In a Treacherous Court

I wrote a review of a Tudor historical romance, and it was published over on Smart Bitches/Trashy Books. Enjoy!

My name is Kyra Cornelius Kramer and I like romance novels. I like them so much I write academic essays about them. I have also done academic work in history, particularly King Henry VIII, including a book about the medical reason he may have had reproductive problems and gone bonkers in midlife (no, not syphilis). These dual interests in romance and the Tudors caused me to become aware that there was a dearth of historical romances set in the Tudor era.

Why?

It isn’t like that wasn’t an eventful and fascinating time in history. If you got characters within 50 yards of London they would be up to their lips in intrigue and sweeping sagas. You cannot throw a metaphorical rock in the Tudor era without hitting some dramatic theme that would serve as a backdrop for a thrilling plot line or barrier for the couple to overcome in the course of True Love.  Plus, the apparel was beyond awesome. I admire a man who can rock a codpiece, I tell you what.

So why aren’t there more romances set in Tudor England? Is it the myths that are commonplace about the time, such as the idea that people didn’t bathe back then? I could see where that could be a little off-putting. Still, there is nothing so repellent about this era that a little historical research and the occasional anachronism couldn’t put it right. If nothing else, just picturing Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Henry Cavill in Tudor garb should have impelled romance authors to start typing feverishly.

“Fie on Regency Romances and their domination of the field”, I thought to myself. “I shall go forth and find Tudor Romances!”

Thus I did discover In a Treacherous Court, by Michelle Diener, and lo I did review it for SB/TB.

Here is the blurb:

An unconventional woman. A deadly enemy. A clash of intrigue, deception, and desire. . . . 1525: Artist Susanna Horenbout is sent from Belgium to be Henry VIII’s personal illuminator inside the royal palace. But her new homeland greets her with an attempt on her life, and the King’s most lethal courtier, John Parker, is charged with keeping her safe. As further attacks are made, Susanna and Parker realize that she unknowingly carries the key to a bloody plot against the throne. For while Richard de la Pole amasses troops in France for a Yorkist invasion, a traitor prepares to trample the kingdom from within.Who is the mastermind? Why are men vying to kill the woman Parker protects with his life? With a motley gang of urchins, Susanna’s wits, and Parker’s fierce instincts, honed on the streets and in palace chambers, the two slash through deadly layers of deceit in a race against time. For in the court of Henry VIII, secrets are the last to die. . .

I’ll say it right up front. I hate three things in an historical novel: inaccuracy, too much personal perspective about a well-known public figure, and boring expositions designed to show off research rather than advance the plot. Happily, Diener passed all these tests with flying colors, allowing me almost totally unalloyed enjoyment of the story.

Although Susanna and Parker are based on real people, they are unknown enough to the general reader that they seem fictional, and any authorial license is unnoticed or easily forgiven. Diener’s research is very well done, and although there were a few places where I thought, “That courtier would never ally himself to that nobleman” or “That is based mostly on a myth created after the fact”, I think you would have had to have invested as much research time as a professional to see the flaws. Even when you knew enough that could see the gaps, they aren’t deal breakers by any means. That’s some good research and writing right there. It made a refreshing change from Phillippa Gregory’s stuff, which is well written and has good narrative flow, but has such overwhelming levels of historical hokum in it that I can’t really enjoy it.

Then there was the plot. Gangbusters wishes it could go like this plot. Seriously, there were a couple a places I kind of wanted a dull moment, just to give the characters a rest.  Diener also made Susanna and Parker interesting, rather than paragons, which I always appreciate. Parker could occasionally very into a little too alpha (in some scenes it seemed touch and go whether he would finally just beat other men into submission with his manlier junk) but Susanna never irked me by whining or being TSTL. When she rushes to help Parker, even though she is not trained to fight, she brings a big cleaver from the kitchen because you don’t have to know swordsmanship to hack into a bad guy. Susanna was smart. I like that in a heroine. Moreover, Susanna was more artist than lover in many places, and I need a protagonist who has a life of her own, rather than a goal to become a barnacle on the butt of her beloved, Twilight Style.

There’s one scene in particular that stood out for me. Susanna was in mortal danger so Parker had to go with her everywhere, but instead of throwing a head-tossing hissy fit she just cowgirled up and took her art supplies with her so she could paint when she could. Parker needs to do some daring do, so he leaves her safe in a company of priests and plumbers that he trusts to guard her while he is out and about. Rather than pouting or following Parker like a nitwit and putting both their lives in danger (as romance heroines have been known to do, more is the pity), Susanna sees an opportunity to paint the interesting tableau before her:

“Father.” Susanna placed a hand on the old priest’s arm. “Would it be rude of me to paint you instead? You make such a wonderful scene, all sitting at the table.”

Father Haden laughed. “Well now, I never would have said we were pretty as a picture. But if that’s what you want.”

She nodded, her hand already insider her bag, touching the small oak panel within. She had not known what to expect in England on her arrival, had not known if the King would require immediate work, so she had a panel already primed and plenty of ground pigment for her paints.

[break for Parker’s tale for a few pages before returning]

When she was this deep in a painting time had no meaning.

Someone had put a mug of ale down for her, but even though she was thirsty, could feel a headache coming on from lack of drink, she couldn’t put aside her brush to pick it up … She wanted to capture the feel, the play of light shadow, the atmosphere. All the finer details could be added later. Only when she was this deep in the piece, in the moment, was the reality of it at one with the picture in her mind.

Now, the heroine was already falling in love with the hero, but she didn’t pace the floor and wring her hands or try to become super-spy-woman to help him … she was busy painting. Her art was as consuming to her as anything else in her life. It is always nice to see a heroine love a hero without him becoming her whole existence, just like heroes have usually been allowed to do even after they found The One.

The circumstances could occasionally get a bit far-fetched, but always in a way that allowed the reader to buy the set up. The trouble is I can’t really give a good example, since the far-fetchedness was part and parcel with the plot. Let’s just say that some key elements of the plot were historically unlikely, but not impossible by any means.

Diener also used good imagery that helped the reader get the “feel” of the court. For example, when Susanna was awaiting an audience with Henry VIII:

“Men stood or sat where they could in the antechamber in which Parker has left her, giving the impression of a flock of discontented crows in their black doublet and cloaks. Their thin black legs ended in wide-toed shoes that tapped impatiently as the minutes dragged by.”

There are quite a few reasons I liked that bit there. First, it showed a good grasp of historical fact. Courtiers did where a lot of black, because it was a hella expensive color and conveyed social standing. Furthermore, the term “crows” is particularly apt if you know any history. The King was the source of power and his courtiers were clever scavengers that hovered over him like they were waiting for their chance to swoop in and eat his eyeballs. Additionally, men were incredibly vain about their legs in this time, which were showcased in skintight hose. Henry VIII himself boasted that he had “a good calf to [his] leg”.  To give the men waiting for the King’s attention skinny legs was to highlight the fact they were not only scavengers, they were ugly to boot. Finally, you had to wait for the King’s pleasure, no matter how long that turned out to be. Basically Diener summed up the least appealing side of Henry’s court – ugly, greedy men stalking the King for a free lunch — in a couple of sentences. That impresses me.

I give this book a B+ and a pat on the back for being set in the Tudor time period.

There are rumors of others of this kind hiding in the wilds of publishing, and I intend to track them down and drag them into the light. I will gather the historical romances of this era and call them a “Collection of the Colossal Codpiece Cadre” in honor of Tudor heroes, and make them available on my blog. Hopefully it can help spark a trend.

The Tudor era is not one that should be neglected, forsooth.

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