This was my first read by Karleen Koen. A book set in Charles II's court sound interesting and full of intrigue and I decided to pick. I also have a biography of his Queen in my TBR pile and thought this could be an interesting first introduction to the period.
The main character is a young lady, Alice de Verney, a former lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine who followed Princess Henrietta to France on her wedding to Monsieur, the brother of the French King Louis XIV. The beginning of this novel sees them returning to England for a brief visit as Princess Henrietta serves as go-between for both Kings.
Alice is a consummate courtier. Used to court life all her life she is very sure of herself and of what she wants and is not above manipulating others to get it. In the first chapters we find out that her travel to France is due to having been betrayed by her fiancé and best friend, when an unplanned pregnancy forces them to wed she deals with her feelings by running away and trying to avoid them now that she is back. When she can't avoid them she strikes back at them and refuses forgiveness.
Some people might have problems with Alice but I felt that for a while there was genuine pain behind her actions which helped me accepting them. It's when it comes to her scheming for revenge, she plans to marry her ex fiancé's uncle and so become higher than him in social ranking. Still, for someone who has lived with intrigue and scheming all her life this may just be ordinary behaviour. I also liked her faithfulness towards Queen Catherine. The Queen is in the King's good graces only when she accepts his infidelities and it seems she has few friends when she loses it.
I had more trouble accepting her behaviour towards her friend Barbara and one of the reasons was that I felt Barbara was left with friends that were less good than Alice. Despite all her stubbornness, her pride and her manipulations Alice actually seemed the best one of the lot. Through her eyes we see the King Charles II, his court, his advisors and how everyone is only interested in advancing themselves at the expense of others. I couldn't have been easy living surrounded by lies and deceit every day.
When Princess Henrietta's party returns to France and her arrival is soon followed by her death, Alice suspects poison was at work. She and the other English attendants are soon returned to England and after a while one of Princess Henrietta's Ladies - Louise Renée de Kerouaille - follows them. Without realising it Alice is also manipulated by others. Eventually she comes to that conclusion but what truly upsets her and drives her to her breaking point is the fate of her friend Barbara.
There is a thread of romance that follows Alice throughout part of the book and I thought that was not well woven in the rest of the story. The conclusion to that comes very abruptly after the man had been in love with someone else for most of the action and I did feel it was particularly believable. In fact, my biggest complaint of the book is precisely its ending. I felt there should be a conclusion, a moral if you like and that this ending comes too soon and cuts short the story and the sense of closure that I needed.
There are a lot more characters walking in the pages of this novel and I really enjoyed how Koen mixed real historical characters with fictional ones. I have since found out that this is a prequel to her first novel - Through a Glass Darkly - and I think that I'll have to go and find that one to add to my list. The urge to revisit an older Alice is big.