TBR Challenge Review: Blythe Gifford’s SECRETS AT COURT

Secrets_At_CourtSometimes a romance writer’s vision lies in wait. Miss Bates started reading Blythe Gifford’s Secrets At Court two years ago and, to her shame, dropped it. The heroine is clubfooted: Miss Bates was uncertain how well the author would handle her disability. The opening left her doubtful. Wendy’s TBR Challenge, however, led her back to neglected titles, buried TBR shames and uncertainties. Miss Bates doesn’t know why a novel whose opening left her cold captured her on second reading (but there’s a lesson there for us all), but it grabbed her like the hero’s firm and gentle touch on the heroine and didn’t let go until she tapped the final glorious page. As poor Guildenstern and Rosencrantz say to the mad Prince, they are neither atop Fortune, nor underfoot, but abide amidst her “private parts.” Thus with our heroine Anne of Stamford, lady-in-waiting, companion, and confidante to Joan, Countess of Kent and Prince Edward’s secret wife, and hero Sir Nicholas Lovayne, emissary and right-hand-man to both Edwards, king and prince. Our protagonists aren’t nameless servants. They attend to the highest in the land and navigate the dangerous waters of royal whims and strategems; as our hero says, ” … the privilege of royalty. To be rewarded for behaviour that would damn any other mortal.”

Nicholas and Anne meet when Nicholas returns to court from Avignon where he fulfilled Prince Edward’s mission. He negotiated papal clearance of Lady Joan’s previous marriages and carried back a dispensation to legitimize her and Edward’s secret union with a public wedding. The pope, Nicholas’s diplomatic abilities supplemented by florins, agreed, but set conditions that see him and Anne travel to the Canterbury to seek confirmation from the Archbishop. Anne, crippled by her clubfoot, has never left Lady Joan’s side. She caters to Joan’s whims and keeps her secrets, secrets that can jeopardize the mad love Joan shares with the prince. Anne’s innate integrity chafes, but her crippled state and status would leave her a beggar were it not for Lady Joan. And so, she complies:ย “Lady Joan would do as she pleased and the world would accommodate her … She would be the one who held the truth of Lady Joan’s clandestine marriage. Again.” Secrets are a burden, especially when they’re held in trust by shadowy middlemen and women, such as Anne and Nicholas. Miss Bates loved that Gifford gave these figures a voice, desires, hopes, dreams, and most of all, wills.

Gifford’s novel is superbly researched and her characters, historical and fictional, come alive. Gifford understands that writing about the Middle Ages requires her to render character in such a way that they feel alien and strange to a contemporary audience. The reader should feel the years and changes that separate us from medieval times. Nevertheless, Gifford makes them sympathetic. Her love for her characters and respect for historical veracity shine through. Gifford’s Nicholas and Anne are two decent people at power’s mercy. The only life they’ve known is that of service to power. The beauty of this romance lies in Nicholas and Anne’s discovery, in their initially reluctant attraction and eventual love, of joy where there had only ever beenย “duty, obligation, and survival”. At first, Nicholas and Anne reside in opposing loyalty camps: Nicholas to truth and Anne to Lady Joan’s caprice. Yet, a momentary meeting of eyes and mutual understanding mark a shift in their world: “She raised her eyes again and he saw in their depths that she was accustomed to serving the rich. He knew that feeling … ” Romance, and Gifford in this instance, is good at these shared moments of awareness of and insight into the Other. In this moment, realpolitik is shunted aside in preparation for the romance’s ethos of love in mutuality and free choice to cleave to the Other. Nicholas and Anne connect because of an awareness of having lived for those who wield power over them. Their journey is one where, no matter the cost of speaking truth to power (and it is high) they bolster each other and learn to live for themselves and their relationship.

To continue, Nicholas and Anne, at their royal masters’ behest, journey to Canterbury. The freedom of the road, the necessity of slow travel in consideration of Anne’s disability, and the slow learning of the Other by talking and sharing find them chafing at their yokes’ bits. Nicholas wants this to be his final mission; he wants to return to France to fight another war, as a mercenary maybe, as long as he “would have no more of the wishes of others.” Being free of Lady Joan’s demands for the first time in her memory, Anne finally sees her truly: “Joan was mad. Playing with the laws of God and men as if she had the right. And suddenly, Anne wished fiercely she could do the same.” Anne questions Lady Joan’s judgement and choices, but doesn’t dwell on her; rather on herself, on how she’s never thought about her choices.

Miss Bates loved the theme of what it means to be “crippled” that ran throughout the novel. Anne may at first appear the weaker of the two and she certainly can’t move, run, and dance as other women. Nicholas, able-bodied, however, is “crippled” in a way Anne isn’t:ย “All these years, Nicholas … carried the resentment with him, dragged it wherever he went, just like Anne’s lame foot, making him unable to move toward something.” Nicholas is crippled by his fear of feeling for another. Yet, his innate decency and integrity water the desert of his heart in small, uncomfortable instances: ” … he was angry on her behalf for all the ignorant people who had, or would ever, hurt her. A strange and unwelcome thought. He had lived as he wanted for so long, detached, … Suddenly, he had heard the woman beside him, recognized her pain, and cared. An unfamiliar and uncomfortable feeling.” Nicholas’s fears of what he feels for Anne lead to a hurtful emotional betrayal.

Anne’s return to court and Nicholas’s betrayal are the novel’s lowest points: Anne’s carefully preserved life is shattered in sundry ways. Yet, what Miss Bates loved about Anne are her complexity and dignity. She thinks through her errors and thinking of herself as weak, helpless, and dependent. Anne emerges with great dignity and the realization of her own value. As for Nicholas’s grovel: it’s gentle and true. It materializes out of his time with Anne, as they experience the journey and stop to pray at the cathedral. Nicholas remembers how Anne’s slower gait allowed her to take in the world in a way he never had, always running, always the mission before him. If he is to fully experience life, to let his heart yearn, reach, and find peace in the other and beauty of the world, Anne must show him the way: ” ‘I will help you walk. You can help me see.’ ” Nicholas can be Anne’s pilot, her stalwart arm, protector and lover, in the end, husband. But her gift to Nicholas, as he realizes, is far greater: to see the world with new eyes, to echo that lovely hymn, anachronistic as it may be here, to help him see where he once was blind.

Miss Bates is glad she finally read Blythe Gifford’s Secrets At Court: many were its rewards. With Miss Austen, Miss Bates says of it, “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma. Blythe Gifford’s Secrets At Court is published by Harlequin. It was released on Feb. 18, 2014 and is available at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates received an e-ARC from Harlequin, via Netgalley.

27 thoughts on “TBR Challenge Review: Blythe Gifford’s SECRETS AT COURT

  1. What an interesting point you raise regarding liking and/or not liking a book once discarded but given a second chance, the same book, with the only changed element is the reader’s time and place and perhaps a different set of experiences to draw from, transforms into a positive experience. I’ve done that so many times I occasionally look back at books I DNF’ed or rated very low and wonder what my reaction would be today. I’ve even caught myself hesitating to set any arbitrary number of stars as rating for books without the disclaimer “This rating is subject to change at a moment’s notice.” It’s all a matter of my perspective I suppose. Because the words on the page haven’t changed, the order of the chapters, too, are no different. The characters will still be doing/saying what they did/said when I began the book in the past, but this time, the only factor that’s changed is, well, me. Having said that, I’ve tried several times to read certain books and still discarded them each time (I’m looking at you “Whitney, My Love” which I tried 3 times and just could not). I think all that translates into the fact the only thing I know for certain is that there’s a tremendous lot I don’t know. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    “Secrets At Court” sounds like a marvelous historical romance so I shall close my eyes and add one more to the “beast that threatens to take over my world”, Mt. TBR. Also, your post has given me food for thought about giving some books a second chance. Just not that book I mentioned previously because, after all, three strikes, and you’re out. ๐Ÿ˜‰

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    • Yes, that’s it … I don’t know why one reading is a nope and another is a gimme, gimme MOAR, which is why I like your trinitarian reading rule, or three strikes and you’re out. I give an author three tries too, and a book. I think then you can truly say this is it, not for me. I have to shamefacedly admit, however, that I whipped through Whitney, My Love, even while I was disgusted with myself for enjoying it so much. My McNaught of choice and a great comfort read for me is Paradise, unabashed love for that book. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  2. I have just realized the problem with the TBR Challenge (since this is my first try), for every one you take off, there is the chance you’ll add half a dozen more. This one sounds good.

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  3. Valancy: finishes long-suffering TBR novel. Feels pious and a little self-righteous. Reads Miss B’s post. ‘Accidentally’ clicks on two more of her related posts as well. (see, those links totally work!) Adds three more books to her TBR list. Not so pious…but oh-so happy ๐Ÿ˜‰

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  4. Oh, this one does sound good! I’ve read the companion book, Whispers at Court, and I liked it, but Secrets is still in the TBR. Have you read any of Gifford’s other books? I’ve only hit a few, but I have liked them so far.

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    • ๐Ÿ™‚ I haven’t. ‘Cause the failed reading of this one left me cold. I’m so glad I chose this one, especially because finding a histrom writer I like is hard. I can count them on one hand. So, I’ll be looking back and forward to more of her books.

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  5. I haven’t read too many medieval historical novels but I love the time period so there’s a whole new segments to add to my list. And I’m going to start with this one! It sounds really good.

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    • My early, like pre-teen, reading of Woodiwiss’ The Wolf and the Dove marked me for medieval romance. I know it has all kinds of problems and I probably wouldn’t like it now, but it left me with a taste for them. I think this one, in particular, is a great place to start. I loved that Gifford chose these not slavish figures, but people at royalty’s whim, not powerful in themselves, but safe from the disease, poverty, and hunger of most people in medieval Europe. The historical detail is wonderful. Something I didn’t mention in my review, but which I loved is Gifford’s description of pilgrimage and the cathedrals that saw so many pilgrims arrive. They’re wonderful and really will bring the history home to you! I do so hope you read it!

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  6. I have this and the other book in the series on my Kindle and need to find the time… I really must bump it up the TBR pile.

    Fab review ๐Ÿ™‚

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    • They are a wonderful blending of history and romance! The history comes alive and the historical figures, especially of Joan, are three-dimensional, even while making hero and heroine central. Nicholas and Anne are wonderful: easy to love, without being simplistic. I’m so happy to have found another histrom author to read: I’ve missed historical romance!

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  7. I agree with Erin, as this is my first try with the reading challenge, that my TBR is going to be a mess by the end of the year. HA Not that I’m complaining, I just think it’s funny that while we deplete our TBRs, we make everyone else want another book. I remember this one by its cover. I didn’t buy it and now you make me wish I had. Love this time period. Great review and discussion! I’m definitely a mood reader so I’m sure I’d think differently every time I read a book, which is why I rarely re-read — I don’t want to ruin the magic remembered with my mood. LOL

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    • I have the same trepidation towards rereading, especially those books that led me to reading romance. My one indulgence, and I’ve written about it, is my comfort rereading of McNaught’s Paradise.

      I think the best way to approach the TBR Challenge is NOT to think of it as whittling down the TBR, but rather as unearthing hidden gems, or dross … either way, the sparkle of the new is put aside to try to figure out why do I have this in the first place, or why haven’t I read this till now. That was my experience with Secrets At Court and I hope the rest are as good! Hope yours are too! Thank you for commenting!!

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  8. Blythe Gifford is new to me, so I am intrigued, and adding this one to the TBR. I am still having a great run of luck with Harlequin Historical series books, and not so much with the big fat historicals with pastel colored big dresses on the cover. The plots lately are implausible, the characters not even close to way real people would act in the 19th century. HQN has a great stable of authors, and they’re just the right length.
    There is another series with a couple that are close to the throne, and have to navigate treacherous court politics and the whims of a powerful King. That’s Michelle Diener’s Susanna Horenbout and John Parker series, the first one is aptly named “In A Treacherous Court”. What adds to my delight about those books, is that Susanna and John were real people who were in Henry VIII’s court. Has Miss Bates read them?

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    • Yes, I heartily agree: Harlequin Historicals are great! Solid writing, not-your-wallpaper historical, great romance, or at least of the ones I’ve read. There are even good ones in the Inspired Historical line (Lacy Williams, Sherri Shackelford, and Karen Kirst, for example). I XD over your poofy pastel-coloured dresses: it feels as if histrom is all-wannabe Julia Quinn all-the-time!

      I have NOT read the Horenbout and Parker series! But they sound marvelous. Are they Harlequin Historicals?

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      • OMG, you are in for a treat! I am thrilled to be able to wholeheartedly recommend an author that’s new to you. Diener’s books are trade paperbacks, kind of pricey. I think they’re worth every penny, but hopefully available at your library. Her Regency era spy/mystery books are good, but the Tudor era books are the ones I can’t get enough of. They’ve also been blessed with some stunning cover art. There are 3 so far, plus an e-novella. Susanna Horenbout really was a Flemish artist came to England and worked as an illuminator for King Henry VIII, the first woman to do so. John Parker was the King’s Keeper of the Palace of Westminster and his Yeoman of the Crossbows. They did marry in real life, but not much else is known about their lives together, so the rest is the author’s invention.
        I’ve avoided the Inspired line, but maybe I’ll try one of those authors you mention from the library.

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  9. (SO late with commenting).

    This was one of the Honorable Mentions for my Best of 2014 list. I’m pretty sure I graded it a B+. I really liked it a lot and promptly snapped up Whispers in Court (still unread, because I suck like that). I’ve got at least one more Gifford in my TBR pile – I need to read more by her because this book really put the wind in my sails.

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    • Late is just as good! It was buried for ages in my TBR. I even started reading it and noped it. But didn’t DNF. I mean hist-category: hoped my peevishness would abate to try it again. I’m so glad I did. There was a lot more I could have said about it. I particularly liked Gifford’s treatment of the religious aspects of medieval life. Both characters are “religious”, but not in an inspy way. It’s thoughtful and interesting, not a conscious decision, as it is for us. Religion is a part of their lives and how they understand the world. I’m looking for her next quite quite eagerly.

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      • Your comment tickled at the back of my brain and I had to go reread my review ๐Ÿ™‚

        Yes! Re: religious aspects. What I so admired about this story was that Gifford didn’t gloss over the power the Vatican wielded but she also didn’t bog the story down with a bunch of eye-crossing, religious/political mumbo-jumbo. And in this time period? The mumbo-jumbo ran pretty deep.

        Also that the story was so wholly medieval. You couldn’t take this story and plunk it down in a different time period. It has to be a medieval and the author really entrenches you in the era, again – without bogging the story down to the point where it’s a History Death March.

        I need to find my reading mojo – because now I want to read more Gifford….

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        • Yes, that was my thought exactly. Gifford’s research was meticulous and exacting, but not dry. She made her characters both unique and products of their time. She didn’t let the research dominate, but used her knowledge to make her characters a touch alien to us: the middle ages is so far away from us. Her balancing between the distancing of history and the familiar of the romance narrative really made this a great, great read … at least for me. And for you!

          Reading mojo, an elusive thing. You’re a reader, it’s part and parcel of who you are. You’ll get it back, just keep reading! ๐Ÿ™‚ … when I get all reading-peevish, I just let myself keep dropping books after a chapter until I hit the right one. Whereas, other times, I’m quite tolerant and stick with a book. The “dropping” happened to me with Gifford’s book and TWO YEARS LATER, it was a hug to myself read. We be fickle, we readers.

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