Mills & Boon, £4.99, ISBN 978-0-263-91735-2
Historical Romance, 2016
Lady Alys Drury currently manages her father’s holding, Dunboyton is a remote part of Ireland. Her late mother, being Spanish, didn’t endear herself to the Queen as, in the later end of the 1500s, the relationship between England and Spain isn’t exactly blooming with warmth. Hence, her father is being a posting that is essentially an exile, and the man has been doing his best since then to both re-ingratiate his family back in the Queen’s good standing while taking care of things. Alys, naturally, manages the household matters after her mother’s passing. As Spain finally sends its fleet to attack England, Alys can only listen to the rumors and wonder whether Dunboyton will be caught in the crossfire.
Indeed, soon the Queen sends a cruel officer to “assist” her father, and Alys witnesses how the soldiers from London mercilessly butcher the wounded and helpless Spanish that end up on her coast after their poorly-maintained ships sank in the storm. When she herself stumbles upon a wounded soldier from the enemy side, she decides to take him in and nurse him back to health. The author smartly gives me a good glimpse of Alys’s inner turmoil that leads her to make this decision: our heroine is not a dumb chit taken in by a handsome face, but rather, she can’t bear to see another person being killed ignobly by her own people. As Juan heals and they begin to bond, she also quickly and correctly deduces that he is not what he seems. Rather, he is a spy, on England’s behalf. Juan soon vanishes, leaving behind some keepsake for her, but his timing is awful. Shortly after his MIA, the English soldiers burn down a village for the crime of harboring the Spanish, and Alys understandably believes that he may have been part of the decision to burn those poor villages’ homes in such a cruel manner.
Later, Alys will be invited to Queen Elizabeth’s court as a recognition for the role her father played in England’s efforts to defend herself from Spain. Imagine her delight and dismay when she meets Juan again. This time. he’s John Huntley, in court on a mission to clean up loose ends – to discover the moles in the Court that assisted the enemy. As you can guess, our heroine will soon be caught in the crossfire once again.
The Queen’s Christmas Summons is a rather simplistic title that does not encapsulate even a third of this story. The whole thing takes place across a span of time far longer than the duration of the relationship in a typical romance novel, hence there is an epic feel to the whole thing. There are dangers, intrigue, and such threatening our heroine while the hero tries to protect her.
However, Alys for the most part isn’t a clueless victim. She can certainly put two and two together, and if she has to, she’s very good at hiding her emotions and lying her rear end off. John’s superior remarks once or twice that she’d make a good spy, and I can actually buy that, as Alys demonstrates a refreshing ability to think quickly on her feet, discern things, and make sensible decisions. As I’ve mentioned, she’s not helping John out of blind faith or some eye-rolling “He’s too cute to be a bad guy!” justification – she tends to put quite a bit of thought into her actions. It is also nice that her relationship with her parents are not the usual typical sort where mommy is the bitch and daddy can’t do wrong. She loves her parents, she is sometimes exasperated by her father, but she is not her father’s doormat or martyr.
John is also a pretty appealing character: all his life he has been a spy, to clear his tarnished family’s reputation as well as to gain enough favors to elevate his family standing. He has done a lot of terrible things as a result. Not that he regrets doing so, it’s just that he doesn’t believe that he can offer the kind of life to Alys that she deserves. Nonetheless, the author never allows him to drag out his “I’m no good for you!” blues. Instead, the focus is more on his feelings for Alys. I have to admit, a part of me is not too pleased with how he tends to infantilize Alys in his determination to see her as an innocent, sweet angel, but I’m also relieved that the author chooses to focus on him being all lovelorn over Alys instead of doing that usual boink you-ditch you dance that he could have easily pulled on everyone.
The thing about this one, though, is that eventually the story is too big for its word count. It doesn’t help that the author wastes a prologue and a first chapter on some childhood scenes that add little to the overall story. In a situation where every word counts, such waste feels even more criminal. The story could have straight from the second chapter, and the words then freed up could have been used for something that will add to the story.
This issue comes into play because the first half, when intrigue and war arrives at Dunboyton, is noticeably far more epic and emotional than the second half, which takes place in Queen Elizabeth’s court. Oh, I understand why the second half is necessary: a most convincing happy ending is one that is sanctioned by the Queen, which is what the author delivers here. Thus, both Alys and John have to play a more significant role in keeping England safe from her enemies, and therefore, I totally get the second half. However, this second half feels rushed and truncated, plus it lacks the whole “The world may end tomorrow!” sense of urgency that lends to the poignancy of the first half. Furthermore, Alys does an uncharacteristic thing to allow the enemies to catch her for the obligatory search and rescue climax. Again, I get why the author needs such a climax, but I feel that she could have done something more here than to have Alys does something that is more typical of a horror movie dumb bunny, especially considering how Alys has been anything but a dumb bunny up to that point. Oh well.
Taken together as a whole, The Queen’s Christmas Summons is a gripping read even with its uneven pacing in the early parts. The romance works well enough to add to the emotional resonance of the story, the characters are likable and believable as a couple, and the whole thing sticks awhile in my mind long after I’ve closed the book. Very nice, indeed.