My rating: 5 of 5 stars
BOOK REVIEW – SANDRA BYRD: THE SECRET KEEPER
By Veronica Marie Lewis-Shaw
(Reviewer’s note – I am an independent writer. I am also a freelance reviewer, and listed as such with Howard Books, a division of Simon & Schuster. What this basically means is that I am on an email list and the publisher notifies me of new releases. If I see a book that I like, they will send me a free copy in exchange for my honest review of said book, as well as posting the review on my blogs. In other words, I choose the book that I wish to read, the opinions expressed are my own and my review is based solely on the merits of the book. Other than a free copy of the book, I receive no compensation from the publisher or the author. My reviews are also posted on the GoodReads website. The following is my review of Sandra Byrd’s THE SECRET KEEPER. Thank you – vmls)
This is the second of Sandra Byrd’s Tudor series novels and the first book of hers – among only a small handful of historical, or period, fiction novels – that I have read. My reading tastes typically run to more contemporary writing, leaning heavily toward noir fiction. The Secret Keeper however, has ignited a desire to read more period novels, especially of Sandra’s. I was completely engrossed from the very first page.
Sandra writes with an authority and verve that fires the imagination; her words drawing in rich detail images of castles and estates, highborn men and women of polite society, opulence and regal deportment. I fell immediately in love with the period language Sandra writes with. It lends an authenticity that draws the reader into a scene and clearly delineates between classes of characters – commoners and the servants of nobility and royalty from those highborn and regal persons. Sandra’s charismatic writing has awakened in me a thirst to read more of this period in history especially.
Sandra’s rich prose and evocative narrative style weaves a brilliant tale, creating unforgettable characters and events…eliciting a range of emotions in the reader not dissimilar at times to those in her characters. At the risk of sounding like a cliché, I laughed… I cried… I sat upright in suspense… at times relief washed over me… as I became immersed in the story. There was one particular scene… I shan’t leave details here, lest I spoil it for the reader… that left me shaking in quiet rage. I had to put the book down. It was a full day before (here, Sandra would use ‘afore’) I could take it up again.
By the end of the book, I had affected, with some small success, a manner of speech similar to that in the book. Christina, my wife, was amused to no end (we both enjoy role-play), however; one of my co-workers expressed concern that I had suffered a concussion.
Set amidst the back-drop of the tumultuous court of Henry VIII and his marriage to wife number six, Kateryn Parr, The Secret Keeper is a novel of royal intrigue, power struggles and the test of a woman’s faith and beliefs in an era when women were highly placed but valued less so. This was a period during which heresy to the king was dealt with unequivocally… regardless of whether a person was highborn or common. Deceit and treachery often ran rampant. It is into this world that the protagonist, Mistress Juliana St. John, finds herself thrust.
The Secret Keeper is told from the point of view of Juliana St. John, daughter of a knight of the realm who comes to King Henry’s court as a lady-in-waiting to Her Grace, Kateryn Parr. This shortly after a prophecy comes to Juliana… a vision of peril brought upon a highborn woman… a vision that Juliana is determined not to see come to fruition. Mistress St. John is also a woman with a secret… a woman upon whom the burden of more secrets will soon rest.
Warned not to let the ‘sheen’ of the court overcome her, Juliana tries to remain steadfast to what she sees as her ‘mission’, her purpose for coming to the royal court… her service to Kateryn Parr and the safety of Lady Elizabeth. Juliana is soon caught up in the intrigue though, as Her Grace has decidedly different views than those of the king on the matter of religion… views that in light of Henry VIII’s edicts, would be considered heretical as well as treasonous. Juliana must be ever mindful of where and to whom she ‘looses her tongue’, while maintaining her allegiance to the queen. Duplicity and betrayal appear to be de rigueur if one is to survive in the royal court; Mistress Juliana must be ever vigilant and true in the face of it.
Early on in the story, Juliana meets and falls in love with an Irish nobleman. However, before much can come of it, her own innocence in manners and matters of the court place her in dire jeopardy and something happens to the fair Juliana. In the immediate aftermath, Juliana must make some difficult decisions that will change the course of her life. This particular event highlights with a brutal clarity the inequities between men and women in 16th century England. I should say no more on this though so as not to have to place a spoiler alert on my review.
Throughout the story, Juliana’s faith does not but momentarily waver as she is faced with choices that dramatically illustrate a strength and quiet dignity befitting one who serves a queen, remembering always that God has a plan and a purpose for her. Even when she finds out a secret of her own lineage, one that would shake most of us to our very core, Juliana remains strong! There are morality lessons to be learned here, for both the spiritual-minded and the secular person.
The Secret Keeper is replete with the customs and manners of Tudor England and has a well-balanced religious tone… authentic to the period. I particularly enjoyed the scriptural ‘lessons’, if you will, throughout the book and found personal comfort in some of the passages quoted.
All of this makes for a vibrant, compelling read.
One thing that really set this story apart more than anything else, I believe, is that it is told from the point of view of one of her ladies-in-waiting instead of from Kateryn herself. I think that adds a clarity and objectivity that telling it from Kate’s perspective would have been lacking. We are privy to Juliana’s innermost thoughts and insight, following her on an often perilous journey.
The Secret Keeper is a splendidly detailed and thought-provoking novel… rich in history and humanity… and told with an enthusiasm and compassion for her characters that reveals the author’s passion for the period. While it is a work of fiction – something I had to remind myself of more than once – it is also a ‘gutsy’ work. I daresay there are some who might not entirely agree with certain aspects of the story. Sorry… I can’t say more without revealing too much. I agree with the conclusions Sandra reached in her research… and am most appreciative at how those were evolved in the story. I daresay Sandra just may have solved an historical mystery of some magnitude… and done it with a thorough logic and understanding of that period of history. In a moment of fancy, one might wonder if she had perfected time travel and ventured back to one of the more fascinating periods in English history.
The Secret Keeper is a ‘must-read’ for all… not just for fans of historical fiction. I recommend this book without reservation.
I will close with this. The ending may not be what some expected, but it is well worth the journey to get there.
The Secret Keeper is a powerful, life-affirming story and proof that even after having written more than thirty books, Sandra Byrd is still master of her craft.
Veronica Marie Lewis-Shaw
27 May 2012
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