When Holly Ansell is woken in the early hours of the morning by a phone call telling her that her older brother Ben has gone missing, her only clues to his disappearance are the diary of a nineteenth century courtesan and a mirror reputed to be a lost treasure from the court of the Winter Queen. As Holly clings these clues, she doesn’t realise that her quest to solve the mystery of his disappearance will draw her into a four hundred year old love story involving the Winter Queen, ghosts and a cursed pearl…
Fusing thriller and romance, Nicola Cornick’s House of Shadows is rooted in the historical romance of the Winter Queen and William Craven, but draws in elements of fantasy, evolving to create an alternate history centred on Ashdown Park in which refrains of the original love story echo down through history in a narrative split between the court of the Winter Queen in the seventeenth century, and Ashdown Park in the early nineteenth and twenty-first centuries.
One of the things that I most enjoy about historical fiction is learning about the lives of historical figures, and in this respect the book doesn’t disappoint. Although aspects of the novel are fantastical, the historical details about Elizabeth Stuart, the Winter Queen are factual, and the novel serves to illustrate the profoundly interesting and important life this relatively overlooked Queen had. (For example,even though like most British students, I had studied the gunpowder plot at school, I hadn’t realised that the plotters were ultimately aiming to place Elizabeth on the throne as a puppet queen. I was very drawn to this section of the narrative, and I think it’s a testament to the strength of the novel that Cornick manages the transition between the time periods successfully without losing the reader’s interest.
In many ways, the star of the novel is the location. Some readers may find the author’s decision to create an alternate history for Ashdown Park or Ashdown House problematic, given that the novel is to some extent a historical fiction, but provided you aren’t familiar with the house itself I don’t think that it is problematic to suspend your disbelief, especially given that the novel features a magic mirror!
As a fusion of genres, the novel is a little bit more Philippa Gregory than Dan Brown, in that the emphasis is strongly on the romance and less so on the thriller, but it’s definitely an enjoyable read and I am already planning a trip to Ashdown House to check out the setting- even if the lavender garden doesn’t exist as described in the book.