Maid of Honor
Paula Marshall’s Harlequin Historicals backlist has become my new go-to for historicals with unusual settings. In Maid of Honor, it’s 1558, Queen Elizabeth is on the verge of coronation and Penelope Jermaine and Oliver Woodville are fresh arrivals at court, as maid of honor to the Queen and gentleman to Lord Robert Dudley, respectively. To complicate things, Penelope’s sister Mary just threw Oliver over for the older, titled Lord Castleford. As Oliver gets to know Penelope, he starts to think he has the better deal – but so does Lord Castleford, who plots to eliminate Oliver and trade his engagement to Mary for one with Penelope.
The two main characters are re-united childhood friends, and their romance is slow, sweet, and not consummated during the story. In fact, I liked that the two took seriously the hazards of sex outside wedlock after seeing another attendant sent home in disgrace. In addition, Penelope and Oliver make satisfying audience surrogates, feeling their way through the court. We learn as they learn who everyone is (the real characters are well depicted, especially the Queen) and what skills or characteristics are valuable. Both are especially notable for observation and discretion. At one point, Penelope, anxious about a threat from Castleford, avoids Oliver for a few days; he finds her again and they talk it out. I always love it when a potential Big Mis is deflated because people behave with maturity and logic.
Marshall is so well versed in this time period that she’s almost profligate in her use of details. Oliver, just returned from Italy, muses at a meal that “he had become accustomed to using a fork… and found eating without one a messy business.” They do a court dance called the Galliard, which involves tossing a partner into the air, and the author notes the political implications of tossing one’s female partner higher than Lord Robert Dudley tosses Queen Elizabeth. While I liked these character-linked details, there are, however, times when the narration bogs down with long descriptions of things like coronation preparations or the many palaces among which the court moves. Those sections dragged.
And the suspense plot (Castleford threatening Oliver and the events which ensue) – just plain yikes. It is never a good sign when post-hypnotic programming (to commit murder, no less!) is meant to be a believable plot point in a realistic historical. While I’d like to avoid spoilers, the resolution to the suspense plot defies all genre convention and could not be less satisfying unless we never found out who the villain was at all.
If you want to spend time immersed in a richly-depicted Tudor court with two likeable young people, Maid of Honor is the book for you. Just be aware that the suspense plot is a big fizzle.