In a Treacherous Court - Michelle Diener The reviews for this book are divided between 5 stars and 1 star, and so is my opinion. I don’t think it’s a bad novel, but it’s not outstanding either. The story is a historical romantic adventure in the court of young Henry VIII, and the setting alone provides conflict aplenty. It seems that everyone betrays everyone else in that court, so the title is apt. Into that pit of treachery fate throws a young artist Susanna, who arrives from the Netherlands to become the king’s illuminator. Enmeshed in a deadly intrigue she doesn’t understand, with a regicidal plot afoot, she is a helpless pawn, alone in the foreign land. From the moment she steps off the ship, everyone is trying to kill her; and her only ally and protector is John Parker, one of the king’s new men, rich, dangerous and loyal. It’s almost inevitable that these two lonely souls are drawn to each other.

Good stuff

The book was an absorbing and easy read. The writing flowed, and there were no grammatical or spelling mistakes and no prolonged, boring descriptions either, just action exploding from the first page forward.
The plot moved very fast, and the tension climbed high. Susanna and Parker barely have time to extricate themselves from one imbroglio, when another one rolls upon them, with almost no respite. The bad guys seem to have an unending supply of minions, disposable and faceless like puppets and just as interchangeable. To defeat the villains, Parker needs not only his formidable swashbuckling skills but his intellect as well.
I was not much impressed with the male protagonist, Parker. He is rather shallow – the king’s wolf, honest and ruthless but somewhat boorish – and his depth, if there is one, is well hidden. But I loved Susanna, the female lead of the story. The choice of a woman artist was interesting on the writer’s part, especially in the 16th century, when a mere female couldn’t be, as a rule, an independent artisan.
Occasionally, Susanna is so caught up in her painting she loses all tracks of time and surroundings. She is depicted as a talented artist and a strong personality, not a helpless maiden, and her courage is amazing. By insisting on being an artist, she defies tradition. Most courtiers (most people, actually) didn’t believe a woman could be a successful artist, neither in real life nor in this book, so Susanna has to constantly battle disdain and disbelief. Her contemplations on the subject and her frustration at not being universally accepted as an artist punctuate the narrative, but although I share the sentiments, I don’t think Susanna’s views are historically correct. The feminist movement didn’t develop until the late 19th century after all.

Bad stuff

The extended epigraphs for every chapter were unnecessary, and their strange, old-fashioned wording made them stand out from the text, like a spattering of junk that should be swept out to clean up the novel. Besides, they were all too long. I didn’t read them beyond the first one. A famous writer (I think it was Elmore Leonard) once said that a writer should leave out the parts the readers tend to skip. These epigraphs qualify.
The ending let me down too. Throughout the novel, the heroes struggle. They win one encounter after another, but the final relief, the climax, is brought on not by their actions but by a death of someone who never appeared in the story in person. Like a wave of a magic wand: puff, and everyone is happy. I’m simplifying, of course, but not by much. I hate deus ex machina. In my opinion, such endings denote a lazy writer. The heroes should succeed on their own, otherwise their victory is hollow, and all their scrambling and pathos are for naught.
The romantic line was also vexing, too abrupt and not altogether believable. The heroes first meet under critical conditions and immediately fall under attack. On almost every page, definitely in every chapter, arrows fly, and knives flash, but the protagonists still find the time to couple – a quickie, so to speak. No gradual building of a relationship, no getting-to-know each other. Just a flare of lust from the first moment, and then suddenly it is love.
Another objection of mine: the novel is supposed to be historical, but the epoch of Henry VIII is not really reflected in the story, nether does the mandated geographic locale, London, except for some street names and such. Everything that happened could’ve happened the same way in any fantasy or medieval setting. The timing of the action is just a writing on the wall – 1525 – a gauze-thin backdrop, painted with a few rough brushstrokes.

Despite the flaws mentioned above, I enjoyed this light romp of an adventure. I might read the next story of Susanna and Parker. One day, maybe, if the mood strikes.