Review: The Chocolate Maker’s Wife by Karen Brooks

Review: The Chocolate Maker’s Wife by Karen BrooksThe Chocolate Maker's Wife by Karen Brooks
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 608
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on August 20, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Australian bestselling novelist Karen Brooks rewrites women back into history with this breathtaking novel set in 17th century London—a lush, fascinating story of the beautiful woman who is drawn into a world of riches, power, intrigue…and chocolate.

Damnation has never been so sweet...

Rosamund Tomkins, the illegitimate daughter of a nobleman, spends most of her young life in drudgery at a country inn. To her, the Restoration under Charles II, is but a distant threat as she works under the watchful eye of her brutal, abusive stepfather . . . until the day she is nearly run over by the coach of Sir Everard Blithman.

Sir Everard, a canny merchant, offers Rosamund an “opportunity like no other,” allowing her to escape into a very different life, becoming the linchpin that will drive the success of his fledgling business: a luxurious London chocolate house where wealthy and well-connected men come to see and be seen, to gossip and plot, while indulging in the sweet and heady drink.

Rosamund adapts and thrives in her new surroundings, quickly becoming the most talked-about woman in society, desired and respected in equal measure.

But Sir Everard’s plans for Rosamund and the chocolate house involve family secrets that span the Atlantic Ocean, and which have already brought death and dishonor to the Blithman name. Rosamund knows nothing of the mortal peril that comes with her new title, nor of the forces spinning a web of conspiracy buried in the past, until she meets a man whose return tightens their grip upon her, threatening to destroy everything she loves and damn her to a dire fate.

As she fights for her life and those she loves through the ravages of the Plague and London’s Great Fire, Rosamund’s breathtaking tale is one marked by cruelty and revenge; passion and redemption—and the sinfully sweet temptation of chocolate.

My Review:

The story of The Chocolate Maker’s Wife is every bit as lush and decadent as the bittersweet confection that she learns to make – and most definitely promote and sell – in her role as the young, pretty wife of an older man who owns both a revolutionary chocolate house and an entire bubbling vat of deep, dark, but not so luscious secrets.

As ubiquitous as chocolate is in the present day – and as much as its taste, aroma and flavor are loved or even craved, once upon a time in Europe chocolate was very much a curious novelty imported from the “New World” – as, for that matter, were both tea and coffee, although both had their origin in other places.

The Restoration period in England, the 1660s when The Chocolate Maker’s Wife takes place, was a time of great upheaval, of which the introduction of chocolate was perhaps the least if not the tastiest. This was the period when the monarchy was restored after Cromwell’s Protectorate, and Puritanism gave way to the Church of England.

Over 10 years of habits of life and thought changed overnight when Charles II took the throne that his father had been forced from – and later beheaded for occupying. This was a time when the universe as they knew it changed. And did again during the course of this story when the Great Fire of London consumed the city in 1666.

Each of these world shaking events had an equally cataclysmic effect on the life of Rosamund Blishwick, nee Tomkins. And it is her eyes through which we see this world, and hers, as it changes. And most definitely sparks.

At first it seems as if Sir Everard Blishwick is rescuing Rosamund not merely from tiny Gravesend, but also from multiple fates worse than death.

But of course, all is not as it seems. What seems like a rescue is only the first step in a long drawn out campaign of revenge that sucks Rosamund deeply into its web – and launches her into a future she could never have dreamed of.

Escape Rating B-: This is very much a mixed feelings kind of review. There were aspects of this book that I enjoyed, and others that drove me a bit bonkers. The Chocolate Maker’s Wife is the kind of lush, overblown historical epic that they don’t make any more. And as much as I loved just this kind of story once upon a time, it also reminded me both of why they don’t make them any longer and why I don’t look for them either.

(Something about this book reminded me a lot of Through a Glass Darkly by Karleen Koen. Which I read decades ago. I think it had to do with the lushness of the setting, the darkness of the secrets, the disposition of the heroine and the more than occasionly repetitive and slightly overblown language. But it’s been a long, long time. Still, the impression lingers. Make of that what you will.)

The strongest part of the story is the period setting. The author’s research into the Restoration period is exhaustive – and occasionally exhausting for the reader. The early years of the Restoration were a period of great change, capped off by the Great Fire which wiped out so much of London and wiped so many slates clean – except for the ashes.

It is a fascinating period in so many ways, as the parliamentary experiment failed, the monarchy was restored and everyone tried to go back to the way things were. Except that the genie never goes willingly back into the bottle, too much time had passed and too much had changed. But this story takes place during that change and we see the effects on the ground, so to speak, through Rosamund.

She begins the story as a young woman slaving away for her stepfather, ignored by her mother and routinely sexually abused by her stepfather and two adult stepbrothers. It’s a brutal life that Sir Everard rescues her from. Her “family” seem to be trying to erase their past as loyal Cromwell supporters, even her stepbrothers’ names betray their earlier loyalties.

But Rosamund was used and abused by her family, and then used by her new husband as well. Not for sex, but in his schemes for his chocolate house and his revenge against a family he claims wronged him. That Rosamund’s advent as a woman in the public sphere invites at least attempts at abuse from every man at nearly every turn seems a bit egregious. Not that it wouldn’t have happened, but there is a point where one wearies of reading about it happening again. And again. And yet again. (Wanting to hex them all seems to be a common response.)

At the same time, Rosamund seems a bit too good to be true. Everyone who comes into her orbit either wants her, loves her, or both. The degree to which she charms nearly everyone gives her the aura of a “Mary Sue”. Her times absolutely fascinated me, but her personality just didn’t make me want to follow her through them.

In the end, as much as I loved both the concept of this book and its setting, I didn’t love the book because I didn’t find its central character compelling. Or perhaps I simply had enough of the frequent repetitive descriptions of her tinkling laugh.

Your mileage may definitely vary. Meanwhile, I’m going to have some hot chocolate.

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Review: The Locksmith’s Daughter by Karen Brooks

Review: The Locksmith’s Daughter by Karen BrooksThe Locksmith's Daughter by Karen Brooks
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 576
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on July 31, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From acclaimed author Karen Brooks comes this intriguing novel rich in historical detail and drama as it tells the unforgettable story of Queen Elizabeth's daring, ruthless spymaster and his female protégée.

In Queen Elizabeth's England, where no one can be trusted and secrets are currency, one woman stands without fear.

Mallory Bright is the only daughter of London's most ingenious locksmith. She has apprenticed with her father since childhood, and there is no lock too elaborate for her to crack. After scandal destroys her reputation, Mallory has returned to her father's home and lives almost as a recluse, ignoring the whispers and gossip of their neighbors. But Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth's spymaster and a frequent client of Mallory's father, draws her into his world of danger and deception. For the locksmith's daughter is not only good at cracking locks, she also has a talent for codes, spycraft, and intrigue. With Mallory by Sir Francis’s side, no scheme in England or abroad is safe from discovery.

But Mallory's loyalty wavers when she witnesses the brutal and bloody public execution of three Jesuit priests and realizes the human cost of her espionage. And later, when she discovers the identity of a Catholic spy and a conspiracy that threatens the kingdom, she is forced to choose between her country and her heart.

Once Sir Francis's greatest asset, Mallory is fast becoming his worst threat—and there is only one way the Queen’s master spy deals with his enemies…

 

My Review:

If you like utterly absorbing, densely plotted historical fiction, then The Locksmith’s Daughter is going to open a key into your reading heart.

This story is set at a time of intense political and religious ferment. It’s also a time we think we know, the Elizabethan period of English history. In fact, a particular piece of that period, the 1580s, the time when religious persecution of Catholics was at its height, right alongside, and considerably as a result of, Catholic plots to overthrow Elizabeth and bestow the crown on some supposedly worthier Catholic monarch. (I’m not making a religious comment here, but I am doubtful that any ruler of any religious stripe could have done a better job for their country in that particular place and time than Elizabeth did for England.)

That decade includes the execution of Elizabeth’s most prominent Catholic rival, Mary, Queen of Scots, as well as the debacle of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Well, it was certainly a debacle from the Spanish perspective. The English perspective, the one we tend to adopt here in the U.S., was that it was a resounding success for England.

History is always written by the victors.

But Elizabeth’s reign in general, and this period in particular, was also a period of political and social upheaval. And whenever there are societal changes, there are plenty of people on both sides of every issue working as hard as they can to ensure that their side is the one that comes out on top.

In other words, politics. Lots and lots of politics. And wherever there are politics, there are plenty of people manipulating events behind the scenes, both by fair means and foul.

Espionage may not be the oldest profession, but it is certainly one of the oldest. One of its foremost practitioners was either a hero or villain of this period. Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster.

Our peek into the skullduggery and machinations at the heart of Elizabeth’s reign is Mallory Bright, the titular locksmith’s daughter. This story of underhanded dealings at the centers of power – or on its shadowy fringes, is told from Mallory’s first person perspective.

For her time and place, Mallory is singular. She’s not merely the daughter of a respected locksmith, but also his unofficial apprentice, better at picking locks than even the master himself. She is also an educated woman at a time when that was not the norm. And as the story opens, she has returned to her parents’ household after her own disgraceful actions ruined her reputation and her prospects.

Mallory needs a future. Her father’s surprising friendship with Walsingham provides her with a means to make her own. With her education in languages and mathematics as well as her skill in lock-picking, Mallory is the perfect candidate to learn the art of spycraft.

At first, it is a game at which she excels. She enjoys the learning of it, and she relishes the challenge. But when the ciphers and secrets turn deadly, she discovers that her challenges come at too high a price. A price that is initially paid by others, but could all too easily be wrenched from her own heart, soul and body.

Escape Rating A: The Locksmith’s Daughter is a LOT of book. An absolutely absorbing lot, but definitely one to tackle when you either have plenty of time on your hands or are willing to forego a certain amount of sleep. Or both.

That being said, Mallory’s first-person perspective sucks the reader right in. Even though we initially know little about her circumstances, we see it all through her eyes and hear her thoughts and feel right there with her. There are two things that make Mallory an excellent first-person narrator. She’s intelligent, so she’s very thoughtful about everything that passes through her head. And she’s lonely. She has very few people to talk to, and no one to confide in. She both keeps her thoughts to herself and works them over in her own mind on a regular basis. Some first-person narrators are either not introspective or are so censorious of their own self-talk that even the view from inside their heads is limiting. Mallory is not that way. She thinks, she ponders, she considers – and we get to see it all.

It’s not just that Mallory is an easy character to empathize with, but also that what she experiences is absolutely fascinating. There are lots of stories where a big part of the story is the training of the character from apprenticeship to master. This is one where that process is done well. It’s doubly interesting to see her master the tradecraft of espionage in a way that shows just how little has changed from the 16th century to the 21st, as well as how much.

If you want to be transported back in time to Elizabethan England, The Locksmith’s Daughter is a fabulous time machine.

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