Title: The King’s Courtesan
Author: Judith James
Year of Publication: 2011
Length: 384 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read? brand-new
Rating: a little shy of 3 stars
I feel like I expected more from this book. I can’t tell you how excited I was at the idea of a non-virginal heroine — they’re tremendously rare in my experience of historical romances, and about half the time, if the girl isn’t a virgin at the opening of the book, it’s because of a previous tryst with the hero, not because of any other indiscretion. Even if that’s historically accurate when it comes to the upper classes of English society in certain historical periods… well, who cares? It’s not like romance authors adhere strictly to other historical details. It’s probably not as strictly accurate as we tend to think, for one thing, and there are ways around that, for another. I’d just love to read more historicals where the girl is either a known soiled dove or where she’s had an indiscretion that she keeps secret — but she still gets to find true love, anyway. There’s just an odd slut-shaming shadow to all of the “I’m so glad I’m the only man to ever have her” tropes, and it rubs me a bit the wrong way. Like Harold Hill, I smile and grin for the gal with a touch of sin. Whether she just honestly enjoys physical pleasure, knows it, and has sought it out illicitly, or whether she made a mistake she regrets, or even if she was ravished and has to deal with that — I find all of those more compelling than the unending parade of virgins awakening to their bodies. So when I found out that The King’s Courtesan would feature a heroine who not only isn’t a virgin, but who is an honest-to-devil whore, I was so pleased. At last! Something new! Something scandalous! Something taboo!
Trouble is, it’s undercut a bit. She might be a courtesan, but she’s only had three men (a fact which will later on be tremendously reassuring to the hero, and I find there to be all kinds of sexual judgments and virtuous hair-splitting logic wrapped up in this), and James only hints around the edges of the emotional and psychological implications of the situation. Hope spends a lot more time thinking about how she wants to garden.
This book pairs up with James’s previous book, Libertine’s Kiss, which I enjoyed a lot more, not least because those characters seemed to be enjoying themselves a lot more. The King’s Courtesan is also set in Restoration England, its hero is a prior suitor of Elizabeth Walters from Libertine’s Kiss, and its heroine is a spinoff of the famous Restoration actress-turned-maitresse-en-titre Nell Gwyn. This ought to be a recipe for a romping good time. Instead, it falls pretty flat. King Charles, inexplicably deciding he can’t keep Hope Mathews around once his new Portuguese queen arrives (not something that ever seemed to bother the historical Charlie), marries her off to Captain Robert Nichols. The deal is that if Robert takes the girl, he gets to keep his family’s lands, which Charles was otherwise planning to hand over to another nobleman. (It turns out that this same nobleman is one of a group responsible for Robert’s sister’s death, which ought to be a much more interesting plot development than it was). Hope gets married entirely without her will or consent — in fact, she thinks it’s just part of a May Day celebration proclaiming them King and Queen of May. No one told her that the guy conducting the ceremonies was a real priest. This troubling bit of duplicity initially makes her furious at both Robert and Charles, but it never gets explored much beyond that, and once she realises Robert didn’t know she hadn’t been informed of the situation, she shrugs it off pretty easily.
I’m starting to notice a trend in James’s writing, which is that her characters, especially her heroes, are theoretically emotionally stunted and unable to deal with their problems… and then they spend a lot of time talking about those problems that they claim they can’t talk about. The men are all tragically wounded souls with grievous troubles, which they then spend pages and pages pouring out on the heroines. It’s starting to become tedious. I’d like to see her try a different formula.
All of that talking means there’s a decided lack of action in the book. It starts off well enough, but then Robert and Hope spend most of the book rusticating in the country. And they don’t do much while they’re there. From the description on the jacket, I was expecting a tumultuous domestic battle, each striving to dominate the other’s will before they came to terms… but instead, Robert and Hope discover pretty quickly that the King duped them both, agree to make the best of it, and settle down pretty quickly. When the plot finally gears back up towards the end, it feels artificial and unsatisfying. Robert doesn’t appear to have much of a character beyond his haunted past, and with Hope, James seems to be relying a little too heavily on the crutch of Nell Gwyn’s shadow. She lets the reference draw the character for her a little more than is effective.
Overall, I had really hoped for more from this book. All the ingredients for a really compelling read were there, they just entirely failed to come together in an engaging way. The sex scenes are pretty good — James does have a talent for describing passion, I’ll give her that much. The characters are weak, though, the plot lacks action, and the hero and heroine don’t have much of a spark apart from the sex scenes — which sort of makes those scenes just seem a bit odd and out of place. I think I’d have rather read a second book about William and Elizabeth from Libertine’s Kiss, honestly — their cameos in this book make it seem like they’re still having a smashing good time.
Also, Ms. James? If what you want to do is write historical fiction, to explore the psyches of real historical persons? Just do that. Really. I can tell that’s what you want to do — especially with King Charles. Just go for it.