Reviewed: September 24, 2011
Genre: Historical Romance
Series: The Three Graces, Book 1
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Length: 384 Pages
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle, Nook
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Mira Books publisher Harlequin via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.
Lady Isabel Milton was not pleased when the Tudor king Henry VII gave her hand to Earl Randall Braesford for his loyalty to the crown. The notorious curse of the Three Graces of Graydon has finally failed to keep her free of the odious shackles of marriage, and to make matters worse, Braesford has no social standing. He's little more than a farmer and is, to put it mildly, beneath her.
The fact that he is put together rather well - a true warrior in form - yet seems to possess a gentility and honor that far exceeds his peers, does not alter the fact that Isabel doesn't want to marry him or anyone. She yearns to remain free, independent in her decisions and pursuits, and a husband would deem her little more than breeding chattel. That's exactly why she concocted that ridiculous curse of the Three Graces years ago. To save her and her two sisters from just the sort of situation that Isabel now finds herself.
How was she supposed to know that Braesford wouldn't fear the curse; would willingly...actually...more than willingly, take her as wife?
No sooner had she suffered through their initial meeting and interminable dinner, dreading the night to follow all the while, than several of the king's soldiers arrive at Braesford on a grim mission. Upon order of King Henry VII, Earl Rand Braesford is commanded to return with them to Westminster Palace to answer to the king on a charge of murder. Not an average murder, either, Isabel is horrified to hear, but the purposeful and brutal killing of an innocent newborn rumored to be the king's illegitimate daughter.
And so the curse of the Three Graces lives on.
Caught between horror and relief, Lady Isabel, commanded to return to Westminster with Rand, has freedom almost in her grasp. The king will likely imprison him in the Tower, then hang him. Except...she didn't really want him dead, just didn't want to be married to him. And the more she thought about the nature of the crime and Rand's bearing and honor, the more she doubted he could possibly have done such a vile thing.
And Lady Isabel, being both intelligent and crafty, not to mention intractable, becomes determined that it would do her no good at all to be known as the wife of a child killer, so she absolutely must determine his innocence. It really is the only logical thing to do...it certainly has nothing to do with the possibility that her feelings are softening towards the man who is now her husband. Certainly not.
But as elements of the crime come to light and the conspiracy seems to deepen and darken, the path to murder takes a horrifying turn, for while she is quite certain that Rand did not do this thing, it is entirely possible...and starting to look more probable...that the king did. And if that's the case, neither Rand nor Isabel are likely to make it out of Westminster Palace alive.
Fans of historically accurate historic romance should take note of By His Majesty's Grace, the first book of Jennifer Blake's The Three Graces trilogy. The dialogue read with a significant measure of authenticity and the plot felt genuine to the time period and the characters. The story was liberally enhanced with historical fact, but creative license was also based on a strong foundation of history. Blake took the time to set up and thoroughly explain what was a very complex political and socioeconomic climate.
There is a double edge on that particular sword, though. There was so much history provided in such detail - especially in the first half of the book - that it felt, at times, like I was back in my AP European History class. And I wasn't crazy about my AP European History class. Not only did I feel the history bogged down the flow of the story, but it came at the expense of the fictional aspects, including character and plot development.
Still, I did enjoy the story. It was full of twists and turns; some I saw coming, others I didn't. And I did appreciate the authenticity of it, though some of that realism leached a bit of the romanticism away from the book. Medieval England was not exactly a happy place, especially for women.
Speaking of women. Any minor-to-middling issue I had with the overabundance of historical information in the book was utterly eclipsed by how unappealing I found Isabel's character for the first half of the book. In fact, it wasn't until the moment when she gave him her favor that I could even tolerate her, and longer still before I finally became fond of her. She still wasn't a warm, easy going sort, but she was intelligent, stubborn, and determined, and I did like those aspects when she focused her indomitable will on helping Rand instead of getting rid of him. I just wish her attitude had improved much quicker than it did.
The notable difference between Rand's feelings for Isabel and the lack of same in her for him was a little sad and depressing for far too long before slowly changing. The flip side of that is that once she did start warming to Rand, Isabel's development was believably gradual and smooth. Despite that, there were moments, like when Rand was excited to complete Isabel's rooms at Braesford Hall before she arrived, only to be disappointed when she didn't acknowledge his efforts, or his embarrassment at his lack of nobility when he overhears her saying he's nobody...that made me sad for him. He was completely sympathetic, more than a little endearing, and - when combined with his inherent sensuality - it made him truly stand head and shoulders above many a romance hero.
I wish there had been a little less focus on history and a little more on fiction, and I wish Isabel's character hadn't been so unlikable for so long. The rest of the book, especially Sir Randall Braesford, was solid, well-told entertainment and provided a nice stepping-off point for The Three Graces.
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