Writing a historical romance set in the Tudor court is a task fraught with peril. Readers who are attracted to the setting will likely know the basics of the story, if not the details, and readers who know a historical era well can be notoriously unforgiving when authors tinker with the details too much. In her debut novel, Laura Navarre rises to the challenge, and does so with aplomb.
Allegra Grimaldi learned her trade at a young age. Her father trained her in the art of poisons, and now she lives in England under the dubious care and protection of Don Maximo, a Spanish diplomat. As a cover, Allegra is a perfumer to the ladies of the Tudor court, brewing scents and love potions.
Don Maximo is blackmailing Allegra into using her skills as a poisoner, and his target is Anne Boleyn, who threatens Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Allegra has no desire to kill anyone with her poisons, but she is terrified of what Don Maximo might do to her two younger sisters and her father. potions.
Don Maximo pushes Allegra to poison Anne Boleyn, but Allegra can’t bring herself to kill. Instead, she plans to drop a small dose of a mild poison in Anne’s wine—just enough to make her ill for a day or two. As Allegra attempts to slip the tainted wine to Anne, she is caught by Joscelin Boleyn, Anne’s half-brother. Though he doesn’t know his sister well, Joscelin is protective of Anne, and the scheme is ruined. Joscelin, however, finds himself attracted to mysterious Allegra, who he sees as an outsider like himself. Though he senses that she’s up to no good, his curiosity is piqued, and he yearns to know more about her. These intrigues are merely the beginning of The Devil’s Mistress. From there, Navarre immerses us in the political gambits, scheming, and deception of the Tudor court.
Allegra’s conscience is part of her appeal. She has the ability to commit murder without being caught, but she isn’t willing to do so, even if it would mean freedom for her family. She’s a risk-taker in life and in love, and she’s willing to gamble her own well-being in order to preserve the lives and innocence of her sisters. She seems to have an innate grasp of court politics, and is able to use her wit and intellect to dig herself out of some messy situations.
I was skeptical of Joscelin Boleyn, the novel’s very fictional hero, at the outset. In less capable hands, the presence of this invented character in the midst of a very real (and very well-documented) royal court would have been a deal-breaker. By presenting him as an outsider at the Tudor court, as part of the Boleyn family but not part of their inner circle of espionage and deceit, Navarre made me believe that he could have existed.
The only minor criticism I have is that the dialogue does get a bit overwrought at times. Navarre is very conscientious about trying to capture the era in every way possible, and the use of old-fashioned colloquialisms is a part of her push for realism. For the most part, the dialogue is swift and witty, and it keeps the story moving at a brisk pace.
The love story between Allegra and Joscelin, while enjoyable, often takes a back seat to court politics. I felt that The Devil’s Mistress was the opposite of the stereotypical “wallpaper historical”—it was more of a historical novel with a strong romantic subplot and some steamy love scenes. While you could certainly escape into this book (and I did), readers looking for a mindless fluff read aren’t going to find it here. This is a fine debut, intelligently written, cleverly plotted, and well-researched, and I look forward to further novels of intrigue and romance from Laura Navarre.
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