Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Murder in the Queen’s Wardrobe: An Elizabeth Spy Thriller and Jmistress Jaffrey Mystery by Kathy Lynn Emerson

Murder in the Queen’s Wardrobe: An Elizabeth Spy Thriller. Jmistress Jaffrey Mystery. Kathy Lynn Emerson. Severn House. March 2015. 256 pp.  ISBN#: 9780727884596.

Mistress Rosamond Jaffrey is married but separated from her husband and living independently.  She is wealthy, educated and intelligent as well.  While she has no problem filling her days, she is now drawn into the service of Queen Elizabeth’s cousin, Lady Mary, in London in the year 1582.  However, she’s not there to be a semi-servant to Lady Mary but to be a spy for the Queen’s chief spymaster, Sir Frances Walsingham, a man who knows everyone’s business and shares his knowledge sparingly if at all.  Now Rosamond is to be his ears and listen to the gossip of Lady Mary and her ladies in waiting,  Rosamond is not sure what she is to hear, but it doesn’t take long to realize that it seems someone is trying to arrange the marriage of Lady Mary to the Tsar of Russia, Ivan the Terrible, a tyrant whom all fear and few trust.

The mystery deepens when several murderous attempts fall on first Lady Mary and then on Rosamond herself.  Lady Mary is believed to have succumbed to a dreaded disease when in fact she is the victim of poison.  On it goes with events conspiring against Rosamond that look like accidents but occur too frequently to be coincidence.

In the meantime, Rosamond’s husband, who is living in Russia supposedly doing busy with a Muscovy merchant company, has been distracted by the widow of an Englishman who was executed as a traitor.  The Tsar will not let this woman return to England and so she lives in dire poverty and miserable conditions.  Soon Rosamond’s husband is feeling more than pity for this young, attractive woman and he will bear some very harsh consequences for his attendance upon this woman and his plan to free her to return to England.

Rosamond at first has to mentally explore who could be responsible for attempting to harm Lady Mary and why they are trying to make sure a marriage and alliance with the Tsar never comes to pass. As in any well-thought out mystery, each character has some flaw, weakness or political connection that could provide a motive for a plot to harm the Queen’s cousin.  Rosamond herself is betrayed a few times and has to come up with some very rapid reasons for explaining her presence as a lady-in-waiting to Lady Mary.

All in all, Rosamond is a clever, ingenious sleuth who keeps the reader guessing on every page and flipping the pages to relish each engaging misunderstanding, attack, clue-ridden occasional dialogue, and violent scenes occurring to Rosamond and her husband Rob.  A splendid read that is highly recommended for all lovers of well-crafted mystery fiction.

Dreaming Spies (Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes Series #14) by Laurie R. King

Dreaming Spies (Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes Series #14).  Laurie R King. Random House Publishing Group.  February 2015. 352 pp. paperback and e-book. ISBN #: 9780345531797.

Holmes and Russell return to their home anticipating a quiet rest, only to have their maid alert them to a huge rock with a chrysanthemum drawn on it lying within their garden. This quickly leads to a long sea journey to Japan which is far from quiet as they wind up in the middle of what they believe to be a suspicious disappearance of a passenger, the appearance of a blackmailer, the Earl of Darley, and an NYU trained economist, Haruki Sato, who begins to give lessons to the passengers on past and present Japanese language and culture.  

So begins a long, beautiful and dangerous trip through Japan in the 1920s which ends with a phenomenal request from no less than the Prince of Japan, Emperor Hirohito’s son.  But before they agree to seek out a single volume of Basho poetry that the Prince inadvertently gave to King George V, Holmes and Russell must be tested by both Haruki and her father Sato, both trained ninjas.  Now a very suspicious offer is being made by the Earl of Darley to sell the precious book back to the Prince for an exorbitant price.  What is the true value of this volume of poems and why is the Prince desperate to get it back before his father, the Emperor, finds out what happened?

The quest takes them back to England with Russell doing a major part of the footwork and Haruki proving to be more physically vulnerable than she had bragged about earlier. Indeed even during the ninja workouts and training Russell and Holmes had endured earlier in the plot, the latter couple proved to be much more adept at throwing Japanese weapons and swordplay than either Haruki or her father Sato had believed possible. 

The suspense in Dreaming Spies… is perfectly balanced with moments of beautiful calm elicited by the sharing of the Japanese tea ceremony, the serenity of the Japanese landscape, and the partaking of delicate but tasty Japanese dishes they learn to actually love and prefer over heavy Western meals.  The criminal bribers are very clever and appear to have bested the sleuthing couple but once again the Earl and others underestimate the keen minds and skills of their pursuers.

Dreaming Spies, the 14th novel in the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series, is superb detective/spy/adventure/thriller fiction!  A great read that all lovers of the Holmes and Russell adventures will relish anew!  Highly recommended reading!

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Price of Blood: A Novel by Patricia Bracewell

The Price of Blood: A Novel.  Patricia Bracewell. Penguin Group (USA). February 2015. 448 pp.  ISBN#: 9780525427278.

King Æthelred and Queen Emma rule a divided nation, England, in the year 1066. The King, however, is equally responsible for the chaotic rule within his country as well as the Viking attacks that persist and grow more severe with each passing year.  For the King is tortured by the ghostly image of his dead brother, who seems to appear either before or immediately following the increasing disasters that threaten the nation’s demise.  The King believes this is his just punishment for the death of that same brother but remains hardhearted and determined to control his sons who vie to one day inherit his throne and Kingdom. 

The Queen cannot please the King or his sons, as she is of Norman background and therefore considered a “foreigner.”  Add to that the fact that any son she bears would be the heir to the throne, or would he?  The King married her for political reasons, readily beds her but increasingly disapproves of the influence she bears in his Court.  In his mounting fear and insecurity, any who contest his will become the enemy within or outside of the nation.

Of the many sons of this tyrant, Eadric and Athelstan are most at odds.  The King clearly favors Eadric although he warily watches this conniving son who is harder and crueler than the King himself which is saying quite a lot.  Athelstan and Emma would be lovers were it not for her marriage and the fact that every breath she takes and movement she begins are observed overtly and covertly.  Athelstan would be the better heir but for some reason he is mistrusted at all times by his father. 

Add to the spice the machinations of Elgiva, the daughter of one of the King’s nobles who rules an outlying northern province, has been wed to one of the King’s most hated enemies and now she makes a choice that will hopefully gain her the power she craves so desperately but which may doom England in the very near future.  She is evil personified, wicked and self-centered to the core.

Emma remains the pivotal figure who displays intelligence, beauty, wariness and cunning, as well as a pure heart.  Despite the ill treatment she endures, she remains steadfast in maintaining her own identity and keeping the welfare of England before all else, and that is a phenomenal feat many, many times over throughout this tension-filled, intriguing novel.  Villainous characters abound and the battle between the English and Danes looms closer and closer in every chapter, with dire consequences for the English population! 

The Price of Blood: A Novel is wonderful historical fiction and Emma is carefully depicted in a realistic, endearing fashion that will delight readers familiar with her place in history and those meeting her for the first time.  Highly recommended reading!