Mistress of Mourning
By Karen Harper
Release Date: July 3, 2012
Varina Westcott, a young widow and the owner of the Westcott Chandlery, runs her shop with the assistance of her sister and brother-in-law. Her husband has been dead a year, and she is being pressured to remarry. The man is another successful chandler, and marriage to him seems practical for many reasons, not least his position in the chandlers’ guild. But Varina is reluctant, still grieving for her husband and even more for her young son Edmund who died four months earlier. Her grief over her child has expressed itself in the carving of angel candles bearing the face of her dead son.
When one of Varina’s angel candles is given to the queen, Elizabeth, who remembers the funeral effigy of her father that had been skillfully carved by Varina’s father, sends for the chandler. The queen wants not candle images but full waxen images of her dead children and her murdered brothers. Varina is to be escorted to the castle by a trusted courtier where she will work in secret on the effigies. The two women, one a royal and one a merchant, bond as grieving mothers. Varina’s skills have never been tested by so large a project nor for so elevated a patron, and she is uncertain of the queen’s reasons, but she is committed to the commission.
Sympathy for the queen is not the only emotion the experience awakens in Varina. She finds Nicholas Sutton, the courtier charged with escorting and guarding her, disturbingly attractive. Nick, as he asks to be addressed, is the son of a father who died at the Battle of Bosworth, fighting for Richard III. Nick is dedicated to proving his loyalty to Henry and regaining the status and property his family lost. Varina can’t prevent her growing feelings for him, but she knows he is above her socially and their friendship will end. However, when a mysterious stranger threatens Varina and a friend is murdered, Nick reappears, bringing a guard and gifts and asking for a promise that she remain unwed until he returns from Wales where he's headed as part of the entourage accompanying the Prince of Wales and his princess to their new home.
But tragedy brings Nick back to London sooner than either of them expects. Prince Arthur dies, and the queen sends Varina to Wales as her Mistress of Mourning to oversee the burial preparations. Nick is to be her chief escort, and the queen, suspicious that her oldest son’s death was not of natural causes, charges Varina and Nick with investigating his death. As Varina and Nick probe for answers, other deaths follow. Their lives and the lives of those they love are at risk. Each clue they uncover points to a plot that threatens the Tudor dynasty and those who defend it.
Mistress of Mourning is historical fiction, historical mystery, and historical romance interwoven in a compelling story with complex characters who bring the events, real and imagined, to life. At the heart of the book are two women who share the devastation of losing a child to death. It is a life-altering experience deep enough to link them despite the social chasm that separates them. The two serve as alternating narrators, and each contributes something unique. It is Varina’s narration that creates the larger 16th-century world with the accuracy a reader expects from Karen Harper and a level of detail that shows political struggles, betrayals, uncertainty, and death are not limited to the tales of kings. Elizabeth’s narration makes the figures of royal history fully human as they experience fear, regret, guilt, grief, and other emotions that human flesh is heir to. Harper provides answers to the age-old questions about the deaths of the two lost princes and of Arthur, Prince of Wales (with author’s notes for additional explanation), but she also raises questions about the nature of power and the things men are willing to do to achieve it that she leaves the reader to answer.
Some fans of historical fiction will doubtless complain about the dilution of history by mystery and romance, but fans of historical mysteries and/or historical romance should find this novel an exciting, satisfying read. I’m no purist; I enjoyed every page. I definitely recommend it.