Review: Mistress of Mourning by Karen Harper

by Karen Harper  

Publication Date: July 3, 2012 
NAL Trade

Reviewed By:  Audra Friend

The cover: Nice enough -- two women, full length, with their whole heads?! amazing! -- but doesn’t capture the story, I think. While our heroine is a blond, I don’t think either woman resembles her, and I’d rather have had some candlemaking imagery.  

The heroine: Actually, kind of amazing. While I am a leeeeetle dubious of her name -- Varina (is that historically accurate?) -- I loved her. More on that in the review.  

The villain(s): Deliciously evil, perhaps a bit predictable, but satisfyingly bad.  

The history: Early 1500s, the Tudors-who-made-the-Tudors.  

One sentence sell: Fun, beachy, race-through-this-in-a-weekend readable  

Review: What I thought would be a traditional English royal historical novel, Mistress of Mourning is actually a melancholy, romantic, and unique book that balances history, mystery, and love. 

Set squarely in the world of 16th century merchants, our heroine, Varina Westcott, is a young widow with a thriving candlemaking business. Mourning the loss of her infant son, Varina pours herself into making beautiful, lifelike angel candles, sold illicitly as she isn’t a member of the city’s powerful candlemaking guild. Pursued by a predatory suitor interested in her business -- and her body -- Varina tries to balance survival with independence. When she is engaged for a mysterious commission from the palace, she accepts eagerly, unaware of the reverberating impact this decision will have on her life and loved ones. 

Her client is none other than Queen Elizabeth of York, the wife of Henry VII. Grieving still the loss of her brothers -- the infamous princes in the Tower -- as well as her two infant children, Elizabeth and Varina find in each other kindred spirits. But Varina’s seemingly simple commission -- to design wax effigies -- transforms into a more challenging job when Varina is asked to investigate the sudden and mysterious death of Prince Arthur. 

The novel unfolds in alternating first person account from both Varina and Elizabeth, and it worked. The common bond of loss shared by the two women added a depth to their stories that I enjoyed; the insider/outsider viewpoint of the unfolding story was also enjoyable. 

The story’s change from a historical romance to a mystery thriller was surprising, but the buildup to the transition -- and the transition itself -- is such that the shift felt right, not jarring. By the end of the novel, I told my wife I wouldn’t cry if there was a mystery series featuring our girl Varina. (She fights crime, Tudor-style!

Harper’s achievement with this book is that Varina worked for me as a heroine, even when she came dangerously close to that aggravating wilful-feisty caricature. Even though she wore men’s clothes at times (wasn’t that a huge no-no?), Varina’s responses to the danger, chaos, and close calls in her life felt real and realistic. She waited out tense situations rather than doing something stupid, for example, and I found her admirable and likeable. (Yes, I totally want her to be my bestie.) There’s a very strong romantic thread in the novel -- Varina is partnered with the hot Nicholas Sutton, a gopher of sorts trying to make up for his family’s support of the Yorks -- and while predictable, I also enjoyed it. I wanted Varina to get some happiness in life. The inevitable lovers conflict bored me -- you could see it coming a mile away -- and it felt unnecessary. I suppose the story required some challenge to our lovers (beyond physical endangerment), but mostly, it made me wish people would just use their big kid words. (‘When you say x, it makes me feel y’, etc.) 

As to the historical accuracy of this story, I can’t say. Readers familiar with Henry VII’s reign as well as the mystery of the murdered princes in the Tower might be frustrated by Harper’s conspiracy and suppositions, but as I have no emotional attachment to this era -- nor much expertise -- I greatly enjoyed the balanced mix of history, romance, and intrigue. Harper’s historical details are light but well-placed: some discussion of clothing or appearance, no notice of hygiene, but wonderfully rich hints about candlemaking and chandlers. That angle -- the candlemakers of the era -- was the best part of this novel. What a fascinating hook! 

In the end, this is a lighter kind of historical fiction that doesn't feel insultingly fluffy; the obvious romance is welcome and provides a lovely counterpoint to the darkly tangled conspiracy they're battling. For Tudor fans, this should provide a nice fix; for those over the Tudors, the unique angle through which the story is offered is refreshing enough I'd urge you to give it a try! (Says one who has had it up to her nose with Henry VII and company!).


  1. Great review, Audra. It was certainly well thought out and thorough. This does sound like a great novel. Grief does tend to bring people together and I'm sure that "rank" has nothing to do with empathy. I was really intrigued by the candle making and while wax effigies sound a bit creepy, I can't help but admit that it makes me want to read this novel even more.

  2. @Connie: Thank you! That was me even reining myself in, too! ;)

    I really loved how real Varina and Elizabeth's relationship felt -- the class divide felt realistically breached, if that makes sense -- and it resonated with me as a reader.

    The funereal aspect to this novel were fascinating -- I had no idea candle-making was so complicated and interesting!

  3. Great review, Audra! I really liked it too so am glad to hear you did as well! I have read a few of Karen Harper's historical fiction and she never disappoints (at least from th books I have read :)).

  4. Exceleltn review and sounds like a good one to get back into the Tudors with. I had gotten quite tired of the Tudors for a while. Now it's time to revisit.

  5. This sounds fantastic. I just finished a book about the Cousins War and I'm really into that right now. I will have to check this one out.


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