Harlequin Historical, $6.50, ISBN 978-0-373-29838-9
Historical Romance, 2015
Whispers at Court is a romance set in the 14th-century with a difference: the characters and the plot really feel like something from that time instead of, another story with modern people playing dressing up. Heroine Lady Cecily, the Countess of Losford, for example, never whines or mopes that she can’t marry for love; she expects her king to arrange for her to marry a nobleman of his choice, and you don’t see her throwing temper tantrums over this.
In fact, when the story opens, Cecily is actually puzzled over the fact that she’s pushing 20, an orphan, and yet King Edward seems content to let her remain single and play the best friend to his beloved daughter Isabella. She suspects that Isabella, who is still unmarried despite her age, may want another unmarried lady to confide her, hence the King’s apparent reticence. Meanwhile, this is a time when France and England are in a truce and they send noblemen over as hostages as if these hostages are fruit baskets or something. Cecily dislikes the French, because her father died in the war fighting those people, and now she has to play nice with them.
French hostage Marc de Marcel is one of those hostages. He’s a knight who ends up in King Edward’s court as a stand-in for a nobleman to whom he is indebted to. He can only hope that the nobleman would remember his promise and come back to arrange for Marc’s release later, but for now, he puts on a dour face. Unlike his fellow hostages, he doesn’t see the point in playing nice or even sharing the beds of his English “jailers”. He just wants to go home.
Cecily and Marc don’t get along well when they first bump into one another, mostly because both of them are quite xenophobic when it comes to the other person’s nationality. It’s understandable, of course, as both parties have lost a lot in the war and are now forced to play nice in a big house and pretend as if nothing bad has ever happened. However, when his friend and Isabella embark on what seems like a serious kind of flirtation, Cecily decides to approach Marc for help to keep those two apart. She doesn’t want Isabella to get hurt or have her reputation suffer. Marc knows what his friend is doing – his friend wants to get into Isabella’s good graces in order to have her persuade her father to restore his lands back to him – and maybe he can play along to help his friend’s plan go more smoothly. Neither counts on the messy emotions that would surface to muddle up their relationship.
The great thing about Whispers at Court is that it uses the norms of that time to create a pretty compelling story without resorting to trite played-out “I must marry for love!” nonsense. The structure of the story is definitely that of a historical romance rather than historical fiction, but the history feels more than mere wallpaper. Cecily, as a lady of the court, is expected to marry whom the king dictates. Marc knows that he cannot marry Cecily even if their love is the truest thing that ever true’d. That’s just the way it is back then. This makes their feelings all the more precious and heartbreaking, because the resolution seems hopeless. Short of these two running off into the woods or something, what are they going to do, right?
Initially, both characters can be boring because they just keep repeating the same things over and over, but once they decide to soften a little in one another’s presence, things become sweet, tender, and occasionally heartbreaking. The author uses the setting and the history to create a tale of forbidden love that is pretty gripping, mostly because I can’t figure out how these two would get their mess sorted out. (Actually, I can – they can just be secret lovers even after she has married some guy, but I guess this kind of resolution won’t sit well in the genre.)
Maybe the author does this too well, because the resolution of that all that drama is actually way too easy for all the angst and build up leading up to that point. The king just comes in and says, “Okay! Go get married!” and that’s it, happy ending. After all that drama, pretense, “We can’t do this!” and what not, this is such an anticlimax. It’s the anticlimax of all anticlimaxes, mostly because it just happens like that without all the drama and chest-thumping that the build-up has promised. On one hand, I feel that maybe the author has boxed herself into a corner and this is a necessary kind of anticlimax to deliver the happy ending, but on the other hand, I still feel cheated.
Still, I like this story for being as true to its setting as possible while serving a romance that can be hard-hitting at times. It’s too bad that I just can’t get over that “What? That’s it?” feeling when I finish the book. It is with great reluctance that I have to downgrade the final rating a bit. Oh, who cares about the rating. Go read it anyway.