In Defense of the Queen by Michelle Diener

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An artist never betrays her patron . . . especially one of the world’s most powerful kings.

Susanna Horenbout has learned this lesson from the cradle. But when she receives a letter from her father telling her to do just that, she faces a dilemma. Betray Henry VIII, or carry out the request of her father’s employer, Margaret of Austria, and pass secret information to Henry’s queen, Katherine of Aragon.

Caught between the machinations of her husband and her nephew, the Emperor Charles, Queen Katherine needs all the allies she can get. But what can Susanna really do to help her, and even if she does, will it be enough?

Susanna and her betrothed, Parker——one of Henry’s most trusted courtiers——balance on the knife’s edge of treason as they try to make sense of both international and domestic conspiracies. Sometimes, it’s better the enemy you know . . .

Rating: C+

This was a tightly-plotted and quick-moving mystery set in the reign of Henry VIII and is the third in Ms Diener’s series featuring John Parker and Susanna Horenbout. Parker and Susanna met in In a Treacherous Court when she was sent to England from Flanders to work as a court painter.

By the end of that story, the pair were lovers and had become betrothed. At the beginning of this book, they have yet to marry, although they seem to be living together fairly openly.

Both Parker and Susanna really existed and were really married to each other, although of course, the events of the mysteries are completely fictional. From her detailed author’s note, it’s clear that Ms Diener has done her homework, as the story is impeccably researched and the London locations well described.

In this story, Susanna is caught up in a plot to get an important message to Queen Katherine (Henry VIII’s first wife) regarding the marriage contracted between her daughter Mary and the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles. As the plot thickens, Susanna is arrested for treason on the orders of Cardinal Wolsey, who, it appears, holds a grudge against her for something which happened in the previous book in the series. About half of the story is taken up with Susanna’s imprisonment and Parker’s desperate attempts to keep her from being thrown into the dungeons at Wolsey’s command, at the same time as he is trying to track down the shadowy French assassin, Jean (who appeared in the previous book) and get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding the message Susanna was given, the involvement of her brother, Lucas, and finding out who is running a network of double agents.

And as if all that is not enough, his investigations lead him to uncover a plot against the life of the young Henry Fitzroy, the king’s bastard son.

While it’s clear that Ms Diener’s research has been extensive, especially in her descriptions of the Tower and of the London streets, there were a couple of other things that didn’t sit quite right. One of these was the way that Wolsey, who was a clever, manipulative and very powerful man, was shown making his way with his guards through the streets of London in order to capture Susanna and have her incarcerated in the dungeons of the Tower. I just couldn’t see such a powerful figure doing his own dirty work, and in the scenes in which he is repeatedly thwarted by the efforts of Parker and his men, Wolsey seemed to have been reduced to the sort of villain one might find in an episode of Scooby Doo.

While I enjoyed the story and, as I’ve said above felt it was well-paced, I did feel it lacked a certain depth. I haven’t read the earlier books in the series, which meant I wasn’t aware of what had caused Wolsey’s animosity towards Susanna, although I don’t think it is completely necessary to have all the details as what Ms Diener gives us is sufficient explanation and is enough drive the plot forward. The characterisations of both Parker and Susanna was rather static, however. Although there is definitely a romantic element to the book, as the pair are an established couple, the focus is less on their relationship and more on the mystery, so the story is plot, rather than character driven.

That said, both protagonists were engaging, and I thought Parker was a particularly attractive hero. He’s a fairly powerful member of the court, well-respected and highly intelligent; while Susanna, a woman in a man’s world, is well aware that her position is an unusual one and knows she has to tread carefully. I also thought Ms Diener captured the capricious nature of Henry VIII very well. His temper is uncertain and one could be in favour one moment and out of it the next, as Parker has already discovered.

Overall, In Defense of the Queen (and how it galls me to type “defense” instead of “defence”, which is the correct spelling!) was fast-paced and enjoyable, and I thought the relationship between John and Susanna was well-drawn even if its progress had to run second to Parker’s quest to save Susanna’s life and rescue her from the Tower. I’m going to seek out the two previous stories in the series and would certainly be interested in reading more books featuring the couple.

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