The Chevalier is the third book in Ms. Lodge’s Châteaux and Shadows series, which is set in late seventeenth century France at the time of the reign of Louis XIV. In my review of the previous book, The Honorable Officer, I wrote that I had primarily selected it because there is a dearth of historical romance set in that country and that time period (that is written in English), and noted that while the author did a decent job with the mystery storyline therein, the romance was somewhat wooden and underdeveloped. When The Chevalier was offered for review I decided to try it based once again on my liking for the time and setting and in the hope that perhaps the romance might be stronger and more, well, romantic.
Hélas, I’m about to level the same criticisms at this book as at the last one.
This story takes place around twelve years after the events of the previous book, and our hero is Emmanuel de Cantière, the youngest son of the Baron and Baronesse de Brosse. We learned in The Honorable Officer that Emmanuel – Manu – is considerably younger than his brothers, and that his relationship with his parents is a difficult and complicated one. His mother and father are estranged, and the baron removed Manu from his mother’s care when he was twelve or thirteen in order for him to be brought up in an environment more suited to a young man. This continues to be a source of much resentment between the de Brosses and Manu is still filled with animosity, guilt and other conflicting emotions about both his parents.
Manu now resides at one of his father’s properties in Poitou, where he lives quietly, breeding horses. An urgent message from his father’s house, telling him that his mother is seriously ill, sees him travelling as quickly as he can in response – but when he arrives, he is astonished to discover that she has recovered and is en route to Paris. His astonishment turns to fury at the thought that she hadn’t bothered to wait for him and he decides to set out after her – and he is further displeased by the information that he can escort his mother’s companion – who had also fallen ill and has just recovered – back to the Baronesse’s side.
Catherine de Fouet is quiet, unassuming and content to fade into the background until she has put aside enough money from her employment and can afford to return to her home in Normandy. She is not completely recovered when she makes the difficult and uncomfortable journey to Versailles – a journey made worse by Monsieur de Cantière’s bad temper and obvious disdain for her.
After Manu and Catherine arrive and are reunited with the Baronesse, there is a lot of filler involving the various members of the family, their rambunctious offspring, a young man who makes improper advances towards Catherine… and eventually, at well past the half-way point, we come to the poisoning which is mentioned in the book’s blurb. It seems that the Baronesse has been ill, on and off, over the past year, and when she is taken ill again, the doctor declares that she has been poisoned. The blurb also says that Catherine is suspected of poisoning her mistress, but it’s all very low key; there is no investigation, no tension and absolutely no drama about this, even though the Affair of the Poisons, which saw a number of high-profile courtiers arrested on charges of poisoning and witchcraft, was in full swing at the time the book is set. I had hoped for more focus on this aspect of the plot, but it feels as though it’s there as an afterthought and isn’t developed or explored at all.
Something else which isn’t developed or explored is the romance between Catherine and Manu, which just… appears. They spend very little time together on the page, and even less time together alone. There is no sense that these two people are getting to know each other; all we get is Catherine looking at Manu and sighing over the breadth of his shoulders and Manu feeling a touch of lust for his mother’s companion, and then, hey presto! they’re in love. There is zero romantic tension between them and no emotional connection whatsoever.
The previous book in this series benefitted from a solidly written mystery element to the storyline, but without something similar to hold this one together, and without anything resembling strong characterisation, engaging protagonists or a decently written romance, The Chevalier is just a seemingly endless succession of flat, uninteresting scenes between the members of the de Cantière family. I really wanted to like it, but I didn’t and can’t recommend it.