The Honorable Officer
I’m an unashamed Francophile and chose this book to review because of the French setting and because I’m always on the lookout for historical fiction and/or historical romances set in France. There are surprisingly few around – well, ones that are written in English, anyway, my French not being quite up to novel-reading standard these days. So the fact that The Honorable Officer is set in Louis XIV’s France during the time of the War of Devolution against Spain was the big draw for me, even though I have never read anything by this author and have not read the previous book in the Chateaux and Shadows series.
Colonel Jean-Louis de Cantière is a widower with a young daughter, Ondine, who lives with his late wife’s family while he is away on campaign. He has not seen her since his wife’s funeral a year previously, so is stunned when Mademoiselle Hélène de Bonnefoi, who is, to all intents and purposes, Ondine’s nanny, arrives at his camp with the little girl in tow, explaining that they have run away following an attempt on Ondine’s life. Jean-Louis is sceptical to say the least, but makes arrangements for his daughter and her guardian to be taken to a place of safety while he investigates Hélène’s story.
It’s only after another attempt at murder – this time at the camp – that Jean-Louis starts to take the threat seriously. But who would want to harm a two-year-old girl, and what could possibly be gained by killing her? This is what Jean-Louis and Hélène have to work out, while simultaneously trying to keep Ondine safe from harm. Realising that he cannot possibly keep his daughter safe while also carrying out his military duties, the colonel asks for a short leave of absence, which is very grudgingly granted him by his superior, the Prince de Condé. Jean-Louis and Hélène, accompanied by his resourceful valet, Fourbier, make their way to his family home in Poitou where he believes Ondine will be safe – but when during the course of their journey another attempt is made to harm the girl, Jean-Louis starts to believe that Ondine is not the target at all and to think that perhaps whoever is intent on murder is actually after Hélène.
The author sets up the mystery plotline well, and even though the villain’s identity and motives are perhaps somewhat predictable, it unfolds at a good pace and was intriguing enough to keep me engaged with the story. Unfortunately, however, the romance is far less successful and had it not been for the mystery plot, I would almost certainly have struggled to finish the book. Hélène is a stereotypical downtrodden relative who was always pushed to the background in favour of her beautiful, vivacious cousin. She fell in love with Jean-Louis de Cantière the moment she first encountered him – but he was betrothed to her cousin Amandine. She, however, was a heartless coquette who thought nothing of cuckolding her husband and who died giving birth to another man’s child. Naturally, Jean-Louis is wary of marriage and has no intention of falling for a woman ever again – until he meets Hélène and is enchanted by her beauty and courage.
Neither Jean-Louis nor Hélène are particularly memorable, and there is no romantic spark between them at all. The few love scenes are awkward and their relationship as a whole is not well-developed; it just seems to arrive fully-formed on the page. Jean-Louis is once bitten, but is obviously not twice shy given the speed at which he changes his mind about remarrying; and while I think Hélène is meant to be quietly courageous, most of the time she just fades into the background and I’m struggling to come up with something that stands out about her. The most memorable thing I can think of is the fact that her eyesight is terrible and she has to use a quizzing glass to see; this is mentioned with annoying regularity.
The author also includes a secondary romance between Jean-Louis’ brother, Henri, and Fourbier, but I use the term ‘romance’ loosely, as there is really no romance there at all. We learn that Fourbier had hopes of his handsome employer, hopes encouraged because Jean-Louis has shown no interest in women since his wife’s death – and because one of his brothers is gay. Huh? I had to scratch my head at that because I didn’t think being gay was something that runs in families! When Hélène shows up, Fourbier realises his hopes were in vain, but when he meets Henri, he happily transfers his affections and the two begin a relationship. I’m assuming Ms Lodge was hoping to achieve something here – I’m just not sure what it was.
The complicated familial relationships between Jean-Louis, his brothers and their very unpleasant mother are well-drawn and add another layer of interest, but I can’t recommend the book as a romance. The mystery plot works well and there are some interesting family conflicts which I imagine may be explored in future stories, but the love story is lacklustre and the protagonists are flat. The writing is decent for the most part, although at times it’s a bit wooden, and it lacks that certain “je ne sais quoi” that can turn an ordinary book into an above average one. And while the primary attraction for me was the setting of seventeenth century France, the book doesn’t have an especially strong sense of place or period, which was disappointing. If you’re looking for an historical set in a less commonly used location and time-period, read The Honorable Officer for the mystery, not the romance.