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REVIEW: India Black and the Widow of Windsor by Carol K. Carr

REVIEW: India Black and the Widow of Windsor by Carol K....

Dear Ms. Carr,

I read your debut novel, India Black, earlier this year and enjoyed it a great deal. While I can see why some people would be put off by the voice, I adored the protagonist, a brothel-madam-turned-reluctant-spy, and her unrelenting cynicism and jaded pragmatism. It was refreshing. Combined with a caper sensibility, it was one of my favorite books last year. So I was very excited when Jane sent me a copy of the sequel. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite live up to my expectations.

India Black and the Widow of WindsorAfter the events of the previous novel, India Black has gone back to her life as the proprietor of a brothel. But her life has suddenly become boring. I suppose that’s understandable. When you’ve grappled with Russian spies, trying to satisfy your employees’ desire for new dresses is probably not on the same level. So when British spy French recruits her for a new mission, India jumps at the chance.

The mission is a tricky one. Queen Victoria is fond of seances because she believes it allows her to communicate with her dearly departed husband, Prince Albert. At one such seance, she was “told” by her husband to spend Christmas at their Scottish home. Prime Minister Disraeli believes it’s a Scottish Nationalist plot to assassinate the Queen, and it’s up to India and French to stop it from happening.

I’ll be the first to admit that British history is not my strong point. That said, I have a feeling these portrayals of Queen Victoria, John Brown and various other historical personages are perhaps not so flattering. I’d be interested to see what other, more informed readers think of these depictions and how they compare against the historical reality.

As for the book itself, one of the reasons why I loved the first novel was because it was a caper story. I’m a big fan of caper stories and their structure. So I admit I was expecting more of that. Unfortunately, barely any of that was here. Instead, The Widow of Windsor opted for a more amateur sleuth approach. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not particular narrative style that engages me. Straight mysteries are generally not my genre.

Because of the shift from spy caper to amateur sleuth, I think India’s character suffered. I thought we saw very little of India’s resourcefulness and cleverness. In fact, I often thought she was outmaneuvered and outwitted by everyone around her. And in the end, she comes off as being slow on the uptake and unobservant. I didn’t like that at all. In the first book, we were introduced to a larger than life character and I felt that this book, as Jane said, diminished her.

But it wasn’t all bad. I did like India’s relationship with the Marchioness, for whom she was posing as a maid. There’s definitely more to that old woman than meets the eye and I’m not convinced her entire ridiculously eccentric personality wasn’t a complete fabrication. I am doubly curious now, given her remarks about India’s mother.

Speaking of which, I am dying to know India’s background. We got hints of it in the first book, and we get more of it here. By this point, I am extremely curious as to how a woman like India became a prostitute, even more so considering the hints the Marchioness dropped about her mother.

The great irony of this novel is that one of the underlying themes is not to underestimate women. It comes up again and again throughout the narrative. Normally, I like that message because fiction could stand to be more populated by great women characters. But I thought it was undermined by India’s ineffective sleuthing that often lands her in trouble and makes her look incompetent. While I understand it’s unbelievable to make India a rock star at investigation, a little less bumbling around and getting lost would have been nice.

Like the first book, India Black and the Widow of Windsor retains its comedic undertones but it never quite matches the satisfying over the top qualities. I wasn’t thrilled by India’s portrayal as a character, and I thought the ending was somewhat anti-climatic. I can only hope she fares better in the next installment. C

My regards,
Jia

Previous novels in this series: India Black (review)

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Dear Author

REVIEW: Highland Rebel by Judith James

Dear Ms. James:

One of my favorite things about your new book, Highland Rebel, is the author’s note at the very end, in which you discuss the historical context of the novel and its fascinating protagonists. This may seem like a trivial thing to highlight, but the thoughtfulness of that note and the enthusiasm for research that you convey in it is reflected throughout book itself, in the detailed attention to the political upheaval marking late 17th century English history and to the era’s cultural and intellectual vibrancy.   When I read Historical Romance, I want the history to be as much a character as the romance, and I hope that readers who feel the same way will pick up this book. Because while not a perfect read, Highland Rebel is a rich and ambitious novel with compelling protagonists and an expansive political and geographic scope.

For all of his political cynicism, James (Jamie) Sinclair just can’t resist a woman in trouble. When he realizes, along with the men who currently hold her in capture, that the young Highlander is not a man, but rather a woman, Jamie, unlike the other men, cannot abide her inevitable rape and torture. So he talks himself into a hasty and somewhat cockeyed scheme in which he declares his intention to marry her until he can get back to England, collect his reward from King James, annul the unconsummated union, and accept the hand of the heiress promised him for his loyal service to the Crown. Jamie does not even stop to consider the fact that the woman might not feel grateful, or indebted, or even interested in sticking around through their wedding night.

Because Catherine (Cat) Drummond has other priorities. She needs to get back to her uncle and her cousins, to assess their losses and help plan their next steps.   The moments she spent in front of the priest with the Englishman were a blur of shock and fear and cold, and even though she understood each language spoken, she did not comprehend that she was being married. And even after the man took her to his tent and proceeded to concoct a scheme by which their marriage could appear consummated, Cat was not feeling cooperative or trusting or even grateful for her spared life. So while the Englishman’s attention was distracted by the unexpected return of her kinsmen, Cat was able to escape and make her way back to her kin and her home.

Unbeknownst to Jamie, Catherine is not some ignorant and impoverished camp follower. A countess and an heiress educated in France, Catherine wants nothing more than to take her dead father’s place as leader of the Drummonds, but few of the men in her family see the wisdom in that, preferring instead to marry her off imminently as a valuable political and economic asset. So perhaps an otherwise inconvenient marriage to an absent Englishman is not such a bad thing, after all. She never actually expects her errant husband to track her to her home, and she only hopes that he a) survives the severe thrashing the men give him, and b) does not say a thing indicating his connection to her. When both these things miraculously come to pass, Catherine realizes the importance of keeping the Englishman alive and getting him back home as quickly and secretly as possible. She could not imagine, at that point, that she would eventually follow her husband to England any more than Jamie would have expected to see again the woman who had proved to be most inconvenient in matters of marriage and political favor.

One thing that has always confused me about Historical Romance is the obsessive focus on the Regency, especially when you compare that barely a decade (officially!) to the century and a half preceding it. There is just so much action(!), so much intrigue(!), so much drama(!) to write against, and Highland Rebel is wonderfully illustrative of that, taking full advantage of the political instability of the years leading up to the Glorious Revolution (in which Protestant William of Orange and Catholic James II battle for the throne of England after William deposes James) without sentimentalizing the Highlanders, demonizing the French, or ennobling the English. And if there is a reader of the historical subgenre who does not believe that much has changed there since the 1970s and 80s, Highland Rebel indicates otherwise. Because this is a novel that both takes history seriously and seriously considers the impact it would have had on the characters.

For a man like Jamie, inflexible political principles were just too dangerous, because "with these mad Stuart kings-’Protestant one day, Catholic the next-’a fellow needed to be quick." It was not that he was dishonorable, merely that his honor was first to himself and those he cared about. When he saves Catherine, for example, it is not merely a whim, but more specifically a loyalty to the people who were little more than political pawns in an inherently unstable and incessantly violent moment in history.   And for that loyalty Jamie pays, because when news of his marriage reaches England, mingling with the machinations of a thwarted mistress with the ear of the king, everything that James promised him is withdrawn, leaving Jamie an outcast at court and vainly trying to avoid his creditors.

Catherine, too, has substantial consequences to face, because her marriage only exists on her word, and despite her ability to fight fiercely and strategize with more acuity than most of the men of her clan, she cannot conquer the patriarchal power structure of the warrior clan culture. So unable to lead the men her father had trained her but did not legally endow her with the authority to, and without a flesh and blood husband to prevent her from being sold to an advantageous ally, Catherine has little choice but to go in search of the husband she shipped back to England more than a year before. And her appearance is greeted with both admiration and frustration:

"I’m seldom bested at games of strategy or chance, yet you did so twice. A fellow can’t help but admire that."

"I have but two ways of making a living, Catherine, on the battlefield or at the gaming tables, and both are seriously curtailed by my current circumstances. I need to be accepted in society and at court if I wish to pay my servants, feed my horses, maintain my properties, and clear my debts. Unless, of course, you’re here to offer an alternative? An annulment, is it? Too late for me to marry a fortune, but just in time to confirm the rumors? I can hear it now," he said, mimicking the clipped phrases, lengthened vowels, and malicious drawl of court gossip. ""Even his savage Scottish bride lives in fear of him! Ravaged her too, poor thing, then tried to steal her land, but the chit escaped him and the Pope himself intervened to grant an annulment.’ Frankly, my dear, I fail to appreciate how that will be of any benefit to me."

In other words, these two are stuck, for a while, at least, as husband and wife. And Catherine initially has substantial influence with James, enough to bring her and Jamie back into court. But she also has an appeal that makes her desirable to the lecherous king, and a husband who cannot be fully trusted in his political loyalties, further complicating both the political and personal fortunes of the couple.

Because of the political complexity of the time in which Highland Rebel is set, there are many things that happen in the novel that are driven by the ever-changing circumstances in England, Ireland, and Scotland, all of which serve as part of the novel’s setting.   Because Jamie tends to back the political power he feels will best serve his personal safety and prosperity, his fortunes are as likely to change as those of his patrons. And with these changes can come severe consequences. Similarly, Catherine’s steadfast loyalty to her clan will inevitably put her political priorities in direct conflict with Jamie’s at some point, especially since she is not the official chief of her clan and therefore unable to singlehandedly change the hearts and minds of her kinsmen.

Then there are the personal issues between Catherine and Jamie. Married as strangers and estranged for their first year plus of marriage, these two strong individuals are not used to being reined in by commitment and emotional interdependence. Jamie, for example, was abandoned very young by his mother and pummeled by his father, seeking security and comfort among the servant and working classes. Consequently (and unusually, given the Romance tradition), he has an abiding respect and affection for women of the working and serving classes, which helps to explain his seemingly quixotic decision to save Catherine at the beginning of the novel. But he also has a vast discomfort with his softer side, so to speak, and he tends to disguise it behind the face of the jaded, "prancing courtier":

"-I’ve always tried to avoid strong feelings, Catherine. They say bad blood runs deep, a man takes after his parents. I’m the offspring of a vicious bully and a slut. I wanted a wife who- didn’t excite strong emotions. One of whom I wouldn’t be jealous, and who wouldn’t be hurt when I strayed-."

Cat, on the other hand, is far more comfortable on a battlefield than in the contested terrain of the heart. While sharp and composed on the outside, her insecurities about Jamie’s feelings and her own make her seem younger and more like the "mouse" Jamie so often calls her, uncustomarily uncertain:

Catherine was having difficulty finding the man underneath the performance. She’d thought herself perceptive, but the Englishman was nothing like her blunt, straightforward Scottish brethren, and she found him impossible to read. She suspected that if she succeeded at stripping one layer away she’d only find another, and then another, peeling until he was gone like smoke, and there was nothing left to find. She found herself following his lead more often than not, forced into communicating through glib repartee and barbed wit when she wanted to shake him and ask, Are you as confused and anxious as I am? Are you glad to see me? What are you thinking? What do you feel? Instead, she pointed to the settee. "Do you mind if I sit by the fire?"

The reality, of course, is that Jamie and Cat are two of a kind:

"You and I are much alike in some ways, love. We can’t accept the world as others serve it to us. We want to choose our own dinner. Always asking questions, always asking why, always wanting to see for ourselves.”

With two people who don’t know when to take personal things at face value, is it any surprise that Jamie and Cat are at their most comfortable when literally in disguise? In fact, it is through various covert adventures as other people that they develop a strong, authentic friendship. Cat already has some experience dressing as a man, and with Jamie’s tutoring, as well as his own vast skills in various disguises, they travel to many areas of London, to the coffeehouses where the likes of John Locke are discussing the provocative ideas of the day, to the alehouses, where valuable information is unofficially exchanged, to court, where they play at embodying their noble titles. Yet their camaraderie eclipses the intention of the costumes, breaking down invisible emotional barriers that exacerbate their insecurities when they are not otherwise occupied with these disguises. It is, perhaps, the only way these two independent people can gradually accede to the interdependence and mutual trust that love requires and a clever way to accomplish it within the structure of the novel.

I have seen some criticism of Highland Rebel for not being overtly romantic until the last section of the novel, but I did not see this at all. In fact, I relished the slow pace of the relationship development, the palpable sexual tension mixed with emotional wariness. It struck me as much more realistic and respectful to the complexity of the situation in its totality. Because the novel is working on several levels at once, juggling multiple big themes – loyalty, authenticity, fidelity, vulnerability – I was glad to be able to appreciate these elements at less than breakneck speed. And while I did sometimes get frustrated at the back and forth nature of the trust/distrust rhythm of the relationship, I also felt that with two characters who are so afraid of letting down their masks, the mutual unveiling needed to reflect the intensity of the fear.

Where the novel really stumbles for me is, like with Broken Wing, in the twining of history and the story. Although a much more confident and tightly plotted novel than the last, Highland Rebel stiff suffers from what I fear some readers might view as info-dumping, because of the awkward moments in the text where the history is narrated to the reader documentary-style:

The king, intent on restoring Catholic rule, and lacking the charm, wit, and political acumen of his older brother Charles, relied on intimidation and military might to guard his throne and bully his recalcitrant subjects into obedience. He’d built himself a standing army, a cause of great concern to many so soon after Cromwell’s, and he wasn’t above the judicious use of foreign mercenaries.

The narrative shifts, even when the perspective is loosely attached to one of the novel’s characters, kept me from being completely immersed in the novel, which was a shame, because this was a book I wanted to be swept away in – it is so clearly that kind of book. While reading it, I was thinking about all Candice Proctor’s Whispers of Heaven and all the wonderful Laura London Regencies I’ve enjoyed, the ones where the jaded but surprisingly sentimental hero cannot help himself where the bright and sassy heroine is concerned, where Shakespeare rolls off the characters’ tongues effortlessly, and where the sexual tension between the lovers is palpable but still only one aspect of their relationship development. I hope that as James continues to write (from her website I found that she has a three book deal with HQN, which, at least, should mean ebooks) that her books show more and more mastery of these subtler elements, because the moves are all there now, just too recognizably. Still, and despite the annoying lack of an e-version (and I can only tell Sourcebooks that several people to whom I’ve tried to recommend the novel demurred because they can only get it in print), Highland Rebel is definitely a book for all those readers of Historical Romance who like their history as much as their Romance: B.

~ Janet

This book can be purchased at Amazon. No ebook that I can find.