|Twilight of a Queen is the fifth book in Susan Carroll’s “Dark Queen” series. The series began during my “not reading much historical romance” period, but I recall being intrigued by the author’s choice of an unusual setting: 16th century France. You don’t find many romances set during this era. I remember picking up the earlier installments and then opting not to buy them. I was not intrigued by the centrality of Faire Isle with its “daughters of the earth” and their magical wisdom.
Still, when asked to review this latest entry, I was happy to give it a go. What I found was a difficulty that too often arises for a reader who is starting in the middle (or in this case, the end) of an ongoing saga: too little familiarity with the premises upon which the tale is based and with the characters whose personalities have been developed elsewhere.
Let me begin by admitting that my avoidance of the earlier books reflects my own particular reading preferences. I do not go looking for novels that are based on magic and fantasy. I am well aware that sixteenth century people were, in fact, true believers in the magical arts. It was, after all, an era when thousands upon thousands of women (and some men) were burned at the stake for witchcraft and when the queen of England had her own personal astrologer.
That Catherine de Medici, queen mother of France, might well have consulted psychics or tried to use magic to help her deal with the overwhelming problems of her realm is something I can well believe. Where my prosaic self parts company with the premise of this series is the claim that it actually worked. Catherine de Medici is not one of my favorite historical characters. She was, after all, largely responsible for the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, even if the murder of thousands of French Protestants was not her goal. She was ruthless in her efforts to protect her sons’ kingdom from the equally ruthless men who wished to destroy the monarchy to further their own ambitions. But she was not a witch and frankly, she was no worse than most other rulers who lived during this tumultuous time.
The story begins with the queen’s consulting a supposed seer, one Louis Xavier. In particular, she is seeking knowledge of The Book of Shadows, a compendium of dark magic that was apparently central to the previous book. Catherine believes she needs the magic spells revealed in the book to protect her son and his throne from his many enemies. Xavier knows enough about the events surrounding the fate of the book to inform the queen that it has been burnt. Catherine knows enough of the history of the book to be aware that a young English girl, one Megaera, also known as the Silver Rose, may well be privy to the its secrets. Catherine is convinced that the young girl has been spirited away to Faire Island by her nemesis, Ariane Cheney, the Lady or ruler of the Isle. Ariane has long sought to protect the daughters of the earth and their power from the queen’s machinations. She suggest that if Xavier can bring Megaera to her, he will reap a rich reward.
Xavier has no intention of going anywhere near Faire Isle, for good personal reasons: he is the half-brother of the Lady and her sisters, the offspring of their father’s liaison with a woman of Catherine’s court. There is every suspicion that his mother used witchcraft to seduce his father and that the queen had been behind the plot. He wants no part of the Isle and, his plan to gain Catherine’s support for his dreamed of exploration of the new world having failed, he returns to his career as a pirate.
The scene then shifts to Faire Isle where its Lady is facing the challenge of naming her successor. One of the candidates is a thirteen year old English girl, Meg Wolfe. She is, indeed, the Silver Rose and she does, indeed, have the contents of The Book of Shadows fixed in her brain. She lives in fear of the Dark Queen and her own undoubted magical powers. On Faire Isle, Meg has befriended another English refugee, Lady Jane Danvers. Twice-widowed Jane had become embroiled in the conspiracy in the previous book and in the Catholic plots to assassinate Queen Elizabeth. She nearly lost her life and did lose her fortune and her homeland. An exile, she has found a home on Faire Isle.
Fate brings Xavier to Faire Isle when he is washed overboard in a storm and washes up on its shore. Lady Jane is charged with nursing the wounded man and the two fall in love. But, of course, the path of true love is not easy and Xavier and Jane are caught up in the threat to Faire Isle and Meg and the determination of queen to gain possession of the magic she believes may save the day.
Twilight of a Queen is a complex and dense story with many twists and turns. The romance of Xavier and Jane is almost secondary but has its moments. Jane is an admirable heroine: loyal, kind, amazingly serene in the face of grave problems, and eminently lovable. Xavier was, for me, a bit more problematic. We have all, at one point in our romance reading, bemoaned the “too stupid to live” heroine. Well, Xavier is something of a rarity: an almost “too stupid to live” hero. Some of the choices he makes seem foolish in the extreme. Still, the two do have their happy ending.
I really should have enjoyed and admired this book more than I did. After all, I like my historical romances steeped in real history and there is plenty of that in Twilight of a Queen. The plot is driven by the exciting events that roiled Europe in 1587 and 1588. Certainly those who have followed Carroll’s series will want to read the story. But I’m not sure that uninitiated readers will find this book particularly satisfying.