Dark Angels by Karleen Koen
Crown, 1st edition, 2006
Genre: historical fiction, romance
Synopsis & Review: Alice Verney is a perfect courtier, clever, fashionable, graceful, and ambitious. Raised in an exile court, she became a maid of honor at the Restoration of Charles II, but fled to France after a scandal involving one of her dearest friends. After two years in the household of Henrietta Maria and at the court of Louis XIV, Alice returns to England to fulfill her ambitions, first by regaining her position as maid of honor, then by an advantageous marriage–and from there to ever greater heights, dragging her friends up with her. She endeavors to make herself a credit to her patrons, making herself one of the most popular ornaments at court, assuaging the ennui of a corrupt and jaded cohort with clever tricks and spectacles. Though the English and French courts differ in many ways, there are two certainties in both: ambition and duplicity. Though less refined than Louis XIV’s, the court of Charles II has grown ever more dangerous, and Alice finds that old loyalties are no longer certain. Even as Alice arranges the lives of those around her, her life beging sliding out of her control as she falls in love with a handsome young officer who just happens to love her dear friend Louise Renee de Keroualle. While she proceeds with her plans, the murder of a member of the royal family sucks Alice into a maelstrom of intrigue. No one’s loyalties are certain anymore, not those of her father or her friends, and Alice begins taking measures to protect both herself and the queen she serves.
It’s no Forever Amber, but Dark Angels is a more than adequate historical romance, richly invested in the details Stuart England. The plot, based both on actual events as well as speculation, moves slowly but surely, though it does unravel a bit toward the end. Readers expecting a mystery will be disappointed, as the events and players are by and large all explained; only a few resolutions are ever in any doubt. That actually goes for the rest of the plot as well, for as a) a prequel and b) a historical novel, too many of the players and events are already well known. As a consequence, many of the romantic relationships lack the luster or tension present in Koen’s other two novels.
The prose is somewhat improved from that in Through a Glass Darkly; it’s clear and sure, and without too much chunky exposition or a didactic tone (though I very much enjoy that style, for whatever reason). However, this also eliminates some of the idiosyncratic, mannered charm of Through a Glass Darkly. The many references and allusions of TaGD are also missing, and when they are present, seem as though they were tossed in as an afterthought. Koen also relies too heavily on cliché, making all kisses (the novel is curiously chaste despite the lascivious tenor of Charles II’s court) thunderous and other weather-related comparisons. Another flaw is the mysticism Koen insists on imbuing Tamworth with; rather than allowing the comfort of home to develop there as Alice and Richard build a life and family together, Koen makes Richard’s mother Jerusalem Saylor a witch and Tamworth a mystical place of healing.
Despite the shallow feel, Dark Angels an entertaining light read, succeeding most as a stand-alone novel, rather than as an addition to the Barbara Alderley books. Honestly, those would have been better served by an exploration of Alice and Richard’s marriage and careers, rather than this somewhat superficial romance. There is a lot of fun to be found, however, in Koen’s depictions of Charles II’s court and its characters. Koen’s research is good in nearly every aspect, and the backdrop she creates is lively and sparkling, if perhaps too sanitized.
Note: Fans of the two Barbara Alderley novels will be annoyed by Koen’s retconning of Alice, who Dark Angels has made prettier, and her family of less consequence, there are age discrepancies, and the first meeting between Alice and Richard is entirely changed from that in TaGD.
And what is up with that title? It hardly flows with those of the two other novels.
Read also: Through a Glass Darkly and And Now Face to Face by Karleen Koen, As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann
Cover: A period painting of a well-dressed crowd milling about, overlaid with gold and black. Very Baroque feel.
Monmouth held out his arms to Alice. Just before she let him lift her up, she looked back, tot he ships, at rest like great swans, their sails, instead of wings, folded in, to the people climbing down ladders, the rowboats and wherries filled with the French court. In her ears was the sound of wave and hurrah and violin. It was May, England’s happy, Druid festival of a month when hawthorn bloomed and roses opened wide and fish leapt out of green reeds in the river and folk danced around the Maypole to begin the month and pinned oak leaves to their hats to end it. It was her birthday month. She felt drunk with excitement, felt aware of time and place in some keen, sharp way. I’ll never forget this, she thought, never.