Judith Starkston's Reviews > Queen Without a Crown

Queen Without a Crown by Fiona Buckley
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Jul 15, 2011

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bookshelves: historical-mystery, mystery, strong-women

Fiona Buckley’s latest installment in her Ursula Blanchard mystery series set in Elizabeth I’s court, Queen without a Crown, will please her fans. (The author’s real name is Valerie Anand, and the first in the series is To Shield the Queen, 1997.) Ursula is back in action on a double mission, one from Elizabeth and a private one that Ursula hopes will reap the funds needed to save her husband’s estate from debtors. Once again champions of Mary of Scotland are rebelling in order to put a Catholic queen back on the throne, and Ursula is sent to identify where the remaining rebelling nobles are hiding after a successful suppression of the revolt. She will find more than Elizabeth I bargained for. But Ursula is also in search of evidence to prove the innocence of a young man’s father, dead some twenty-three years. Mark Easton wishes to marry but the accusation that his father poisoned a rival years ago and then took his own life hangs over him as a shadow of disgrace so that his love’s family view him as unacceptable. How to solve a mystery so lost in time? It seems hopeless from the beginning and only the dire need to save Hawkswood, the childhood estate of Hugh Stannard, her husband, gives Ursula any motivation to try such a doomed project.

Buckley has added some new engaging characters to the mix: Trewlany, an old friend of Brockley’s from his days fighting for King Henry, whose creativity in adversity will hold your attention, a curmudgeonly old woman with a tendency toward larceny who shall remain nameless so as not to spoil the plot, and Lady Ann of Northumberland, a striking example of a woman warrior. Otherwise the familiar formula of the previous books in the series is deployed with the usual attention to historical precision, moral dilemmas, and suspenseful action.

The one aspect I found distracting at times was an insertion of a different narrative voice at odd intervals. The novel is told first person from the sleuth’s perspective, as is often the case with mysteries. We are in the middle of the action, trying to sort out events past and present just as Ursula is. Except that at times, an older Ursula from some future point after the action of the book speaks up and pulls us out of the world of the book. For example, when Ursula and her family and household set off to visit a painter, Arbuckle, who is going to paint Meg’s portrait: “It was quite some time before I understood that fate was going to entangle Master Arbuckle very thoroughly in the northern rebellion and the affairs of Mark Easton, and that as I walked with the others along Peascod Street towards this first meeting, I was taking the first steps on a very perilous road.” This seems a clumsy way to build suspense, especially from an author who is so good at building it by more organic means. I prefer to stay in the midst of the action. She does this again later in the novel at a moment of intense action and grief, a moment when we least want to be distanced from the characters and the emotions: “After we left his village next day, we never again met Thomas Dennison, vicar of St John’s-On-The-Hill, but I think he was a man both loved and respected by his parishioners….” This is a small point, but I’d have sacrificed the information expressed through this device of the later-knowing narrator in favor of immediacy.
Fans of Fiona Buckley will be glad for Ursula’s reappearance on the scene in this exciting and charming mystery.
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