“In the winter of 1662, Elizabeth Stuart, the Winter Queen, is on her deathbed. She entrusts an ancient pearl, rumored to have magic power, to her faithful cavalier William Craven for safekeeping. In his grief, William orders the construction of Ashdown Estate in her memory and places the pearl at its center.
One hundred and fifty years later, notorious courtesan Lavinia Flyte hears the maids at Ashdown House whisper of a hidden treasure, and bears witness as her protector Lord Evershot—desperate to find it—burns the building to the ground.
Now, a battered mirror and the diary of a Regency courtesan are the only clues Holly Ansell has to finding her brother, who has gone missing researching the mystery of Elizabeth Stuart and her alleged affair with Lord Craven. As she retraces his footsteps, Holly’s quest will soon reveal the truth about Lavinia and compel her to confront the stunning revelation about the legacy of the Winter Queen.”
My Thoughts: The best type of historical fiction novels blurs the line between fact and fiction so well that you take breaks from reading to research what is true and what is poetic license. Given how often I was on Google look up Elizabeth Stuart, William Craven, and Ashdown House while reading House of Shadows, I would say Nicola Cornick knows how to blend the two together extremely well. Even her fictional characters of history are eerily realistic. While aspects of the story are pure fantasy, the opportunity the novel affords readers to learn more about this relatively obscure queen and of her life engages readers as much as the story does.
House of Shadows bounces around between three different periods in time following three very different women. Each of the women’s characters are developed at different strengths. We get to know Elizabeth from her earliest days to her very last, but the huge time jumps between her scenes require a reintroduction to her character as we play catch up on the trials and tribulations that occurred since we last saw her that have changed her. She’s called the Winter Queen because she rules briefly for a few months in winter; the rest of her life was spent in exile trying to raise funds and allies to fight for her son’s hereditary rights. In other words, she doesn’t actually do much. While her story kickstarts the other two women’s stories, hers is also the most stagnant. It is still interesting but not necessarily the best of the novel.
At the other end is Holly’s modern-day story as she tries to find her missing brother. Hers is interesting in that she uproots her life for her brother, and we watch her struggles to do so. Whereas Elizabeth grows bitter and more selfish as her story progresses, Holly blossoms. We see her come to grips with her past, find her future, and settle her present all while becoming more confident and independent. Her search through the past to unravel the mystery of her present provides a nice connection without overdoing the coincidences.
Taking place between Holly’s and Elizabeth’s stories in time, Lavinia’s story is the only one told through epistolary means. For all that, she is by far the most vibrant of the three women. Unapologetic, pragmatic, and brutally honest, her story is what makes the entire novel sing. Hers is the connection between past and present, and the threads woven by her story prove to be most fascinating. In fact, so realistic and interesting is her story that when I searched online to find out if she was real, the disappointment I felt at discovering that she is fictional was great. Without Lavinia, the story would waffle between two women who are strong in their own fashion but ordinary in their actions and opinions. Lavinia adds the spice to an otherwise bland narrative.
Overall, Ms. Cornick’s latest novel is a fantastic blend of fact and fiction that piques your curiosity and forces you to take a greater interest in the characters than you might normally be wont to do. It is romantic enough to stir the heartstrings and filled with mystery as well as a hint of otherworldiness. In short, it has a little bit of everything to please most readers. And pleasing it is. While not award-worthy, House of Shadows is still entertaining and enjoyable enough to warrant recommendation for a wintry day read to anyone interested in history, romance, and mystery.