Murder, Marie Antoinette, and A Little Too Much Dumas – A Review of A Poisoned Season by Tasha Alexander

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There is an interesting pattern that I’ve noticed with quite a few novel series that I’ve read thus far: for some odd reason, the second book in the series rarely ever is as good as the first. While there are exceptions – Iain M. Banks’s Culture series, or Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books, for example – the above pattern seems to hold true. This was the case with A Monstrous Regiment of Women, the second book in the Mary Russell series by Laurie R. King, and it is again the case with A Poisoned Season, the second book in Tasha Alexander’s Lady Emily Ashton series.

When the first book in a series opens well, I generally have high hopes for the next books. I know these hopes aren’t always founded, but there have been enough times wherein the second novel has been as good or better than the first, so I tend to take a rather optimistic view on things when I get into the second book.

Just a few days ago I put aside Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery, which had gotten a little too complicated for a mind that was already overly taxed by work. I had thought reading the latest Pink Carnation book would do just the trick for my overtaxed mind, but I thought it was just a little too fluffy. A Mary Russell novel, on the other hand, would put too much strain. That left Tasha Alexander’s novels as a good middle-ground, and thus I picked up A Poisoned Season.

The bar for A Poisoned Season was set rather high. I thoroughly enjoyed the first book And Only to Deceive, which had a good, though not overly complicated, mystery, and a hopeful ending with romantic undertones. Just the sort of read I enjoy every so often when my brain cells are too strained from other reading.

As it turned out, A Poisoned Season was just a shade too uncomplicated to really provide the enjoyment I needed, though it was not an altogether bad read. There was much to remind me of Alexandre Dumas’ novels, albeit the sensational ones that I don’t enjoy as much as his swashbucklers.

The novel begins some time after the ending of the last one: Lady Emily Ashton has returned from Santorini just in time for the London Season (hence the title) and is being pressured on all sides by society to marry once more. Marriage, however, is the farthest thing from her mind: she has Greek to study and artifacts to persuade out of private collections. Moreover, she is engaged in a lovely little affair with Colin Hargreaves, and she is in no particular mood to make herself available to anyone else but him. He has asked for her hand, but she has continually refused him out of a desire to keep living the life she enjoys as a widow with a significant fortune behind her.

In the meantime, the London Season has become particularly busy because of the presence of Charles Berry, a man recently acknowledged by the House of Bourbon as a descendant of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette – therefore, the rightful heir to the French throne. As a result, every single matron in London with high ambitions for her daughter is attempting to snag his attentions. Finally, to make everything even more complicated, various items that once belonged to Marie Antoinette have been stolen from their owners throughout London, and in the process a new acquaintance of Emily’s has been killed. And, naturally, it is up to Emily to figure everything out, while attempting to juggle society along with her relationship to her friends and Colin.

Now, while all of this is quite interesting, a rather large chunk of the book is dedicated to identifying Emily’s mysterious admirer, who also happens to be the Marie Antoinette thief. There is something about this whole thing that rather reminds me of Dumas’s more sensational works (of the kind I don’t particularly enjoy), as well as a bit of the Scarlet Pimpernel books. At first I thought it was quite intriguing, but the amount of time devoted to this unknown admirer rather got in the way of what I thought were the more interesting bits: the murder, for instance, and attempts to expose Charles Berry as a fraud (though this is quite obvious to the reader right from the beginning, I should think). Had I been a little younger, or maybe in a very specific mood, I might have liked that particular plotline, but in this case I did not enjoy it so much.

The mystery of the identity of Marie Antoinette’s descendant, however, was more intriguing. The twists and turns leading to finding out this person’s identity, which forms a sizeable chunk of the storyline, were quite fun, and its links to the murder helped plump up what would otherwise have been an, admittedly, uninteresting crime. It ties in very nicely with actual historical attempts to find the dauphin and later on his descendants, as well as attempts by fraudsters and charlatans to claim pretensions to the French throne, and all its attendant benefits.

As for the characters, they are all as I remember them from the last book, which is a good thing. While Margaret and Cecile remain the same as they were in the last book, I found the shifts in Emily and Ivy’s relationship to be very interesting. I suppose it is no surprise that Emily’s new principles in life would clash with Ivy’s, and I liked how their relationship in light of these things was presented. There was actually a point in the book when it appeared that they would stop being friends, but apparently they have known each other for so long and do care for each other a great deal, that the friendship did not come to an absolute end.

And speaking of relationships, the state of affairs between Emily and Colin is also incredibly fascinating. It is already quite clear that Emily is very much enamored with him, but fears that being married to him will only put her back into the cage that most Victorian wives are put into – something which she has no intentions to go back into. Colin, however, manages to prove that he will not be like the average Victorian husband by signing over to Emily his entire library, whether or not she chooses to marry him. This certainly trumps the antique gold and lapis lazuli engagement ring Colin puts on Emily’s finger when she finally takes him up on his offer. I do have to say, even in the twenty-first century, for the right kind of woman, an entire library’s worth of books would be a sufficient enticement for marriage.

Overall, A Poisoned Season is not as good as And Only to Deceive, but it is a sufficiently enjoyable romp. While not all the storylines are as enjoyable as others, the characters do make up for it somewhat, and the inclusion of the question of the lost dauphin and his possible descendants makes an interesting backdrop to the murder and thefts central to the novel. And for those looking for a little romance, particularly the one between Emily and Colin, will find that particular thread, and its conclusion, very much to their satisfaction.

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