Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Dark Angels by Karleen Koen

Book Description:
Alice Verney is a young woman intent on achieving her dreams. Having left Restoration England in the midst of a messy scandal, she has been living in Louis XIV's Baroque, mannered France for two years. Now she is returning home to England and anxious to re-establish herself quickly. First, she will regain her former position as a maid of honor to Charles II's queen. Then she will marry the most celebrated duke of the Restoration, putting herself in a position to attain power she's only dreamed of. As a duchess, Alice will be able to make or break her friends and enemies at will.

But all is not as it seems in the rowdy, merry court of Charles II. Since the Restoration, old political alliances have frayed, and there are whispers that the king is moving to divorce his barren queen, who some wouldn't mind seeing dead. But Alice, loyal only to a select few, is devoted to the queen, and so sets out to discover who might be making sinister plans, and if her own father is one of them. When a member of the royal family dies unexpectedly, and poison is suspected, the stakes are raised. Alice steps up her efforts to find out who is and isn't true to the queen, learns of shocking betrayals throughout court, and meets a man that she may be falling in love with—and who will spoil all of her plans. With the suspected arrival of a known poison-maker, the atmosphere in the court electrifies, and suddenly the safety of the king himself seems uncertain. Secret plots are at play, and war is on the horizon—but will it be with the Dutch or the French? And has King Charles himself betrayed his country for greed?

The long-awaited prequel to Koen's beloved Through a Glass Darkly, Dark Angels is a feast of a novel that sparkles with all the passion, extravagance, danger, and scandal of seventeenth-century England. Unforgettable in its dramatic force, here is a novel of love and politics, of romance and betrayal, of power and succession—and of a resourceful young woman who risks everything for pride and status in an era in which women were afforded little of either.

I was disappointed with this book. I simply loved Through a Glass Darkly and this prequel was such a let down. The book itself wasn't bad, well written, dramatic, a great birds eye view of the courts of Charles II and Louis XIV, but I was bored by some of it. After upteen levees, soirees, balls and masquerades, it starts to all run together. I expected to love this book, since it's Alice Verney's story who is the feisty, oh so interesting and scene stealing elderly duchess from Through a Glass Darkly. I was hoping to read about what Alice was like as a young woman at court and how she meets her future husband Richard Saylor. You know the old saying, be careful for what you wish for? We do find out in this book what young Alice was like - and I didn't like her! We do read about how she meets Richard, but nothing really kicks in between them until the last third of the book, since Richard is in love with someone else through most of it. Plus, Alice is hell bent on marrying the elderly Duke of Balmoral so she can rule the roost at court. She was meddling and unforgiving, a pushy know-it-all. She was much too pragmatic for my liking. Eventually, as she discovered that she loved the young and handsome Richard Saylor, she began to soften and I liked her more, but before that - bah!

The main plotline of this book is about the mystery of who this poisoner, Henri Ange is that murdered Princess Henriettte, King Charles II's sister who is married to Louis XIV's not so very nice brother. Two years earlier, Alice's engagement to the heir of the Duke of Balmoral was broken because he impregnated her best friend and he had to marry her. Alice ignominiously leaves the court of Charles II to become his sister's lady in waiting in France. Now, back in England for a short visit with the Princess, Alice must face her former fiancee and former friend who wishes forgiveness, but Alice cannot forgive or forget. This is one of her fatal flaws, she cannot find it in herself to forgive people who don't go along with what she wants or who cross her. This doesn't seem too bad when she's in her 70's, but at 20, it's unappealing and she didn't win me over. Frankly, I'm surprised Richard fell for her at all.

Richard, throughout most of the book is in love with the beautiful Renee La Karouelle, who is a friend of Alice's and ultimately he asks her to marry him. She says yes and they are in love. But, Renee catches the eye of Charles II and he wants her to become his prime mistress. A tempting offer for a young Frenchwoman at court who doesn't have many prospects or wealth, aside from her great beauty. Alice and Renee return to England for good after their princess is poisoned and before long, Charles II wins out and Renee cannot say no to him and the lure of his riches and attentions. She must give up Richard, or rather, Richard gives her up, which leaves him free to notice Alice, who is still too busy getting the old Duke of Balmoral to propose to her so she may become a great duchess. The old Duke is an interesting character, he's wilier than first believed, but he too has a fatal flaw that becomes his ruin. Ms. Koen has a good hand with her side characters. They are vivid and interesting, whether they are villains or good people with their own sad stories.

Alice is not all bad. She has a great sense of duty and is kind to her queen and Dorothy who is the "mother" of the maids that attend the queen. She is a fierce supporter of her friends (as long as they do what she thinks they should do) and loyal to a fault. It takes us a long time to see this side of Alice, but she begins to thaw as she and Richard help each other with the aid of the old duke to chase down the assassin, Henri Ange. But she still must give up her pride which prevents her from forgiving those she loves most. I found it a bit tedious how she could be so stubborn, convinced she was in the right no matter what, even when it meant cutting off her childhood friend who she believed could have married better. Alice is indomitable and strong but it doesn't help her in the end when her pride almost kills her and she realizes the great mistakes she has made in friendship, marriage, duty and love. In some cases, it's too late, but in others there is hope.

Unlike the book description above, I didn't find the main storyline compelling and was really annoyed that there was not much between Alice and Richard and their courtship - since that's what I was hoping for the most! This could have been so much better. The growing fondness between the two was so subtle it was just plain dull and overpowered by the other plotline of finding the murderer, Henri Ange. How could the author have done this to Alice? Alice, whom I loved in Through the Glass Darkly! I wanted to read a juicy story about Alice and Richard and their great passion, instead it's a tepid love story about two people that find out they love each other but won't openly admit it to each other. They dance around it, but nothing ever comes of anything until the very end of the book. I think Alice deserved better than this.

If you read Through a Glass Darkly, don't get your hopes up too high about this prequel. Written nearly 20 years after the last, I think the commanding and domineering older Alice of the last book didn't translate well with a younger Alice. She was unlikable. I found some of the interesting and sad side stories memorable and the few bitchy duchesses and scheming maids were diverting. Overall, the book was not what I expected due to the hard time I had with warming up to Alice, but she still remains close to my heart since I loved her so much in Through a Glass Darkly. I know what she becomes, so I'll forgive her younger days before she falls in love with Richard Saylor. I hope there might be another book in the works devoted to their life together and not with some crazy murder mystery sideline to take away from it.



Blodeuedd said...

She does sound really bitchy, and I am not liking her from what I am reading her.
But the storyline sounds good, not the finding the murdered part, but the rest. So I am left going hmmm

Julie at Outlandish Dreaming said...

Yes, I had such mixed feelings over the whole book, on one hand it was well written and the scene is great and evocative of the era, but I was so disappointed with Alice! I've noticed now that I've gone back and read other reviews on it, many others felt the same way I did, especialy after reading the previously written book.

Anonymous said...

I had read this book before I read TAGD and loved it, but I suspect I wouldn't enjoy it or Alice as much when I go back and read it again. I'd love to see another book covering the marriage of Richard and Alice and what caused Richard's "health" issues.

I seem to recall reading on the author's site that when the book was first started it was not her intention to write about Alice and Richard, just about that period.

Julie at Outlandish Dreaming said...

Misfit - that would explain why Richard and Alice's story didn't get going until the later part and it was so tepid! I'd love to read about their marriage and how their servants become their servants, what's the story between her devoted Annie and the butler in London?

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