3 out of 4 stars
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In City of Ladies, Sarah Kennedy brings to readers a vibrant picture of Henry VIII’s England — a fitting backdrop to an engrossing story that combines a murder mystery, family drama, and a dash of political intrigue. Helmed by a strong and witty protagonist, this second installment to The Cross and the Crown series follows Catherine Havens Overton as she embarks on a new chapter of her life.
Catherine, a former novice at Mount Grace Convent, is now married to Lord William Overton. With the king’s dissolution of all monasteries in the land, Catherine took the displaced nuns of her convent under her wing, forming her own “city of ladies.” All seems well — until one of her ladies is found raped and throttled to death. Things at home have also taken an uneasy turn, as William starts to doubt whether their firstborn child, Robert, is really his.
William’s ambitions thrust Catherine away from home and into a world of intrigue. Though she wanted to serve Mary Tudor, daughter of the deposed Katherine of Aragon, she’s forced to work for Elizabeth, Anne Boleyn’s daughter, instead. The royal sisters are currently at Hatfield House, and Catherine finds her attention (and her loyalty) divided between the two. When more of her former companions go missing, Catherine must unravel what evil is lurking back at Overton House before her city of ladies is completely destroyed.
Kennedy deftly evokes the oppressiveness of the era, from the constant fear of a volatile king’s retribution to the societal restrictions imposed on women of all stations. The vocabulary reflects a bygone world that existed nearly five centuries ago, yet the prose is neither stuffy nor forced. The words wash over you, helped along by a well-balanced mix of dialogue and exposition interspersed across short, digestible chapters. Detail-oriented readers will love Kennedy’s rendering of the landscape, from the vast countryside to the suffocating city, as well as the historical figures who make memorable appearances. Of the Tudor sisters, for example, Kennedy writes, “Mary sits still as a dark star in the sky, and when she speaks, the air changes. Elizabeth is all chatter and sunshine.” Catherine’s interactions with the Tudors are truly the highlights of the book.
Catherine’s marital problems dovetail neatly into the Hatfield House storyline, dredging up layers of conflict that showcase her strength of character, intelligence, and inherent skills at politics and diplomacy. The murder mystery plotline, however, seems so divorced from the main story that it occasionally feels like there are two books here rather than one cohesive narrative. Towards the end, the culprit's identity is so obvious that it feels implausible Catherine didn’t pick up on it earlier. Though the conclusion is satisfactory, the chapters leading to it just seem so rushed and frenetic.
Nonetheless, City of Ladies is a great pick for fans of historical fiction, particularly of tales set in the Tudor period. The story stands well on its own, though the emotional connection to returning characters will naturally be stronger if one had read the first book. A few typos mar an otherwise fluid text, but the prose is clear and vivid overall. Erotic scenes are present but tastefully written, and profanity is at a minimum. However, sensitive readers should be warned of some grisly details of death. All things considered, I rate City of Ladies 3 out of 4 stars.
City of Ladies
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