Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Masque of the Black Tulip by Lauren Willig

The Masque of the Black Tulip is the second in Willig's series that began with The Secret of the Pink Carnation. As in a series, the set-up in both books are similar, with the main story of each book being historical and book-ended by a contemporary setting. 

Eloise the grad-student is researching her dissertation on Napoleonic-era spies. She stumbled across the most elusive of the flowery spies, the Pink Carnation, digging around archives and making friends with an elderly woman. Her main obstacle is not in the lack of resources but the access to them--currently blocked by the dishy Colin Selwick, descendent of an adventurous family. While at the Selwick family seat, she reads about the dangerous French spy, the Black Tulip, who is currently being tracked down by the Pink Carnation. 

The Pink Carnation herself plays a very small role in the book, with the bulk of the action with Henrietta Selwick and family friend Miles Dorrington. Miles works for the War Office and doesn't know that Henrietta receives communiques from the Pink Carnation in the form of letters highlighting events in the heart of Paris. Both are on the trail of the Black Tulip while trying desperately to not fall in love. 

As is typical in romances, the ending is predictable, but it is the journey that provides interest. The book transcends genre and falls into chick lit, romance, and historical fiction. The writing style is reminiscent of current historical romances, especially in subject and setting. Early nineteenth century England and spies are found in many romance novels written in the past decade, and this is the weakness of the series. Instead of being creative and jumping out of the box, it stays well inside current trends without being daring. Take away the frame story of Eloise and the book could be a Julia Quinn book. This is the greatest weakness of the book. Willig could have quite easily moved the action to the Crimean War and substitute the Russians for the French. That would be more challenging to write but more enjoyable to read. 

Despite that misgiving, I found the book delightful. The frame story with Eloise and Colin is interesting and is the main reason that I want to keep reading, for the story that composes about only 20% of the book! The story was well-paced with enough twists to keep me reading.  I loved the characters of Miles and Henrietta. 

One little quibble that glared at me: as knowledgeable she is about the early nineteenth century, Willig does not know her Greek philosophers. From page 391: 
"Was it worth it, Theresa?" 
"Can you ask?"
"Can you answer?"
 "Can you save the Platonic dialogue for some other occasion?" demanded Miles. 

Ugh. That would be Socrates. Socrates taught his students through questioning. When used in the classroom, this is known as "socratic seminar". Easy enough to check. So, of course it is galling to read this in her Historical Notes
During the Napoleonic Wars, espionage was largely conducted through a subdepartment of the Home Office called the Alien Office, to avoid confusion, and distressing images of extraterrestrials wandering around London, I followed the fictional tradition that ascribes stealthy deeds of daring to the War Office.
WTH? Don't insult the intelligence of your readers. I'm sure most of us could figure out what that meant without thinking of ET phoning home during 1803. 

So, for those few quibbles, I couldn't give a grade of an A. No, I have to give a B+. But it's a very high B+. 

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