2005, Renaissance Romance (1570s France)
Balantine, $13.95, 544 pages, Amazon ASIN 0345437969 Part of a series
Readers in recent years have complained that the rich, interesting
historicals of the past are vanishing. As a reader, I certainly have found
myself buying fewer books overall as the meaty historicals I loved
started to be replaced by and large with homogenized
wallpaper comedies. Fortunately, there are still some good and interesting
historicals out there if you look hard enough, and The Dark Queen is one of those great long sagas so many of us have been missing.
Ariane de Cheney is a healer and wise woman, known by her village as The
Lady of Faire Isle. Though she does not hold a title, she is related to
nobility. The nearby Comte de Renard is determined to marry her, but she
has refused him and, while at first Renard attempts to coerce her into the marriage, she teaches him the error of his ways.
Renard is captivated by Ariane and determined to wed her. He gives her
one of a set of enchanted rings and gets her promise to keep it. The two
agree that if she uses her ring to call to him three times, then she will
wed him. It is hardly an auspicious beginning to a relationship, but these
two characters have a lot of growing and changing to do throughout this
rather complex story.
The romance of Ariane and Renard is set against the complex historical
tapestry that was 16th Century France. Throughout the story, Catherine de
Medici essentially rules France through her feeble-minded son. In real
life, Catherine was rumored to be a witch, and Carroll certainly explores
the darker side of the queen's character in Ariane and Renard's adventures.
Though Catherine's character gets oversimplified, Carroll's evocation of the tense atmosphere in the country, with its uneasy truce between Catholics and Huguenots, is riveting stuff indeed. The story has an element of the supernatural to it, and the author uses this to take some liberties with the actual history of the time, but she does so smoothly and with good effect.
Ariane and Renard's romance is an entertaining one. They start off at
odds, but each character grows a lot during the story. As the story opens,
Renard is learning how to be the Comte de Renard without falling into the
autocratic and hateful ways of the grandfather he loathed. Meanwhile,
recently orphaned Ariane is learning to be the Lady of Faire Isle, while she tries to be guardian to her younger sisters, fulfill her traditional
responsibilities to her people, and find her own way in the world.
As Ariane and Renard make hard decisions and grow as human beings, they also
grow closer together. The journey is not always soft and tender, but the
romance and their many adventures had me turning pages.
Best of all, Carroll gives readers a wealth of interesting secondary
characters and subplots. She doesn't just write a romance; she creates a
whole world. Ariane and Renard are surrounded by people who are primarily
well-developed characters rather than flat "type" characters. All of this
lends a depth to the story that I have not encountered in a long time. I
sometimes had to think hard to keep it all straight, but the novel is
well-written and very engaging, so I enjoyed the time I spent with it.
There are too few historical romances like this one on the market.
Though many bookstores shelve it in the fiction section since its tasteful
cover appeals to crossover readers, make no mistake, this is definitely a
romance. It has a richer backstory than most of what is hitting the shelves
these days, but the romance is still the focus of the story. If you are one
of the historical romance readers who has bemoaned the dearth of good
historical reading nowadays, this may very well be the book for you. As for
me, I'm rereading it while I wait for the sequel to come out this summer.
-- Lynn Spencer
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