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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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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.

11 Comments

  1. Cass
    Aug 29, 2011 @ 14:34:18

    I’m so glad I’m not the only one who was underwhelmed by this book! I’ve seen some very favourable reviews of it, but I just couldn’t get there, myself. Like you, I was attracted by the idea of a not-so-virtuous heroine, but felt let down by what I got — the potential far outstripped the execution, IMO.

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  2. DM
    Aug 29, 2011 @ 14:41:30

    Wow. I felt almost exactly the same way about her two previous books. I’m always on the lookout for unusual settings, because they hold out the hope of more complex and interesting plots than the shopworn Regency scandal/mistress titles we’re so inundated with now. But both Broken Wing and Libertine’s Kiss failed to impress me. Stock characters and a repetitive plot with no real momentum. I know what you mean about old style romances–a lot of them are freighted with really distasteful gender baggage–but there was a time, a sort of post-old-school era when Mary Jo Putney and Jo Beverley and others were writing substantial historicals set outside the English Regency. Where did they all go? I’m grateful for the surge in truly excellent Victorians from Courtney Milan and Sherry Thomas, but I’m dying to read more books set before 1800, and more books set outside of England. I think the fact that James’ books sell well, even though they’re not great reads, indicates an unmet appetite for unusual historicals.

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  3. Robin/Janet
    Aug 29, 2011 @ 15:13:51

    I have a much higher grade for this book than you, Jennie, but I won’t say a lot since my review will be posted tomorrow.

    One thing I did want to say, though, is that I totally disagree regarding Hope’s sexual experience as “false advertising.” She was, indeed, the king’s courtesan, and while she did not have a long string of lovers, she does have a great deal of experience with men — sexual and otherwise — gained over more than a decade.

    In fact, she initially lives the exact life her mother planned for her when she sold her virginity at 14:

    “You’ll be off to a grand start in life. No daughter of mine will be a common whore. You’ll be a rich man’s mistress. You’re a lovely girl. Sharp and lively, too. You’ll climb higher than I ever dreamed or dared.”

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  4. Janine
    Aug 29, 2011 @ 15:30:10

    I tried to read Libertine’s Kiss but couldn’t get through more than a few pages because the author’s style of language just doesn’t work for me. A shame because Judith James’ plots and settings always sound so different and interesting. I agree with DM that there is a real thirst for romances set in earlier settings with more unusual plots.

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  5. Jennie
    Aug 29, 2011 @ 18:09:53

    @Robin/Janet: Okay, fair enough. Maybe it’s that as the book went on, her portrayal felt like it was being progressively whitewashed, and there was little mention (or evidence) of that experience. Between the hero’s perception of her as an ethereal child, and the emphasizing of her own Disney-princessish qualities (a gentle creature beloved by all; all she wants to do is garden and play with her kitten!), the character who started out in a whorehouse and was mistress to a king really got lost for me.

    I am looking forward to reading your review, Robin!

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  6. Jennie
    Aug 29, 2011 @ 18:12:53

    @DM: Even if this book didn’t work for me (and I doubt I’d read the author again), I’m glad to hear that her books have done well. It seems like the knock on different settings is always that publishers claim they don’t sell well, so it’s good to have empirical evidence to the contrary.

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  7. LG
    Aug 29, 2011 @ 21:17:05

    “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.”

    This sort of thing is always an automatic mark against a story for me, whether it’s a romance or just a book that has a romantic relationship in it (in this kind of book, it’s a lesser mark against it, if the rest of the story is good – I’m thinking of the last Arsene Lupin book I read). I can’t focus on and enjoy the romance if the woman keeps getting described in ways that make her out to be child-like. It is, as you say, yuck.

    Plus, this sort of thing makes it hard for me to believe the romance. How can you have a good, lasting relationship when the hero doesn’t view the heroine completely as an adult? She’d be something to be protected and cared for, but couldn’t actually contribute anything to the relationship other than her oh-so-sweet existence.

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  8. Karenmc
    Aug 30, 2011 @ 09:45:24

    I tried to read Broken Wing but it didn’t make it very far. The same with Libertine’s Kiss. Nothing seemed to be happening in either book (especially all the hanging out at court). Highland Rebel was better, but not memorable.

    I’d love to read more books set before the Regency (thank you, Jo Beverley, for the Mallorens), but the writing style in Ms. James’s books hasn’t worked well for me.

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  9. Mary
    Aug 31, 2011 @ 07:23:49

    Wow! I proudly admit to beinga JJ fangirl. Every one of her books goes on my keeper shelf including this one. I’ve been reading historicals since back in the day and I love her characters and adore the historical settings. To me she writes substantial stories without the cringe factor from yesteryear. I can’t believe we read the same book. I certainly thought Hope was portrayed as a very strong character and Robert treated her as such. The line you use “She looked as fragile as a child and he felt like a great bloody oaf” really seems to unfairly taken out of context. After all he had just accidentaly knocked her down the stairs with his elbow and was sitting by her bed examining her bruises feeling bad. I loved the line about that cold dark bitch called war. You neglect to mention it was said by a grizzled old soldier which rang true for me.

    @DM “I think the fact that James’ books sell well, even though they’re not great reads,….

    I certainly hope her books sell well but I have trouble finding them except online. A lot of people, including RT, other bloggers, Publishers Weekly,Booklist, Historical Novels Reviews (yes I’ve read these reviews before reading her books) and all her fans including myself would strongly disagree with you. Wouldn’t it be more fair for you to state this as your opinion rather than fact?

    It’s great to see a second very different and very thoughtful review up here today. It seemed far more fair and balanced to me, but if two reviews on the same site can be so widely different it says to me that most reviews are a matter of opinion and we as readers should take the time to check out a book we find interesting for ourselves.

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  10. Janine
    Aug 31, 2011 @ 15:26:21

    @Mary:

    if two reviews on the same site can be so widely different it says to me that most reviews are a matter of opinion and we as readers should take the time to check out a book we find interesting for ourselves.

    Different people have different tastes, and I don’t see why reviewing for the same site should make that different. The world would be a far less interesting place if everyone had the same opinion, and so would DA.

    What it says to me, personally, as a reader, is that it’s a good idea to track which reviewers here and elsewhere are closer to you in tastes. When I find someone whose taste is similar to mine, then I I can rely on that person’s reviews much of the time. But I also agree with you that if a book sounds interesting even in a negative review, it’s a good idea to check it out for oneself.

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  11. Jennie
    Sep 01, 2011 @ 02:27:25

    @Mary: I’m glad you enjoyed the book more than I did. I felt that the “child” reference was really part of a larger problem in the way that Robert viewed Hope. He infantilized her far too much for my tastes.

    Different strokes and all, but I still maintain that “war” line is horrible and false sounding coming out of anyone’s mouth.

    I think it’s fine for readers to try books that intrigue them without reading reviews or getting any reader feedback. If that works for some readers, then hey, why not? Some of us are picky in our reading, though, and there are things that I *know* will make a book not work for me (unpolished prose, for instance), no matter how intriguing the concept. Reviews are useful to me for that reason.

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