Title: The Valcourt Heiress
Author: Catherine Coulter
Year of Publication: 2010
Length: 368 pages
Genre: “historical” fiction/romance?
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 1 star
I read this book quickly only because I kept hoping it would get better. There was good material in there, somewhere, I feel sure. It never delivered, though. The characters were flat — no dimension, no development, nothing to make you care about anyone in the story. The story did not hang together at all — no one’s motivations made any sense, there was no sense of cause-and-effect, actions didn’t have plausible consequences… it was a distractingly unsophisticated muddle. The dialogue was distractingly unnatural — stilted in the extreme, not to mention the bizarre accents she had her lower-class characters using, mixing Middle English, early modern slang, and Victorian Cockney cant indiscriminately. And the element of “magick”, as she would insist on spelling it, just plain didn’t make sense. One of the primary mandates of writing fantasy is that magic has to have rules, it has to have constrictions and consequences, and the reader has to know what those are, but there was no explanation whatsoever here. Rather, it felt like Coulter just sort of flung “magickal” themes at the page in the hopes that something would stick. The book would’ve been better off without that element at all — it just made a further mess of an already muddied storyline.
The book also bothered me as a historian — I know that *all* historical romances take certain liberties. You can’t be completely faithful without getting bogged down in details that harm the story. I get that. I’m generally willing to cut fluff fiction a lot of slack — because if it knows what it is, if it isn’t trying to take itself seriously, you can get away with a certain degree of historical vagueness. But this? Coulter goes to the trouble of setting it in a fairly obscure period, or at least one that’s less often dramatized in novels of this kind (late-13th century England, early in the reign of Edward I), setting it up as though that’s going to matter in some way… and then does nothing with it — nothing at all to show that she has any understanding of what late-13th century England was like, or that she did any research on the royal court beyond the names. The personalities of both the time period and the figures in it are just plain wrong. A lot of it was really just painful — the informality of the English court more than anything, for my comfort. Coulter had the king and queen doing things and saying things that the prideful Plantagenets just plain would never have said or done, tolerating horrific affronts to royal dignity, shrugging their shoulders at the ridiculously vulgar way their courtiers were acting… it was absurd. I freely grant, this might not bother someone else, reading the story with less awareness of the historical realities — but compared to some of the really stellar historical fiction I’ve read in the last year, this was a jarring disappointment.
The reason I qualify this book as “romance?” with a question mark is because… well, I know it’s meant to be a medieval romance. I know we’re meant to believe that Garron and Merry have some sort of attachment to each other and will live Happy Ever After. The trouble is that none of that shows in the storytelling. There is nothing in the book to convince a reader that they have any real feeling for each other. They act and react like automatons — and bizarrely programmed automatons at that, taking action only because someone input that stimulus into their systems, not because any emotional or psychological response warrants it. Their “romance” also takes a backseat to the bizarre fantasy elements involving Merry’s mother. The whole story takes a sharp left turn into a ravine about two-thirds of the way through, which only augments the discombobulated feeling of the entire book.
This was my first Catherine Coulter, and, after having heard good things about her, I was really disappointed. I may look for other books of hers that have been more highly rated… but I won’t be bothering with it for a while, at least. Overall, The Valcourt Heiress is a confusing, unengaging, ham-handed quasi-historical mess. I do not recommend it, unless you’ve a penchant for literary masochism.