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Henry-VIII

REVIEW: In a Treacherous Court by Michelle Diener

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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REVIEW: Devil’s Mistress by Laura Navarre

REVIEW: Devil’s Mistress by Laura Navarre

Devils Mistress Laura NavarreDear Ms. Navarre,

Your bio says you write darker Renaissance era books and the dark theme plus Tudor setting are what attracted me to “Devil’s Mistress.” Oh, and the Italian heroine is an added bonus. I’m always on the lookout for books with other-than-English heroes and heroines. Nothing against the English mind you, but it does get a bit tiresome when they seem to be the only nationality used in European historicals.

Allegra Grimaldi is one miserable cookie. The Spanish Ambassador has kept her on a tight leash for the past three years and used her as his own pet poisoner. Now, with the King of England demanding a divorce from his first wife in order to marry the Boleyn whore, Maximo Montoya has set her next target – Anne Boleyn herself. Allegra is horrified and determined to keep her promise to her dead mother not to kill anyone despite the fact that she, Allegra, is a trained assassin. Anne might be a heretic but she doesn’t deserve to die for it. Allegra’s own mother died in the flames as a condemned witch and she herself barely escaped the same fate.

But Allegra’s deliberately bungled attempt on Anne is witnessed by Anne’s bastard brother Sir Joscelin Boleyn. He alone among the courtiers thronging around Anne realizes what he barely stopped. He also falls immediately under Allegra’s spell and is determined to discover who this woman is and what her secrets are. But once he knows, will he be able to do what his powerful family demands as his price to join their ascension in the Tudor court or will he choose to love a woman accused of killing her husband and who is now called the “Devil’s Mistress?”

Is there a book set at any of the Tudor monarchs’ courts which doesn’t make them sound like snake-pits filled with back stabbing creatures? Probably not as it seemed the only way to secure your place and make your fortune. The only way up was by planting your feet on those weaker than yourself as you jumped for the King’s attention. It’s all artifice and polite, polished manners while you sharpen your blade which you make vividly clear. And Allegra seems to have perfected her courtier’s “face.” I think you do a great job at showing the strain she’s constantly under to not reveal anything to either Montoya, who’ll use it to punish or cruelly toy with her, or Joscelin whom Allegra can’t trust despite her growing interest in him. She’s playing so many roles and lying to so many people it’s a wonder she can manage to keep it all straight much less not crack under the strain.

The conflict of the story – between those who support the Boleyns and those who support Katherine of Aragon and the Catholic Church – is brought down to a visceral level for and between Allegra and Joscelin. Both have their reasons why they need the question of the King’s divorce to be settled one way or the other and both are given ample reason not to trust each other. You twist their loyalties and obligations into a tighter and tighter coil until I knew that someone would have to break from their past convictions in order for them to find their HEA. I also couldn’t help but think that their final destination is a smart move given Anne Boleyn’s rapid fall from the heights.

But as much as I enjoyed the setting of the book and the tenseness of the conflict, Allegra and Joscelin don’t totally work for me. At this point in my romance reading, the martyr heroine tends to grate on my nerves and I never did see Joscelin as half French and raised in France. Given what Allegra survived when she was interrogated after her husband’s death and that she has a delicate conscience, the fact that she would choose to undergo training in the art of poisoning and death is a bit odd and never sat right with me. Joscelin comes across as too much of a bluff, hearty type instead of someone who’s been at the French court and done some diplomatic service. I guess I expected him to be more sly and calculating like Anne and less impulsive like Mary Boleyn.

The denouement of the story was too melodramatic and OTT for me. The fight scene, layered with the fire on top of Allegra’s determination to tie herself to the railroad tracks had me skimming to the end. The resolution of the Allegra/Montoya relationship earned an “oh, please!” I know that forgiveness is probably the best policy and it does make sense given Allegra’s temperament. I guess I’m just too bloodthirsty and you created such a delighful villain in the invented Montoya who I wanted to see pay for all he put Allegra through. Also, I couldn’t get the “mostly dead” sequence from “The Princess Bride” out of my head in relation to Montoya’s appearance at the end.

Balancing what worked for me with what didn’t, I end up with a C. And obviously the things which bother me might sell the book for many others. Right now, I’m sure you’re disappointed with the grade but there’s enough I like about the book and your writing style to say I’ll be back to try more.

~Jayne

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