Sunday, January 23, 2011

Dark Angels - Karleen Koen

Alice Verney is a young woman intent on achieving her dreams. Having left Restoration England in the midst of a messy scandal, she has been living in Louis XIV's Baroque, mannered France for two years. Now she is returning home to England and anxious to re-establish herself quickly. First, she will regain her former position as a maid of honor to Charles II's queen. Then she will marry the most celebrated duke of the Restoration, putting herself in a position to attain power she's only dreamed of. As a duchess, Alice will be able to make or break her friends and enemies at will.

But all is not as it seems in the rowdy, merry court of Charles II. Since the Restoration, old political alliances have frayed, and there are whispers that the king is moving to divorce his barren queen, who some wouldn't mind seeing dead. But Alice, loyal only to a select few, is devoted to the queen, and so sets out to discover who might be making sinister plans, and if her own father is one of them. When a member of the royal family dies unexpectedly, and poison is suspected, the stakes are raised. Alice steps up her efforts to find out who is and isn't true to the queen, learns of shocking betrayals throughout court, and meets a man that she may be falling in love with—and who will spoil all of her plans. With the suspected arrival of a known poison-maker, the atmosphere in the court electrifies, and suddenly the safety of the king himself seems uncertain. Secret plots are at play, and war is on the horizon—but will it be with the Dutch or the French? And has King Charles himself betrayed his country for greed?

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.

Grade: 4/5

1 comment:

  1. I read this before *meeting* Alice in the other books. She's quite the indomitable "grandmama" in those books, and I'd like to go back and see her again as a young girl. I'm hoping Karleen's new book out this year will give us more of Richard and Alice. When you read TAGD you'll know what I mean. There's a lot more of their story yet untold.


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