Desert Isle Keeper Review

The Dark Queen

Susan Carroll
2005, Renaissance Romance (1570s France)
Balantine, $13.95, 544 pages, Amazon ASIN 0345437969
Part of a series

Grade: A-
Sensuality: Warm

Readers in recent years have complained that the rich, interesting historicals of the past are vanishing. As a reader, I certainly have found myself buying fewer books overall as the meaty historicals I loved started to be replaced by and large with homogenized wallpaper comedies. Fortunately, there are still some good and interesting historicals out there if you look hard enough, and The Dark Queen is one of those great long sagas so many of us have been missing.

Ariane de Cheney is a healer and wise woman, known by her village as The Lady of Faire Isle. Though she does not hold a title, she is related to nobility. The nearby Comte de Renard is determined to marry her, but she has refused him and, while at first Renard attempts to coerce her into the marriage, she teaches him the error of his ways.

Renard is captivated by Ariane and determined to wed her. He gives her one of a set of enchanted rings and gets her promise to keep it. The two agree that if she uses her ring to call to him three times, then she will wed him. It is hardly an auspicious beginning to a relationship, but these two characters have a lot of growing and changing to do throughout this rather complex story.

The romance of Ariane and Renard is set against the complex historical tapestry that was 16th Century France. Throughout the story, Catherine de Medici essentially rules France through her feeble-minded son. In real life, Catherine was rumored to be a witch, and Carroll certainly explores the darker side of the queen's character in Ariane and Renard's adventures. Though Catherine's character gets oversimplified, Carroll's evocation of the tense atmosphere in the country, with its uneasy truce between Catholics and Huguenots, is riveting stuff indeed. The story has an element of the supernatural to it, and the author uses this to take some liberties with the actual history of the time, but she does so smoothly and with good effect.

Ariane and Renard's romance is an entertaining one. They start off at odds, but each character grows a lot during the story. As the story opens, Renard is learning how to be the Comte de Renard without falling into the autocratic and hateful ways of the grandfather he loathed. Meanwhile, recently orphaned Ariane is learning to be the Lady of Faire Isle, while she tries to be guardian to her younger sisters, fulfill her traditional responsibilities to her people, and find her own way in the world. As Ariane and Renard make hard decisions and grow as human beings, they also grow closer together. The journey is not always soft and tender, but the romance and their many adventures had me turning pages.

Best of all, Carroll gives readers a wealth of interesting secondary characters and subplots. She doesn't just write a romance; she creates a whole world. Ariane and Renard are surrounded by people who are primarily well-developed characters rather than flat "type" characters. All of this lends a depth to the story that I have not encountered in a long time. I sometimes had to think hard to keep it all straight, but the novel is well-written and very engaging, so I enjoyed the time I spent with it.

There are too few historical romances like this one on the market. Though many bookstores shelve it in the fiction section since its tasteful cover appeals to crossover readers, make no mistake, this is definitely a romance. It has a richer backstory than most of what is hitting the shelves these days, but the romance is still the focus of the story. If you are one of the historical romance readers who has bemoaned the dearth of good historical reading nowadays, this may very well be the book for you. As for me, I'm rereading it while I wait for the sequel to come out this summer.

-- Lynn Spencer

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