Juliana St. John is the daughter of a prosperous knight in Marlborough. Though her family wants her to marry the son of her father’s business partner, circumstances set her on a course toward the court of Henry VIII and his last wife, Kateryn Parr.
Sir Thomas Seymour, uncle of the current heir, Prince Edward, returns to Wiltshire to tie up his business with Juliana’s father’s estate and sees instantly that she would fit into the household of the woman he loves, Kateryn Parr. Her mother agrees to have her placed in the Parr household for “finishing” and Juliana goes, though perhaps reluctantly. For she knows a secret. She has been given the gift of prophecy, and in one of her visions she has seen Sir Thomas shredding the dress of the king’s daughter, the lady Elizabeth, to perilous consequence.
As Juliana learns the secrets of King Henry VIII’s court, she faces threats and opposition, learning truths about her own life that will upset everything she thought she once held dear.
I tend to stay away from the morass of Tudor fiction crowding the bookshelves these days, but I was impressed with the originality of Sandra Byrd's first novel in her Ladies in Waiting trilogy, To Die For: A Novel of Anne Boleyn, and I've long been a fan of Henry VIII's sixth wife, Kathryn Parr. (Or Kateryn, as she's called in The Secret Keeper.) So this is one Tudor novel I was really looking forward to reading, and I thoroughly enjoyed it!
The story follows Juliana St. John as Sir Thomas Seymour, friend of her late father, finds a position for her in Lady Kateryn Latimer's household. Coming from a small gentry family in a country town, life in Lady Latimer's home is a wonder to Juliana, and though fitting in is not always easy for her, she is delighted to be able to read and participate in lively discussions of religion and politics. Lady Latimer is a reformer, as is Juliana, and she is warm and motherly toward her where her own mother was not. Juliana is deliciously happy in her new home, but she harbors a weighty secret: the prophetic dreams she has from time to time, and they seem to be pointing to trouble ahead for Lady Latimer.
Juliana is thrilled when Lady Latimer is invited to court to visit with the Princess Mary, but as Lord Latimer lays dying, it becomes clear that King Henry has an increasing interest in the vibrant and sharp Kateryn. A widow once more, Kateryn is free to marry her true love, Thomas Seymour, who has been waiting for her for years, but one cannot turn down a marriage proposal from a king. Juliana bears witness to the new queen's joys and sorrows, and draws strength from her poise and wisdom. Juliana also finds a little joy for herself, enjoying the company of Jamie Hart, a young Irish knight in Sir Thomas's retinue. But Henry's advisers are growing in power, and their aims are in direct opposition to Kateryn's. As the religious future of the kingdom is called into question once more, Kateryn's reformist views place her in danger and her enemies will stop at nothing to prevent her from influencing the king's policies. One refrain plays over and over in Juliana's head as her terrible dreams increase: Who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this? She prays for guidance and the wisdom to know what to do as her prophecies start to come true, and as the court devolves into a witch hunt in which no one close to the queen is safe.
The Secret Keeper is an exciting, fast-paced, tension-filled story, with two fantastic female characters taking center stage. I jived with Juliana right away. She's smart and witty, and she's got a backbone and a candid mouth, both considered unseemly for a genteel lady, so she gets herself into trouble from time to time. And Kateryn Parr: what a woman! History remembers her as the one who got away, but only just barely. Henry's death may very well have saved her life. But she was really a Renaissance woman, surrounding herself with intelligent people who could match her in deed and conversation. She published two books in her lifetime, secretly aided the accused heretic Anne Askew, the only woman in England to be both tortured in the Tower and burnt at the stake, she was the loving stepmother to her husbands' children from previous marriages, and played no small role in the education and development of the future Queen Elizabeth.
Though I adored the characters and the subject matter, I have a couple of little complaints that keep me from giving this a perfect rating. I thought the pacing was a bit off toward the end. I had been unable to put the book down for the first 250 pages, but the story dragged for me after Queen Kateryn's death as Juliana pled her case to multiple nobles in an effort to secure a future for Kateryn's daughter, poor little Mary Seymour. And then when Juliana took matters into her own hands and formed a daring plan, everything seemed a bit rushed and the ending came too abruptly. I was also really intrigued by Jamie Hart, and smitten with him as Juliana was, but I didn't feel like I got to know who he truly was, and I would have liked to know him better.
But there really were so many things I liked about The Secret Keeper. I really liked the way the author picked up the threads of the mystery surrounding Mary Seymour and the way she viewed the relationship between Elizabeth and Thomas Seymour, and the way she wove Juliana's prophetic dreams around a few very real instances of happenstance that made a big difference in Kateryn's life. And there were a few surprises in the story that I did not see coming! All in all, a very good read about a queen who was ahead of her time--a modern woman in the medieval world--and who deserves more attention than history has devoted to Henry's other wives.
My Rating: 4 Stars out of 5
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