I was once advised to never turn down free stuff. I can see now how problematic that would be. Even free, there are just some things I do not want. Like sexually transmitted diseases, for one. I received At the King’s Command by Susan Wiggs, the first in The Tudor Rose Trilogy, as part of a giveaway. I do own the other two, though I haven’t touched them yet. That should probably give you a hint about how I felt about this one already.
Russian princess (yes, you heard me) Juliana Romanov is forced into a nomadic existence after her family has been murdered on account of another family’s lust for power. She avoids the same fate by coincidentally having her fortune told that night with the band of gypsies that resides near her family’s property. Seeing her home engulfed in flames and her relatives slaughtered on the lawn by some unknown though eerily familiar assailants sends her into an understandable bout of hysteria.
One of the gypsies, Laszlo, restrains her and she enters their care. The story jumps five years later and Juliana finds herself in England, having adopted the life of a gypsy and, of course, being a gypsy means horse stealing!
Cue our brusque, prickly hero: Stephen de Lacey, baron of Wimberleigh. Now, apparently Stephen is frenemies with King Henry VIII. Let me repeat this for emphasis. He is frenemies with King Henry VIII. Naturally, the king is engaging in a bit of extracurricular activity when Stephen seeks him out, though in fairness, Stephen does just barge into the man’s bedchamber. For whatever reason, Henry would love nothing more than to force Stephen into marriage after Henry exercises the practice of droit du signeur, which enables a feudal lord to take the virginity of unfortunate maidens before their wedding night. What a lovely practice. Stephen will not be having any sullied lady bits and leaves in a tizzy, only to find Juliana stealing his horse. The ensuing commotion garners Henry’s attention. Juliana hopes to make an ally of the king to help secure her revenge on those that killed her family, but he has other things in mind. He proclaims that Stephen must either marry the gypsy or have her hanged. And, since our hero has a heart of gold beneath all that brooding, our couple is wed.
Overall, the story isn’t bad, though rather typical of the married strangers trope. Over time, the feisty foreigner wins the love of the hero through the quirks of her unorthodox upbringing. Though I’m bothered by the fact that Henry has so much interest in Stephen’s amorous activities. I’m relatively certain he has heads to lop off.
As soon as Juliana takes up residence in Stephen’s manor, she’s sent to take a bath, which she treats as some sort of unfamiliar practice. Girl. You’re a damn princess. You know what hot water is, unless things are done differently in Russia. But, later on, everyone is stunned by her impeccable table manners and her ability to decipher what that annoyingly tiny fork is used for. In my opinion, you can’t have it both ways.
And, of course, once she is clean, Stephen finds her irresistible. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from romances, it’s that a good shower will take you from being a two (a dirty, smelly horsethief) to a solid nine (a Russian princess with hair worthy of a Pantene commercial).
Stephen scarcely tasted the food he ingested mechanically.
He could not tear his attention away from his new wife.
Her manners astonished him. Where had she learned to wield knife and spoon so deftly, to sip so daintily from her cup? And, Christ’s bones, to murmur such apt and discreet instructions to the servants?
Perhaps he’s forgetting that he had to forcibly wrangle Juliana into her bathwater not ten pages before.
I think that what the book suffers from is wanting to do too much. Juliana is a princess, now gypsy. She has proper manners and is fluent in French. She can do fancy tricks while riding a horse. She has the knack for beating shady-looking men at cards. She knows mathematics and offers to serve as his bookkeeper, though I’m surprised she wasn’t heralded as a witch after that. She can cure tuberculosis with her magic hoo ha. I’m not 100% sure on the latter, but it should be tested. For science!
Then, there’s Stephen, closed off and brooding. His former wife had an untimely death, though don’t they all? He has a talent for inventions and visits a creepy grave in the woods. He also keeps a mysterious house on the outskirts of his land, giving me some heavy Jane Eyre vibes. I just kept waiting for a crazy woman to set fire to something.
There were aspects of the book that I did enjoy. Stephen had his moments, the sort where you can see him softening to his wife and her wildness, especially after her gypsy family finds her and takes residence on Stephen’s land.
Stephen’s intake of breath was echoed by the gasps if the rest of the company. It was Juliana, and yet it was not. She had unbound her hair and dressed in Romany garb. Her feet were bare, her slim ankles circled by cheap tin bangles.
I always like it when a couple learns to appreciate one another for what they are, but I’m left to wonder who Juliana really is throughout the story. She doesn’t miss a chance to remind the rest of the characters that she’s a princess and her revenge is such a motivating factor at the beginning of the book. It’s still a thread throughout, mentioned in Juliana’s thoughts and dialogue, but the resolution to her last five years of anguish over her family’s death seems half-realized. I feel like it became lost in all of the other stuff that was going on; Stephen’s secrets, King Henry VIII’s meddling, Juliana’s gypsy-ness.
I will say that I commend Ms. Wiggs on not rushing into intimacy. All too often, there’s that need to consummate or legitimize a fake marriage when the characters haven’t been developed enough to warrant a meaningful exchange. In fact, the first intimate scene is completely one-sided. Hooray for a man tending to his lady’s needs, even if he is an insufferable ass afterwards.
However, I must note and it’s entirely a personal preference when reading, that there are phrases during these scenes that just take me out of it. For example, “nest of curls” makes me think of a nest of snakes. Don’t ask me why, though you’re quite welcome for that visual.
As a whole, the book just makes me want to shrug and give it an “eh.” I liked the hero more than the heroine, which is odd for me. Juliana suffers from too much amazingness and I feel like all of the humanizing faults that crop up in interactions, whether with a spouse or anyone else, were placed solely in Stephen. It was rare to see a character flaw in Juliana, so it was extremely hard to peg her personality apart from all of the kitschy, cliché scenarios. It’s probably safe to say that it has put me off from continuing the trilogy on account of the semi-formed characterization and the notion that some of the plot devices seemed more like an afterthought. I could be wrong, though, and these kinks could be worked out in the second and third books with new, different heroines.