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REVIEW: The Courtier’s Secret by Donna Russo Morin

Dear Ms. Morin,

075822691801lzzzzzzzI too love “The Three Musketeers” so it was with anticipation that I began reading your book, “The Courtier’s Secret.” Though set during the reign of Louis XIV instead of his father, Louis XIII, I had high hopes for swashbuckling, handsome musketeers and daring do as they fought to save the life of the Queen. While “chick in pants” books aren’t my favorites, with enough verve and skill, I can sometimes overcome my skepticism of their believability.

Jeanne Yvette Mas du Bois has managed to get herself kicked out of the convent in which her parents have placed her for the past few years. For young women of good family, convents are the only source of education, limited though that is, during most of the 17th century.
But Jeanne is sick of the restrictions and toadying she finds there. At seventeen, it’s time for her to take her place at the glittering court of Versailles.

However once there, she discovers a world of toadying on steroids. And quickly learns that her ghastly father plans to marry her to a weak fop. After having found some freedom during the fencing lessons given to her by her uncle, fencing master to the King, Jeanne is determined not to meekly submit to her fate. When she saves the life of a handsome Musketeer, she learns of a plot to kill the Queen. Together with her new found friends and wearing the disguise of a young man, Jeanne will have to work hard to stay a step ahead of a villain determined to see the Queen dead.

About the only time I can stomach historical novels which incorporate known historical people is when it’s done seamlessly. Your book, for the most part, manages that. Louis XIV, his Queen and mistresses, the many courtiers thronging the splendid halls and grounds of Versailles come alive. Their interactions with the fictional characters make sense based on historical records and I never felt that you forced one of your creations into a scene where they would not normally have been.

When the plot against the Queen is first uncovered, I wondered who could be behind it. Why would anyone want this daughter of Spain dead? What political or personal advantage could be gained by her death? When your villain is revealed, it does make sense based on what I know of that person and the things they did to secure power. But I did find it odd that Jeanne takes over two weeks to pass on to the Musketeers some information that she’s learned. Good thing the villain didn’t make a move during that time.

One of the strengths of the book is the sense of the reader “being there” at the lavish court which centered itself on its King. Louis XIV effectively neutered his nobles by devising ever increasingly nonsensical distinctions of rank. The powerful courtiers were left with little choice but to play his game of cut throat snobbery and
obsequiousness. The Battle of the Armchairs between Jeanne’s parents and those of her betrothed would be laughably funny if it weren’t so serious. Life at court must have been an endless source of worry for one misstep could doom you.

We also see the effect of too many unwashed bodies wearing too heavy satin, silk and brocade clothes in an age without air conditioning. As well, finding one’s way around the vast “chateau” would require a remarkable memory. However, as much as I enjoyed reading all the intricacies of life at court, I didn’t want so much of the book to be devoted to this. If Jeanne felt stifled by this life, I felt slightly bored as more endless descriptions of the rooms, gardens, habits, meals and ceremonies were rolled out. By the second half of the book, I was skimming things which added little to the story. I will give you points though for obviously doing your homework.

I’m not sure if you were attempting to mimic a melodramatic, slightly over flowery style of narrative or make the characters more emotionally “French” but the result is a superabundance of adjectives and characters who act like silent screen actors exaggerating every movement for heightened effect. I also noticed something which one of our readers commented negatively on, that being bizarre descriptions of actions.

Jeanne pulled her brown orbs from her friend’s curious face and latched upon the other player…

Like a painter’s brush tenderly rendered, Jeanne felt their touch as his golden orbs caressed her cheek.

Both these passages left me with the impression of pairs of eyes wandering around on their own and getting stuck to another character’s face – not a pretty image.

Jeanne is described as tall for her gender and having always been more physical than most girls. I can believe that Jeanne’s uncle could teach her fencing though I do find it difficult to imagine how they’d find a square foot of unoccupied room at Versailles in which to do it. When she first encounters Henri D’Aubigne, a master fencer himself, she saves his life with some handy sword work of her own. My question is, how could Jeanne have gotten this good if she’s been in a convent for years (either 7 or 10, I forget which) and only at Versailles for a few days? She must really be a quick study or have retained what her uncle must have taught her years ago.

As well, she gets a quick and dirty run down on how to “act like a man” before heading off to meet up with Henri and the other Musketeers. True, they never expect that a woman would attempt this masquerade yet I find it hard to believe that none of them – ever, not once – had the slightest moment of doubt as to her supposed gender. And despite Jeanne’s frequently mentioned disgust at the life at court and of girls who giggle, she’s often quite ready to indulge in meaningless pleasure during fetes and plays all while giggling with her friends.

From your website I see that this is your first published novel. Brava for that and for picking a time and place which I would adore seeing used more often in romance and historical books. The plot makes sense in the context of the era and I liked that Jeanne and her mother manage to devise a way to manipulate her father to their way of thinking which stays true to the actions of all during the book. You picked characteristics for your dramatis personae and then carried them through the entire story. Something which I appreciate. I’m sure that my nitpicks and problems with the story won’t bother some readers at all and I hope that you will return to the wonderful world of dashing Musketeers. C+

~Jayne

This book can be purchased in trade paperback from Amazon or ebook format from the Sony Store and other etailers.

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

19 Comments

  1. Catherine
    Feb 20, 2009 @ 17:08:18

    It’s a pet peeve of mine when eyes are called orbs in books. Each time I see it I flinch a little. It always pulls me out of the story. I don’t know why… It must be some odd quirk in my nature. I remember it being abused by one author in particular. Was it JAK? I don’t remember for sure. It’ll come to me.

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  2. Jayne
    Feb 20, 2009 @ 17:25:54

    It was DS who commented on this recently on one of my other reviews so it was fresh in my mind. I’m not sure if these examples would have bothered me quite as much otherwise but given the circumstances, they really did. Personally, I prefer the word “eyes” myself and I don’t want to think of them roaming around a room on their own.

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  3. Bianca
    Feb 20, 2009 @ 18:54:57

    Thanks for the review, Jayne. I dislike the whole “chicks in pants” thing too, but I dislike the word “orbs” even more! ;) Just…yuck.

    I love this time period, though, and it’s so hard to find decent non-Regency historical romances these days… *anxiously debates whether to read this or not!*

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  4. Jayne
    Feb 20, 2009 @ 19:09:07

    I love this time period, though, and it's so hard to find decent non-Regency historical romances these days

    Which is why, when the book was offered to us for review, I knew I had to try it despite not being a fan of “chicks in pants.” It took me back to my days of reading the “Angelique” books (and I noted the name given to Jeanne’s younger sister’s best friend!).

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  5. SonomaLass
    Feb 20, 2009 @ 20:53:03

    “Chicks in pants” are my scholarly specialty, so I am particularly particular about them in fiction. What usually bothers me is not how quickly they “master” the disguise (some people are more natural actors/mimics than others), but the description of their behavior while they are disguised,or lack of description. I want to hear about what they do differently (the walk, the talk, what?), because that’s what sells me or not on the quality of their masquerade. I can’t just “buy it” because the narration tells me that everyone else is buying it; I need to know more than that. And I’m well aware that’s a quirk of mine, from having studied cross-gendered performance FAR too long.

    Orbs always makes me think of globes, which makes me thing of breasts. Once I’ve read “breasts” for “eyes,” things get silly very quickly.

    I do applaud the French setting, however; yay for something outside Regency England! I ♥ it! I wonder if the reason some books set in less overdone periods seem to be overwritten or too full of detail is because we compare them to Regency romances, where the details are often understated or unexplained because the writer assumes that most readers are familiar with the period? I can see how it would be easy to get carried away with detail and description when you aren’t one of dozens of writers covering the same manners, fashions, etc.

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  6. Jana J. Hanson
    Feb 20, 2009 @ 21:09:16

    I may have to check out this book from the library for my mother-in-law. She LOVED the Angelique series; one of the biggest regrets of her life, she says, was lending the series to a friend, who never returned it then moved away!

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  7. Jayne
    Feb 21, 2009 @ 05:49:47

    I want to hear about what they do differently (the walk, the talk, what?), because that's what sells me or not on the quality of their masquerade. I can't just “buy it” because the narration tells me that everyone else is buying it; I need to know more than that. And I'm well aware that's a quirk of mine, from having studied cross-gendered performance FAR too long.

    Well, beyond binding her breasts and gluing a fake mustache to her upper lip, she did remember to walk with a swagger (and mentions how freeing it is to walk without petticoats and a corset) and somehow secured an appropriately shaped pincushion near her genital area to help remind her how to walk.

    I wonder if the reason some books set in less overdone periods seem to be overwritten or too full of detail is because we compare them to Regency romances, where the details are often understated or unexplained because the writer assumes that most readers are familiar with the period? I can see how it would be easy to get carried away with detail and description when you aren't one of dozens of writers covering the same manners, fashions, etc.

    And this is exactly what I was thinking as I read the book. If I hadn’t have read the “Angelique” novels years ago and already learned these tidbits of information, I would not have gotten so glassy eyed quite so quickly. Nevertheless, it would have happened eventually simply due to the sheer volume of it and the overdescription of everything else.

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  8. Jayne
    Feb 21, 2009 @ 05:55:39

    I may have to check out this book from the library for my mother-in-law. She LOVED the Angelique series; one of the biggest regrets of her life, she says, was lending the series to a friend, who never returned it then moved away!

    With friends like those….of course an online search of a USB for OOP copies of the series could be something you do for her next birthday/holiday present!

    The series is so rich in detail and comes alive so quickly that I’m surprised that more people haven’t heard of it or read it. I wonder if it would come across as too old fashioned now? There was another series similar to it though set in 14th C France called “Catherine” that I collected a couple of the books for though never got a chance to read them. Hmmm, wonder if they’re still in the attic with the Marquise of the Angels?

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  9. CD
    Feb 21, 2009 @ 07:27:17

    This sounds fantastic for me – thanks for the review. I actually really do like “chick in pants” books, it’s a guilty pleasure of mine… As for the overdescription, did you get the impression that it was it done seriously or in an attempt to mimic the style an Alexander Dumas novel? He was paid by the word count so you can definitely tell that he padded out his book as much as possible, especially reading it in French. It actually adds to the charm of his books how he intentionally uses very flowery and over-descriptive language – I’m not sure if this comes across in translation, though.

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  10. Jayne
    Feb 21, 2009 @ 07:48:40

    As for the overdescription, did you get the impression that it was it done seriously or in an attempt to mimic the style an Alexander Dumas novel? He was paid by the word count so you can definitely tell that he padded out his book as much as possible, especially reading it in French. It actually adds to the charm of his books how he intentionally uses very flowery and over-descriptive language – I'm not sure if this comes across in translation, though.

    I did wonder if Russo was trying to mimic Dumas and even pulled out one of my copies of “The Three Musketeers.” Perhaps the overflowery style of Dumas was lost in the translation I have, but I didn’t get the same feel when I compared this book to TTM. This book felt more like a first time author’s mistake of including too much detail where it simply wasn’t needed and only served to slow the story down. Or an attempt to slip in every, single historical detail she’d read just because she felt they were too cool to leave out. But whatever it was, it went over and above “bringing the setting to life.”

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  11. hope
    Feb 21, 2009 @ 13:44:09

    hello? what Angelique books?

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  12. SonomaLass
    Feb 21, 2009 @ 15:37:16

    @hope: The Angelique series, by Sergeanne Golon (pen name for a husband-wife writing team, I think). You can find them on Amazon, and there are some fan web sites, too.

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  13. GrowlyCub
    Feb 21, 2009 @ 17:21:37

    I just found myself all 9 translated Angelique books. This should be an interesting experience, because I originally read all published titles in German translation and some in the original French.

    Too bad they never translated the rest of the series into English. I read that there were supposed to be more books (already written), but that was years ago and the web sites are out of date now.

    Word of warning though for the unwary, while there’s a main couple throughout the many books which cover 20 odd years, it’s not a classic romance with boy meets girl, boy marries girl, they live happily ever after… rather the opposite.

    I’ve been a bit afraid to re-read them because of that. I loved them as a teen and early twen, though. :)

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  14. Jayne
    Feb 21, 2009 @ 18:30:03

    Too bad they never translated the rest of the series into English. I read that there were supposed to be more books (already written), but that was years ago and the web sites are out of date now.

    Here’s a link to the official website for the books. It looks like those last books published in French still haven’t been translated and the last books written still haven’t been published.

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  15. GrowlyCub
    Feb 21, 2009 @ 18:47:15

    Yes, that was the site I was referring to. No new info since the early 2000s (besides the announcement of the death of the President of the Fan club).

    She’s not getting any younger either, so I’m kind of afraid to hold my breath for book 14.

    I just read a bunch of Patricia Oliver books and was dismayed to find out that she died (according to an Amazon review, can’t find confirmation anywhere) and didn’t write a number of books that seemed planned for her loosely connected series. Some of the books I liked a lot, one I loved until almost the end when she ruined it, but I’d still have liked to read about at least one character. Sigh.

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  16. Jayne
    Feb 21, 2009 @ 18:58:47

    Yes, that was the site I was referring to. No new info since the early 2000s (besides the announcement of the death of the President of the Fan club).

    I was poking around the site after I posted the link and saw one section that said “under construction” as of Nov 2004. Not promising….

    She's not getting any younger either, so I'm kind of afraid to hold my breath for book 14.

    Uh-huh. You’d think something would have been published or in the works by now.

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  17. SonomaLass
    Feb 21, 2009 @ 19:39:02

    I think I read the first two (or three) Angelique books many years ago; all the girls in my group of friends passed them back and forth. I never realized there were so many.

    FYI, the link Jayne gave is a complete bust in the Mac OS version of Firefox, so I warn fellow Mac users to fire up Safari for that one!

    According to Wikipedia, Anne Golon was born in 1921. Wow.

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  18. Kimber An
    Feb 21, 2009 @ 21:51:38

    A chick in pants and the Three Musketeers? Me likes ‘em so much. The author can send an ARC to me too, if she wants.
    ;)

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  19. Jayne
    Feb 22, 2009 @ 07:00:13

    Kimber An, if you want arcs please contact the authors, publicists or publishing houses directing instead of asking for them from our website. Thanks.

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