelle DienerThe 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-.

Best regards,

Jennie

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has been an avid if often frustrated romance reader for the past 15 years. In that time she's read a lot of good romances, a few great ones, and, unfortunately, a whole lot of dreck. Many of her favorite authors (Ivory, Kinsale, Gaffney, Williamson, Ibbotson) have moved onto other genres or produce new books only rarely, so she's had to expand her horizons a bit. Newer authors she enjoys include Julie Ann Long, Megan Hart and J.R. Ward, and she eagerly anticipates each new Sookie Stackhouse novel. Strong prose and characterization go a long way with her, though if they are combined with an unusual plot or setting, all the better. When she's not reading romance she can usually be found reading historical non-fiction.

8 Comments

  1. Jayne
    Aug 17, 2011 @ 16:14:10

    Is it just me or does that cover model resemble the Duchess of Cambridge?

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  2. joanne
    Aug 17, 2011 @ 16:34:32

    @Jayne: Alas, alack and oh crap – it seems like the new Duchess can’t catch a break even from romance covers!

    Thank you for the review Jennie, I like historical mysteries with some romance. I see this is going to be a series, which I also like but I’ve got a boatload of authors and a new one at 9.99 for Kindle means I’ll have to opt out until it’s in the library.

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  3. DS
    Aug 17, 2011 @ 17:49:24

    I checked the Amazon reviews and the only reviewer who appears as a verified purchaser thought the history was thin and weak and agreed with you about the lack of romantic tension. If I see this in the library I might pick it up, but I’m not going to go out of my way

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  4. Kim in Hawaii
    Aug 17, 2011 @ 21:21:27

    This is one of the few times that I have read the book featered in the DA review so I can compare and comment.

    I requested to review this from the publisher. I considered it a “historical fiction” rather than a “historical romance”. While I prefer the romance, I wanted to sample other genres.

    I gave it four stars because it kept my attention. Indeed, Susanna and John were subjected to multiple attacks (I referred to it as the “longest day” in my review) but I just chalked it up to the high stakes. Having followed Showtime’s THE TUDORS, I found the murder/mystery/treason to be intriguing. Then again, I have traveled extensively through England and Europe – I enjoyed connecting a crumbling castle to a historical event.

    I appreciated the straightforward relationship between Susanna and John, especially having only known each other for a few days. I also appreciated that they were more common than the Lords and Ladies of the treacherous court. The author has penned a second book so I expect to learn more about their prior lives and budding relationship.

    FYI, Susanna came from Ghent, Belgium. Thus, she was Flemish, not Dutch (a distinction that was discussed recently at SBTB).

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  5. Jennie
    Aug 18, 2011 @ 00:29:48

    @Jayne: I hadn’t even noticed but now that you mention it…I see it in the jaw a bit. And the fab hair.

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  6. Jennie
    Aug 18, 2011 @ 00:34:59

    @Kim in Hawaii: I actually didn’t realize that this would be part of a series. I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to read a second book, but if it fell in my lap I wouldn’t mind reading it. I agree that it’s historical fiction rather than historical romance, though I think (from the POV of straight historical fiction fans) it has a strong romance thread, since John and Susanna and their relationship is so central to the plot and they spend virtually the entire book in each other’s company.

    I admit to being a little confused about Susanna’s provenance. I thought she was from Belgium, but my copy of the book mentioned the ship coming from the Netherlands. I can’t remember now (and don’t have it in front of me) which court it specifies that she was affiliated with when she worked with her father; I’ll take your word for it. Sorry I was unclear in the review.

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  7. Kim in Hawaii
    Aug 18, 2011 @ 03:25:12

    Aloha, Jennie! Susanna may have sailed from a Dutch port, but she was Flemish. The languages are similar and easy to confuse (plus Belgium is a country divided between the French speaking areas, closer to France, and the Flemish speaking ares, closer to the Netherlands.) I lived in the Benelux area twice with NATO and often get confused what city is in what country.

    I just happen to be a “Tudor” fan so I looked up Susanna’s bio after reading the book. I also gave my review copy away so I had to look it up again, just to be sure.

    I would read the “sequel” because I am intrigued to read about the Tudor intrigue after watching it on the Tudors (where the producers took liberties with facts). I thought Diener’s prose was light enough to tackle the complicated court politics without being drawn into the “ye” and “thou”.

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  8. Jennie
    Aug 18, 2011 @ 15:51:43

    @Kim in Hawaii: I liked The Tudors, too, even if it was a bit cheesy and overwrought in places.

    ReplyReply

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