House of Shadows
I’m a huge fan of two-stranded stories; what author Michael White describes as “novels that involve interweaving plots – one strand in the present day and the other set in the past.” So, when I saw the description of House of Shadows with its entwined tales of Stuart England and modern day Oxfordshire I was anxious to review it. I found it a flawed but interesting read.
Our story starts with a series of vignettes. The first takes place in London, 1662. As Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia, lies dying she calls for William Craven. She had previously had her servants bar the door to him but in the last moments of her life she is frantic for his presence. Once he arrives, she gives him the Sistrin Pearl she wears about her neck and begs him to hide it until the crystal mirror can be destroyed. The two speak of meeting in another life and the scene closes as the queen fades away.
The next scene takes place in Scotland, 1596 where King James is desperate to get rid of the baptismal gift given to his daughter Elizabeth (the woman dying in the paragraph above) by Elizabeth the First, the great Queen of England. The gift is actually a legacy left by Mary, Queen of Scots, and is made up of a jeweled mirror and the Sistrin Pearl. It is said that together the items can foretell the future but James considers them cursed and thrusts them at the one of his daughter’s nurses. When she holds them, she claims to see buildings eaten by flame and gunpowder and a child with a cream-colored gown and a crown of gold. James calls this superstitious nonsense and leaves, but he has the disturbing feeling that rather than passing a gift on to his daughter he has given her the instruments of her ruin.
In 1631, Elizabeth Stuart and her husband Fredrick are a King and Queen in exile. Elizabeth watches from the window of her boudoir as the Knights of the Rosy Cross gather for a meeting. She knows they will be using her pearl and her mirror to attempt to see the future. Both she and Fredrick had been avid members of the order at one point but she now considers such things a folly, although Frederick does not. She leaves her rooms to spy on the gathering and is caught sneaking in by William Craven, the knight set to guard the door. While they get off on the wrong foot, they soon set things right and the scene closes with Elizabeth asking Craven to watch over Frederick in the coming battles to win back their kingdom.
Then we jump to the present day where Holly Ansell receives a late-night call from her six-year old niece Flo, advising Holly that her father – Holly’s brother Ben – is missing and that she is all alone. Knowing that Flo’s mother is overseas, Holly leaves London and races to Ashdown Mill, the family holiday cottage, to be with the her. Ben remains missing over the next few days and when Holly’s sister-in-law returns she angrily informsHolly that this ‘stunt’ will likely mean the end of her and Ben’s marriage. Flo and her mum go home to Bristol but Holly leaves London and her dead-beat boyfriend and moves to the Mill, determined to find her missing brother. His disappearance is in no way typical behavior for him and intuition tells her that whatever has happened must be linked to the family history in which he recently expressed an interest. The Mill, however, seems to be having an odd effect on both siblings’ behavior since Holly soon finds herself involved in an unprecedented one-night stand with handsome stranger Mark Warner. Naturally it ends awkwardly and of course they will find themselves in the position of working together to solve Ben’s disappearance in the coming weeks.
Most of the time when I review a book, I have to sift through a lot of different pieces to determine what made it a good or bad read. In this case, this process was far easier than normal. On the positive side, the author has a decent prose style, weaves interesting and unique history throughout her tale, and the story fed into my own penchant for dual timeline novels. But on the negative, the initial vignettes assumed a knowledge of Elizabeth Stuart and William Craven which I personally didn’t have. I was unfamiliar with the characters and their history and I was equally unfamiliar with the Knights of the Rosy Cross, and I had to stop and do a Wikipedia hunt to gather enough information to figure out what was going on, which I consider a flaw in the writing. The reader shouldn’t have to go to an outside source in order to be able to follow what is happening in the novel.
That problem pales into insignificance, however, beside what I consider to be the book’s fatal flaw. The impetus of the story revolves around Ben’s disappearance, but that event only serves as a prop to explain why Holly grows interested in the history of the Mill and her family genealogy. Holly connects with none of Ben’s friends, she doesn’t talk to his co-workers, doesn’t question her niece or sister-in-law extensively and rarely talks to the police. Her ‘search’ primarily involves reading a dairy written by notorious courtesan Lavinia Flyte that her brother left behind, and reading it VERY SLOWLY. Lavinia lived at the Mill during the Regency era and Holly is convinced Ben learned something from the journal that caused him to vanish. The rest of her time is spent walking her dog, visiting friends, working and cavorting with Mark. I don’t know if I have words to communicate just how jarring I found this. The entire time I was reading, a litany of ‘Where is Ben?’ was running through my mind but Holly seemed far more concerned with the right of 19th century courtesans to be treated with decency. That may be a valid point but a missing relative would seem to me an issue of greater urgency.
I didn’t really care for the romance. Mark misleads Holly with a whopper of a lie by omission and essentially blames her by stating that she had not been ready to hear some unpleasant facts about her brother. Other than this giant negative, the only thing I can say conclusively about him is that he had a sexy smile. The author doesn’t build their relationship so much as rely on a vaguely alluded to idea of destiny/reincarnation to explain their attraction.
While Cornick does a decent job of creating a coherent theme for her complex, history laden story, she fails to provide any heart or heat that would serve to draw the reader into it. As a result, House of Shadows is a mildly entertaining but easily set down tale about people you will never think of again.