Saturday, September 17, 2011

Review of Judith James' The King's Courtesan

Title: The King’s Courtesan
Author: Judith James
Publisher: HQN Books
Format: Mass Market Paperback & eBook
Source: NetGalley
Publication Date: August 30, 2011
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

I was excited to receive Judith James’ The King’s Courtesan for review, because I’ve been trying to read more historical romance that isn’t set in Regency England. The King’s Courtesan is set in England during the Restoration of King Charles II, so I was really looking forward to reading it, and Ms. James did not disappoint! I loved the historical setting, which is depicted fairly accurately, as far as I can tell through my limited recollection of the Restoration and a few searches on the internet. Ms. James’ novel is a pleasant and engaging read, although I never felt the connection with the characters that I would have liked.
The premise of the novel intrigued me, as I wasn’t sure how the author would depict a romance between a courtesan and a nobleman forced to marry her purely for the King’s purposes. Hope Meadows is one of Charles II’s several mistresses, but as Charles’ fiancée approaches London, Hope begins to worry about her future, since she is not highly born and therefore will not be able to remain at court when the new Queen arrives. Charles’ solution is a bit of a stunner: he marries her off to Robert Nichols, a former captain who served under Cromwell. By marrying Hope, Robert will retain possession of his family lands, Cressly. Unfortunately for Hope, Charles never informs her of his plan, and he actually tricks her into marriage with Robert. Her new husband is convinced that she was in on the plot from the beginning, so it’s not the most auspicious start to their marriage. Charles assumes that by marrying Hope into the nobility, she’ll be able to return to court on his command and continue as his mistress, making Robert a cuckold. Not surprisingly, Robert isn’t thrilled with the situation, but soon Hope’s irrepressible nature begins to win him over, leaving the two to worry about how to deal with the King when his summons to court arrives.
For me, the historical context is the highlight of this novel. Ms. James does an excellent job of portraying the bawdy court of Charles II and the complicated politics inherent in a system dependent upon patronage and the King’s favor. She depicts “Charlie” as a charming womanizer, easy to anger but just as easy to laugh. In spite of his many faults, he is quite personable, which I enjoyed immensely and believe to be a rather accurate depiction of the king. There’s plenty of detail to keep you engaged without distracting you from the romance, which is tricky to accomplish, yet Ms. James manages to incorporate much of the history seamlessly.
I did enjoy the characters of Robert and Hope, but I felt a bit distanced from their romance, partly because the two are apart so frequently in the novel. At times it felt as though Hope spent most of her days winning the household staff over rather than her husband, because he was away so often. The reason for his absences is twofold: first, he’s trying to resist falling for the former prostitute because of the circumstances surrounding his marriage, and, second, he’s searching for information concerning one of his sister’s murderers in a plot for revenge. Unfortunately, the subplot surrounding his long-sought revenge is at times more interesting than his marriage to Hope.
Hope, we are told, is a charming, beautiful woman, who despite her past still manages to convey a sense of innocence, and therein lies my main difficulty with this novel. In the prologue her mother sells Hope’s virginity off to the highest bidder, yet we learn that Hope had only been with three other men before her marriage to Robert Nichols . I felt that in order to make her a likeable character, Ms. James repeatedly described her as “innocent” and practically virginal, which I find disturbing. The trope of experienced male lover, virginal woman remains popular, and the author appears to be trying to fit this novel into that trope, despite the female protagonist’s role as prostitute. I’m bothered that the author minimized Hope’s experience as a prostitute in an apparent attempt to make her more appealing to the reader. It’s clear from the beginning of the novel that Hope’s survival depends upon her livelihood as a prostitute, and the lack of work options for women during the Restoration is well known. This in of itself makes her a sympathetic character, so minimizing her sexual experience seems unnecessary.
However, the writing was smooth and well-executed, and I found the novel to be a compelling read. I’ve seen more favorable reviews of Ms. James’ novel Libertine’s Kiss, which is also set in the Restoration and whose hero and heroine appear in The King’s Courtesan, so I’ll definitely be reading her other books. This one, while enjoyable, probably won’t make my keeper shelf.

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