Thursday, July 26, 2012

Mistress of Mourning: A Novel by Karen Harper

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Local Library
Read: July 24, 2012

London, 1501. In a time of political unrest, Varina Westcott, a young widow and candle maker for court and church, agrees to perform a clandestine service for Queen Elizabeth of York, wife of Henry VII. The queen’s eldest child and heir to the throne, newly married Prince Arthur, has died suddenly under mysterious circumstances. Elizabeth wants Varina and royal aid Nicholas Sutton to travel into the Welsh wilderness to investigate the death. But as the couple unearths one unsettling clue after another, they begin to fear that the conspiracy they’re confronting is far more ambitious and treacherous than even the queen imagined.

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Can I be honest? I think it helped that I didn’t have any expectations going into this one. I was excited about the premise of Karen Harper’s Mistress of Mourning but because I didn’t have any preconceived ideas about the book, I wasn’t upset that it fell on the lighter side of historic fiction. The story isn’t bad, I just think if I’d been craving a hard hitting historic piece as is more my norm, this one would have left me wanting.

The characters fit the time period which is more than I can say for a lot of published works. Varina is a great example in that she is possessed of an independent streak yet she isn’t so modern minded as to seem inappropriate in Tudor England. Henry VII, Elizabeth of York, Arthur and Catherine read a little flat for my tastes but as they are largely supporting characters it is something I’m willing to overlook. Really the only character I didn’t like was young Henry VIII. I think Harper allowed history to dictate her storytelling a little. Just once I’d love to see an author downplay the younger Tudor prince and really guide the reader towards Arthur. Here, as with most if not all the Tudor fiction I’ve read, the Prince of Wales gets less face time with the reader and though his death is key to the plot, his character is largely overshadowed by the Duke of York.

I really liked what Harper did with Arthur’s death in terms of resolving the circumstances of his demise but I wasn't as thrilled with the story of Elizabeth’s brothers. Harper started out strong, interweaving the two story lines but the finale left me feeling ‘eh.’ Maybe it was too much to tie together. Maybe it was because we never got into our villain’s head or really understood his motivations. Maybe I’m bias in that I am unconsciously comparing Mistress in Mourning to Robin Maxwell’s To the Tower Born. Maybe I just feel the latter solution seemed anticlimactic against the drama of Arthur’s situation. Whatever the reason I think the combined plots were a little too much for Harper to take on.

Finally, I don’t think Harper played the setting to its best advantage. I’ve read books featuring Ludlow before and I’ve seen an author bring this particular setting to life. Guess I’m just a little sad that Harper seemed to let it fall by the way side. Researching is easy; anyone can look up the historic notes on a particular place and time. To my mind, the key in fictionalizing the past is not simply recreating people or events, the same care needs to be taken in re-imagining the world they inhabit. There isn't anything wrong or particularly upsetting in what Harper achieved here, I've just think there is room to improve. 

As always I would like to note that I’m harder on historic fiction writers than I am authors of any other genre. They are my favorite storytellers and so I hold them to a slightly higher standard. My commentary here comes off as nitpicky and critical but I really did enjoy Harper’s work and look forward to reading more of it in the future.

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Plotting was afoot, and not just mine. I had suspected before that someone close to me was not to be trusted but who?
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