The King's Mistress, by Terri Brisbin

>> Tuesday, April 03, 2007

I don't usually do impulse buys, and I really know better than to trust Harlequin's back-cover copy, but I made an exception for The King's Mistress (excerpt), by Terri Brisbin. If the book actually delivered what the back cover promised (and as we all know, sometimes they don't. Just look at Napier's The Mistress Deception), it would be pretty unique.

book coverThere were worse things than to be shackled in marriage to a handsome, powerful lord who desired her - but Marguerite of Alencon was bred to be consort to a king and could not abide her fate. She had great power as Henry Plantagenet's mistress, and to be set aside and promised as a bride to noble Orrick of Silloth was an insult she could not bear !

Orrick knew his reluctant bride was a creature of the court with many secrets. And yet, Marguerite of Alencon would make him a perfect partner - accomplished and gracious, a true Lady of the Keep - if only she could release her turbulent past and embrace a passionate future in his arms!
It was, it was!! Brisbin has a pretty extensive backlist, how did I miss her until now? TKM is a lovely character-driven medieval, with a wonderful tortured heroine and a sweet beta hero. A B+.

The heroine actually is the King's mistress; Henry Plantagenet's, to be exact. As the book starts, the still very young Marguerite recieves the shock of her life when Henry shows no sign of intending to let her take the place of his wife, even though Marguerite is carrying his child. Instead, he sends her away to have the baby in a distant convent, and when she returns to court after giving birth, all ready to come back to her place next to Henry, he gives her the even more shocking news that she's to be married to one of his northern lords.

Orrick of Silloth, the northern lord in question, isn't too happy about the idea of marrying the King's cast-off mistress, but he well knows that it's an order, not a request, so he's willing to make the best of the situation. And when he actually meets Marguerite and falls straight in lust with her, his hopes for the future really take off.

But unlike Orrick, Marguerite isn't ready to make the best of things. She refuses to settle for a marriage with a barbaric northern lord, and is seemingly ready to do anything to go back to Henry.

I suspect many readers won't like Marguerite. First, there's the whole thing about her abandonment of her child. I was willing to understand her actions at the beginning, because of the mental state she was in. She does have feelings for the child, and we see that at the end of the book, but I also understand that the girl is a royal bastard, so her fate is not up to Marguerite at all. That's just me, though, and I'm aware that this could well be a hot-button issue for other readers.

And in addition to this, I suspect many people will think Marguerite ungrateful and despise her insistence that Henry will call her back, when it's so obvious to anyone that he won't. Me, I couldn't help but understand her and feel for her. As a the bastard daughter of a nobleman, Marguerite was raised from childhood with one purpose: to be the King's consort. She was beaten into submission and punished and pressured until she was the perfect woman a King would be tempted by. And I don't think her father thought Henry would actually marry her, no matter what Marguerite thought. What the man wanted was power at court, and he'd get it because his daughter had a position of power next to the King. But for all her experience at Court, Marguerite was a very young woman (as the book starts, and she's already been the King's mistress for a while, she's not yet 20), and she couldn't be as sanguine about things as her father, so she convinced herself of her love for the King.

Orrick sees this perfectly, and that's why he has so much patience with Marguerite. He sees that she clings to the hope that the King loves her and will call her back, not out of real love for him, or out of a dislike for what her new husband is offering, but because if she were to accept the truth, that Henry never cared for her as more than a pretty woman to share her bed and that to her family, she was never anything more than a pawn, it would hurt her deeply. The reason she's been able to live with her life and upbringing in spite of people's condemnation of her as the King's whore, is because in her mind, she's turned it into something else, something not ugly at all. She's convinced herself that her life at Henry's side was about love, and that's what pretty much forms her sense of self.

Orrick is extremely perceptive, and he understands. He knows his wife will need to give up those hopes if they are to have a happy life together, but he knows he can't browbeat her into it. Oh, of course it would be easier to just be brutal and shatter all her dreams and force her to accept the truth, but he fears (with good reason) that this will break her. And so he takes the more difficult path of tempting her into making the choice herself of accepting the life and love that her new husband is offering.

And that's what this book is about. It's about how this kind, compassionate man falls in love with the woman he discovers inside his wife's beautiful, tempting body and shows her what love really is, helping her heal in the process. Orrick is the best kind of beta hero. He's patient and good and yet, he never feels weak. I loved the guy.

This is a completely character-driven book. There's no external plot, nothing to distract from Orrick and Marguerite overcoming the issues separating them. I guess a longer book would feel a bit slow, but this is a Harlequin Historical, so it's only about 300 pages, and that's the perfect length for this story.

I also liked the atmosphere of book. Both Silloth keep and Henry's court are very vividly drawn. Surprisingly, I even liked what Brisbin did with King Henry. At first he seems to be some kind of careless monster, but his characterization is much more subtle than that. I've no idea how historically accurate it might be, but I enjoyed it.

I'll definitely be reading more by this author. Any recs? My interest was caught by The Duchess' Next Husband, but then I saw that the hero keeps a mistress while he's already married to the heroine, and that's a bit of a deal-breaker for me, so maybe I should start with something else. Suggestions are very welcome!


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