REVIEW: MISTRESS TO THE CROWN BY ISOLDE MARTYN

MISTRESS TO THE CROWN

Author: Isolde Martyn
Harlequin Mira RRP $24.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

Mistress to the CrownGuilt, my humourless inner magistrate, took its place on the bench. By day it admonished me on how my fall from grace had harmed those I loved. At night it proved a snoring bedfellow; keeping me awake, and when I supposed I had shaken it to silence, it would produce another loud snort of judgment.   

Having read no books by Isolde Martyn before – or many in the historical romance genre – I wasn’t sure what to expect when I received a copy of Mistress to the Crown.  I picked it up after reading two particularly heartrending novels, looking for something lighter. In one way, that’s what I got; in another, there was plenty of darkness – and plenty of food for thought.

At 12, Elizabeth Lambard was married to William Shore. The book begins two years later, as Elizabeth desperately tries to annul her marriage before it is consummated; her efforts are in vain, to her dismay. Twelve years later, Elizabeth is still unhappily married to William, but she is childless and he is impotent. When Lord Hastings comes into her husband’s shop, she seizes the chance to get the required legal counsel to annul her marriage. It’s also an opportunity to learn about desire and the art of love.

What Elizabeth does not foresee is an introduction to Hastings’ friend, the King of England, nor her future at his side … and in his bed. In some ways, it sounds the stuff of fairy tales – life in a palace with an ardent lover, beautiful clothes, jewels, servants, even houses, at her disposal.  While the relationship does lead to the severance of her marriage, Elizabeth also finds that she’s standing on shaky ground. Her family shuns her, people call her a whore and a harlot, and the Queen’s family hates her … and Elizabeth soon learns that politics makes her position increasingly precarious. When she becomes a defender of the people, she has to learn when to speak and when to stay silent, for speaking out of turn could cost her lifestyle, or worse, her life.

Reading about this period in history was fascinating – the story is based on real people and real events during the Plantagenet’s reign. Reading about the politics of the time was both compelling and repelling (if it can be both); the greed, ruthlessness and  nastiness of some of the characters as they strove for power and wealth was dreadful, and yet I had to keep reading to find out what happened to Elizabeth. Would she be tried as a witch? Hung? Some of the gory details about what happened before and after hangings shocked me, as did the “mob’s” lust to see someone tortured and executed. Why would people want to see this? I don’t get it. And then, there’s the stonings – people pelted with stones and excrement for their sins … isn’t it sad that in some parts of the world, not much has changed? Despite the brutality of the times, I found that my appetite for historical fiction of this type has increased.

Elizabeth is portrayed as a woman before her time. It took me a while to warm to her – initially she came across as rather manipulative. However, as she matured, she became known for her kindness, especially for those less well off. She wants to be a voice for women, for the underprivileged – and she achieves that by hearing “petitions” from people. It’s a goal she never veers from, despite at times knowing that her “interference” could be costly. Like all women of the time, she still is regarded as property and I like how she bites back at that at times; I like her tendency to question the status quo and call for change. Her voice is at turns spirited, teasing, feisty, challenging and compassionate. As I began to understand more about the period and got to know her better, I felt sympathetic towards Elizabeth and liked her more and more. She’s a great and memorable character.

Since this is Elizabeth’s story, what we know of the other characters is from Elizabeth’s point of view. Her affection for both Ned (the King) and Lord Hastings was clear – through her eyes I saw them as flawed, but mostly decent men. I found myself using the Plantagenet family tree at the front of the book several times, as well as the character list – many characters had the same first names and without these guides it would have been hard to keep track of everyone.

Mistress of the Crown weaves romance and history into a rich, lively and intriguing tapestry that will appeal to lovers of historical romance/fiction. Martyn is adept at bringing both history and characters to life that comes to life and she’s now another writer on my to-read list. I’m looking forward to her next book – just hope it doesn’t take too long.

Available from good bookstores and Harlequin Mira. This copy was courtesy of Harlequin Mira.

Bookish treat: Elizabeth treats Ned to a feast of cherry pie, and I must say, that got my tastebuds tingling.