house of shadows

Just look at that cover.

Isn’t it pretty? I defy you to not judge this book by its gorgeous cover. It certainly seduced me into wanting to read the story, despite my mild aversion to historical fiction.

What’s it about?

Where to begin? Three time periods feature in this story of mystery and magic, romance and reincarnation.

In the sixteenth century, Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia, struggles to contain her attraction to her most devoted courtier, Willian Craven. Can she really give herself to him? What would it mean for her royal reputation? At the same time, she is beset with challenges she believes are caused by the combination of two powerful items: an antique mirror and an ancient pearl. Craven builds Ashdown House for her, but, when it matters, can she really trust him? Their choices will echo through history.

In the nineteenth century, regency courtesan Lavinia Flyte is taken to Ashcroft House by her current protector, greedy Lord Evershot. Can he find the famous pearl and harness the power of the dangerous mirror? Can Lavinia find happiness?

Finally, in 2014, Holly Ansell’s brother has disappeared while living in the shadow of Ashdown House and researching his family’s history. Using Lavinia’s diary and her own research into the history of Elizabeth Stuart and William Craven, can Holly find her brother and the truth about the past?

What’s it like?

Carefully slotted together to create overall patterns. Pleasant to read. Meticulously researched at heart with a heavy dusting of fantasy colouring in the historical unknowns.

The opening chapters establish the first and last time frames with suitably dramatic flourishes; we are privy to Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia’s dying moments with her beloved courtier; we witness King James’ consternation at his daughter’s baptismal gift; then we meet Holly, whose niece phones her, sobbing, with the news that her father has disappeared. Each chapter works effectively to create intrigue and introduce key characters but perhaps it’s most impressive that the continuing drama – a broken engagement, a sudden romance, a vision – excites without saturating or feeling overblown.

Of course there are calmer moments, too: Holly walks her dog, chats to neighbourhood friend and super-gossip Fran, gets to know the locals and reads Lavinia’s diary. These calm periods are perhaps particularly pleasant when the naturally more hectic life of the Winter Queen is presented! All three women – Elizabeth, Lavinia, Holly – are strong characters with flaws and so hold the readers’ interest, though I found Holly’s relationship slightly less interesting than the other two, simply because I felt her mate was too accepting of her ‘fey’ nature. I also thought Holly’s throwing up of one life and abrupt embracing of another was a little unconvincing, but I suspect this is largely due to my own dislike of change – I cannot imagine myself acting as Holly does, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t plausible, simply that she is more impulsive than I am!

Each storyline is sufficiently interesting and fully developed to ensure that I didn’t have a ‘favourite’ or find myself rushing through any of the chapters in order to return to another time period. I would have really liked to know more about Ben and to have seen a little more of his wife and daughter at the end of the story, but in this book with its strong female protagonists there’s little room for the development of subsidiary male characters, and ultimately Ben is a collection of functions rather than a character.

Final thoughts

Somehow, Nicola Cornick’s light touch renders the potentially ludicrous (such as Holly’s time slips) acceptable in this tale of reincarnation through generations of (illegitimate!) descendants. Historical fact is bought to life with a similarly deft hand and I felt that I was learning about history (Queen Elizabeth’s life in particular) without being made to feel like I was being taught. Some authors awkwardly shoehorn in their recently gleaned knowledge, desperate for you to see the depth of their research and the breadth of their knowledge, but Cornick’s novel is a story that just happens to brilliantly illuminate an earlier time period.

[It’s] perfect for dark, lazy autumnal evenings spent snuggling up on the sofa with steaming mugs of hot cocoa and a pet stretched lazily across your lap.

This achievement is perhaps less surprising – though certainly no less pleasing – when contextualised: Cornick is a historian who has volunteered as a guide at the real Ashdown House for the last fourteen years. Obviously thoroughly steeped in the history and lore of the real house, Cornick has been able to infuse her book with genuine understanding of the place and people involved – or as genuine as you can get without claiming to have been reincarnated yourself!

Despite the serious romances and traumatic experiences of many of the characters, this is never less than pleasant to read. Somehow, no matter what happened to individuals and their dreams, I felt that the overall mood and tone was heading upwards towards a happy ending. Perhaps this is because, after all, the tale we will inevitably find closest to our hearts is Holly’s: she’s the modern one with a life still to live when the book closes (no matter how much you might root for Lavinia or wish Elizabeth and Craven could overcome the obstacles between them, they are already dead when the story proper begins); Holly reads about Lavinia and Elizabeth, just as we do, creating another connection with us and distancing us from their disappointments; Holly is the heroine we can most imagine succeeding; and the slightly chick-lit feel of Holly’s sections of the book mean we can’t be in any serious doubt that Holly will have some kind of happy ending. (Although…the precedent set by the Winter Queen and her lover could be seen to undermine that.)

If you’re able to suspend your disbelief sufficiently to accept that two powerful objects are at work throughout the centuries, destroying lives when handled with malign intent, then this is an absorbing read; the kind of book that’s perfect for dark, lazy autumnal evenings spent snuggling up on the sofa with steaming mugs of hot cocoa and a pet stretched lazily across your lap.

 

‘House of Shadows’,
Nicola Cornick,
2015, Harlequin Mira, paperback
Thanks to the publishers for providing me with a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.