Mistress of Mourning by Karen Harper
Author: Karen Harper
Genre: Fiction (Historical / 16th Century / London / UK / Candle-making / Royal Conspiracy / Henry VII / Tudors)
Publisher/Publication Date: NAL Trade (7/3/2012)
Source: The publisher.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: Two grieving mothers -- Varina, a candle maker; and Elizabeth of York, Queen of England -- come together when an unexpected royal death exposes sedition, conspiracies, and more deaths.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction
Do I like the cover?: I don't hate it -- it's lovely seeing the two full figures of the women but I don't think either figure captures the two female leads.
I'm reminded of...: D.L. Bogdan, Sophie Perinot, Sandra Worth
First line: "Just think on it -- us making candles for the royal wedding," my brother-in-law, Gil, called to me from the door of the wax workshop.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, especially if you like easy-to-inhale historical fiction with a unique angle and a lovely heroine.
Why did I get this book?: The heroine having a candle-making business was so interesting I broke my Tudor ban -- and I'm so glad I did!
Review: Set squarely in the world of 16th century merchants, our heroine, Varina Westcott, is a young widow with a thriving candle-making business. Mourning the loss of her infant son, Varina devotes her time to making beautiful, lifelike angel candles which are sold illicitly as she isn’t a member of the city’s powerful candle-making guild. As if fending off her predatory suitor isn't challenge enough, she accepts a mysterious commission from the royal palace, which, unsurprisingly, has an enormous impact on her life.
Her client is none other than Queen Elizabeth of York, the wife of Henry VII. Still grieving the untimely deaths of her brothers -- the infamous princes in the Tower -- as well as her two infant children, Elizabeth finds in Varina a kindred spirit. But Varina’s seemingly simple commission -- to design wax effigies of Elizabeth's dead kin -- transforms into a more challenging job when Varina is asked to investigate the sudden and mysterious death of Prince Arthur (as in big brother of Henry VIII). There's a predictable romance that I rather liked with a male love interest who was, I'll admit, kind of dreamy.
The novel is split between her first person account and that of Queen Elizabeth, and while I'm not always wild about dual narratives, in this case, it worked. The common loss these two women shared added some depth to this otherwise enjoyably fluffy historical. What sold me on the story, and why I so enjoyed this book, is that Varina worked for me as a heroine -- even when she came dangerously close to that aggravating willful-feisty caricature. She waited out tense situations rather than doing something stupid, for example, and I found her admirable and likeable. (And, yes, I totally want her to be my bestie.)
I can't speak to the novel's historical accuracy. Harper's conjecture about who murdered the princes in the Tower and the cause of Arthur's death might not resonate with those who are armchair historians of that era, but since I don't know, I didn't care, and I liked the mix of history, romance, and intrigue.
Ultimately, this is the best kind of summer historical fiction: light but not insultingly so, with an obvious romance to counter the dark conspiracy. Tudor fans might enjoy this with it's early Tudor roots; those who like artisans and women-who-do-unusual-jobs will find Harper's candle-making research fascinating.