The Queen's Fencer
I have one good thing to say about Caitlin Scott-Turner: she does not write wallpaper history. The Queen’s Fencer takes place in the England of Queen Elizabeth I, and Turner has obviously done a great deal of research on that period. So have I, and I find no fault in her portrayal, either in the little details or the big attitudes. If only I could say the same about her characters, pacing, and plot.
Ardys Trevallon is a heroine on a larger-than-life scale: beautiful as a rose, valiant as a lion, proud as a mettlesome steed. Her father is the fencing-master to the Queen, and for reasons that are not clear to us, he taught his eldest daughter everything he knows. Ardys has the Queen’s favor and so she is accepted at court, even though she wears men’s clothes and wins all her fencing bouts against the men. (If I have any accuracy quibble about this book, it’s that Queen Elizabeth would support this behavior; but of course, romances wouldn’t be romances without extraordinary heroines, so that’s okay with me.)
When her father dies, Ardys heads home to Cornwall by sea; her ship is captured by a handsome Irish pirate named Desmond Kirkconnel. They fence, and are well-matched. That is apparently enough for them to fall in love, and they do, easily and not very fascinatingly. But they are driven apart, first by Kirkconnel’s secret, then by a dastardly Frenchman who rapes and kidnaps Ardys. Our protagonists will have many adventures, and will not meet again until the end of the book.
There is a certain rollicking adventurousness to this story that reminds me of old-fashioned romances by Bertrice Small or Virginia Henley. The characters travel far, become consumed with the need for vengeance, and make stirring little speeches, like this: “God’s Blood, I will fight, if I have to fight alone! Trevallon’s daughter will not die a coward’s death!” It’s often engrossing and easy to read, if (like me) you like that sort of thing.
However, I’m afraid that it’s not a successful love story. Characterization is important in romance, and this is paper thin. Ardys is all right, but there’s no complexity to her: “spitfire” is not merely one of her traits, it’s her entire personality. Kirkconnel is a terrible hero. He’s just hapless. He never once succeeds in doing anything he sets out to do in this whole novel (except that he gets the girl in the end, and that’s more due to Ardys’ stubbornness than any virtue on his part). He can’t even kill the villain without exterminating most of his crew. There’s nothing hateful about him, but he’s not competent or likable or even very interesting. Ardys’ enduring passion for him is perplexing. It’s like watching your attractive roommate fall for some burnout loser.
The book has serious pacing problems as well. The first section, set at Elizabeth’s court, is well-researched and intricately detailed. It’s also very slow. Most of the details given are quite accurate, but they don’t advance the story. For instance, she introduces the Queen’s physician, Ruy Lopez, a historical figure. Okay, but so what? He plays no part in this novel (kind of a shame, since he was more interesting than Ardys and Kirkconnel put together), and the author’s inclusion of him in the book serves as nothing but a nod to history geeks like me. It’s a high price to pay for bogging the story down. Anyway, then Ardys meets Kirkconnel on page 47 (but it feels like twice that) and things finally pick up. They fall in love in about five minutes, and not long after that comes the big separation and another big slowdown.
This is Scott-Turner’s first novel, and while it’s not perfect, it does show some promise. If you’re longing for a juicy historical with lots of swash and buckle, you might want to pick up The Queen’s Fencer. Just be warned: the history is good, and sometimes the action is absorbing, but the romance falls completely flat.