Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Best Friends, Little Sisters and the Dasterdly French: My Review of Lauren Willig's "The Masque of the Black Tulip"

But that was no excuse. He knew Henrietta well enough to know exactly
how she would react. This was, after all, the girl whose favorite
 phrase as a toddler had been “me too”.
The Masque of the Black Tulip, Lauren Willig, pp.
The Pink Carnation, history's most elusive spy and England's only hope for preventing a Napoleonic invasion, returns in Lauren Willig's dazzling imaginative new historical romance. The Masque of the Black Tulip opens with the murder of a courier from the London War Office, his confidential dispatch for the Pink Carnation stolen. Meanwhile, the Black Tulip, France's deadliest spy, is in England with instructions to track down and kill the Pink Carnation.

Only Henrietta Selwick and Miles Dorrington know where the Pink Carnation is stationed. Using a secret code book, Henrietta has deciphered a message detailing the threat of the Black Tulip. Meanwhile, the War Office has enlisted Miles to track down the notorious French spy before he (or she) can finish the deadly mission. But what Henrietta and Miles don't know is that while they are trying to find the Black Tulip (and possibly falling in love), the Black Tulip is watching them.

                When we last left our flowery spy ring, Richard – aka the Purple Gentian, and Amy – aka the first Pink Carnation, were heading to England after he was unmasked in a French prison, and thus exiled from the spying business. This of course leaves our very resourceful Jane in Paris to continue on spying in Pink Carnation style, and Lady Uppington to drag her daughter back to London and civilized society as the borders between France and England shut down. Henrietta, the daughter, is still in love with the spying idea and so when she meets up with Jane at Richard and Amy’s wedding, she is eager to take up a position in the League of the Pink Carnation – as the messenger getter: Jane sends coded messages to Henrietta who passes them towards the War Office. Miles, Richard’s best friend and Henrietta’s bee in her bonnet, is trying to insert himself into the spy game as well – but it’s hard for someone over six feet tall with a distinctive blonde head. Of course, being high up in the echelons of society does have its perks and when a suspicious lord returns to England from France on the eve of a mysterious murder, the War Office pushes Miles into the middle (well, push is a little strong, they mention it – he does the rest). 

                Miles and Henrietta, if you remember from The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, are the bickering non-siblings that drive Richard crazy with their squabbling. We already got a good dose of them in the first book – a good glimmer of the potential that was Henrietta and the great hero Miles would make. Now we get them, for better or worse, in all their glory – their very own book, to deal with the French and save merry old England. 

                On top of that we get to see where Eloise ends up when she is carted off to the archives kept at the Uppington country estate by an irate Colin who is more damned unnerving than ever. Eloise, you see, is one of those characters that is meant to be a mouthpiece at first, but then takes over her own narrative, really breathing life into the stories that exist around her. She is passionate and silly and so human – you never really know what she’ll say or what insight she will give. She truly is one of my favourite characters. 

                And not because of Colin. 

                Okay, not just because of Colin. 

                Eloise is inquisitive and brassy, she’s tough and independent and really works hard to get into the heads of those she studies. She is no passing historian – she is the committed kind, the kind that discovers the real stories because of her attention to detail and compassion for the characters of the letters she reads. It’s always a strange mixture to have a character who is so passionate about work and so hesitant about life – or in Eloise’s case, love life. 

                Which brings me to another reason why I empathize with her – when it comes to romances, she regresses into a 13 year old girl. So do I – oscillating between extreme squealing at the romance of it all while standing on my couch and pretending to swash buckle, to hating it, sniffing my nose at the distastefulness of it, gnawing my  lips with uncertainty. You see, Eloise just doesn’t know. She doesn’t even realize that the chemistry between her and Colin is anything but animosity and pride until she’s out in rural England, staring at ruins and getting closer to him. 

                I am the same way – which is terrible to admit to, but there you go. Eloise, however, seems to fair a bit more gracefully then I do. Chin up, eyes straight ahead – no love disappointment will get in the way of her reading those manuscripts. She’s a very real character in that sense – and you can see pieces of the author – Lauren Willig, of whom I am a diehard fan – in Eloise’s personality (that could be me though – this may be TMI, but I generally picture Willig as Eloise…)

                The development of the chemistry between Eloise and Colin is by far my favourite type of thing to tie together all the novels (though the former main characters popping in and out of the other novels is also loads of fun and I always get this little squeal in my head from it!) You can tell that Ms. Willig is a romance reader as well as a romance writer – she knows what her readers want because it’s what she wants, and so she gives it to us! 

                Now onto Henrietta and Miles – otherwise known as the historical part of this book review: 

                Henrietta is like Richard: she’s headstrong, stubborn, very territorial, awash with intrigue, with good friends and loyalty – only, she’s female. And thank goodness for that – for Miles’ sake. He’s like Henrietta as well – and he’s got a curiosity streak to rival hers, and a protective streak that must get on her last nerve – but he’s absolutely the hero – in totality. He is sarcastic, witty, tall and charming, earnest and dashing, and always manages to do something inexplicably funny. Like when he follows a suspect into a seedy English pub and needs to barter with a large drunk man for his cloak, only to be harassed further by the barmaid, Molly. He is so engaging that you anticipate his scenes, wait for them and relish them as you read. He is utterly charming and so heartbreakingly loyal you just want to hug him to your breast and run away with him. 

                Henrietta is just awesome. She is a regency girl, this is true, and she cares about fashions and gloves and books and getting into a respectable and suit able marriage – one her mother won’t regret, but she’s also adventurous and witty – with cutting remarks and quit-witted replies that she snaps off to anyone – especially Miles- that dares cross her. She is the best sort of historical hero because she is not a casualty of her times, but rather excels despite them. 

                Their romance is a slow blossoming of romances: They are childhood friends, raised together and he is her brother’s best friend. It is a necessarily slow romance that is predicated on an attraction that has been denied too long, and simmering just enough that when it explodes into both of them, there is no turning back – the witty jibes and tearful misunderstandings all sway under the passion that the two have for one another – and you’re left wondering how they could have ever thought they could just be friends? 

                The story was tight – as with The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, this plot revolves around spies and important information that has deadly consequences. Damn the French. This one was laid out in pieces, and frustratingly so, since you want to know who the devilish Black Tulip is – and just how far he will go to win France a victory over England. The closer that the two get to danger, the more the plot condenses and sweeps into the meta that is the Napoleonic wars, in a way that, I think, will resound in the Pink Carnation universe. The ending was good – really good, with just enough funny in it that you are alternatively shrieking in delight and in terror for any one of your favourite characters – especially as one is locked in a cupboard, one is unknowingly walking into a trap, another is calmly and coolly joining the fray and the last is being besieged by a bunch of short Frenchmen who won’t let him get to where he’s going. 

                The hairpin to all of the intrigue and building of this novel really is the amount of characters that get introduced to us: Turnip and Mary and Lettie (in a small way), and Lord Vaughan – to name but a few. Having read Mischief of the Mistletoe and read the backs of all the others, I can tell you this: some of these names come back. 

                Also: Turnip rocks. He is just so … Turnip. Love. 

                Highly recommend the book, and the series and Ms. Willig’s blog/website whatever – she has extras and more novellas and everything that is great is there – and in pink!

Read if you Liked:

Up Next to Review: Black Ships by Jo Graham


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