Fiction: “The Masque of the Black Tulip” by Lauren Willig

Black TulipI grabbed this off of my bookshelf in the last week of December for two reasons. One, I wanted to read a book quickly in order to bump up the number of books I read in December, and therefore, the year (spoiler alert! I didn’t make it. By about forty pages). And two, I was looking for something cute and funny and romantic in nature, but I wanted to know that I’d get that from the book that I ended up choosing. And I say that because the last few “silly little romance novels” I started to read all turned sour rather quickly; either the plot became too ludicrous for words, or I just got bored with the characters.

I haven’t given up on them, mind you; they’re on my nightstand under a whole bunch of library books right now. I’ll get to them eventually. And when I do, we’ll all be in for an excellent rendition of The Rant Song; so we’ve got that to look forward to, which is nice.

I also didn’t realize it had been three years since I’d read The Secret History of the Pink Carnation; it feels like I just wrote about it a year ago. So, I decided that it was about time to get back into the series, even if it is only temporary.

In case you didn’t elect to click the link above to my review of Pink Carnation, let me give you a rundown: these books are framed novels, in that we begin and end each book from the perspective of Eloise Kelly, a graduate student who is studying the flower spies of the French Revolution for her thesis. She is helped in her quest for original sources by a descendant of the Purple Gentian, one of the flower spies (along with the Pink Carnation and the more widely-known Scarlet Pimpernel). The descendant is Colin Selwick, who starts off the series kind of surly and protective of his family’s history, but — as typically happens in rom-coms — eventually warms to Eloise. Although, as the modern portions of the stories are told from Eloise’s first-person perspective, we the reader aren’t entirely sure how Colin truly feels; and Eloise definitely voices her confusion as part of her narration.

The action of the story moves between Eloise’s search in present-day and the goings-on of the flower spies and their acquaintances back at the turn of the 19th century. Pink Carnation introduced us to the Purple Gentian, Richard Selwick, through the eyes of Amy Balcourt. Amy is a lovable imp who only wants to join forces with the Purple Gentian. She and Richard fall in love — almost against their better instincts — and they are so damn cute together it’s sickening in the best kind of way.

When I originally reviewed Pink Carnation, I alluded to the rest of the books in the series. In writing these books, instead of returning to the characters we (read: I) fell in love with in Carnation, she instead spins off the sequels to get other pairs together. And while The Masque of the Black Tulip is similar enough to Carnation that I can enjoy it on its own, constantly moving to other couples in the historical section is not enough to keep me reading the books one after another; I need to take breaks in-between. (Mostly.)

That paragraph is convoluted. Basically, the history section of Pink Carnation introduces who we think are going to be main characters in the series (Amy; Richard) and their assorted sidekicks (Miss Gwen, Amy’s governess; Jane, Amy’s best friend; Henrietta, Richard’s younger sister; Miles Dorrington, Richard’s best friend). But in The Masque of the Black Tulip, we focus on Henrietta and Miles and the development of their relationship and eventual marriage. They are also sickeningly cute in an excellent way, though also in a different way from Amy and Richard.

I’ll get back to Henrietta and Miles in a moment, but within the historical part of Black Tulip, we meet sidekicks to Henrietta and Miles: Geoffrey Pinchingdale-Snipe, best friend to Miles and cohort of Richard; the object of his affections, Mary Alsworthy; and Henrietta’s friends, Penelope and Charlotte. So at the end of Black Tulip, we want to see more of Richard and Amy and more of Henrietta and Miles. But in the next book, The Deception of the Emerald Ring, we are diverted yet again to focus on the developing relationship between Geoffrey and Mary’s younger sister, Letty (it’s a long story. Wait a couple of days, I’ll get into it later). So each book is like a spin-off of the one before, and I just want to get back to the original story! Because I know there are shenanigans at the School for Spies Richard and Amy started up after the Purple Gentian was de-masked! And I know there are tons of adorably bantery conversations we could watch enfold between Henrietta and Miles! Come on!

And yes, the entire series has a through-line of the courtship between Eloise and Colin, and that development is doled out in … well, very small portions. Just enough to keep us reading further to see what happens between them. And at one point in Black Tulip, their relationship is just about to go from “simmer” to “hot boil,” and then circumstances intervene and Eloise has to return to London, and that helps to propel us to read the next book, because we just want to know if those crazy kids get together in the end

It’s also possible that I’m being prematurely judgy. I’ve read through the fourth book out of a dozen, so it’s entirely possible that Amy and Richard (or Henrietta and Miles) return with substantial parts in later books. But based on my current perceptions, I’m disappointed in how the series progresses.

Not that that is going to keep me from reading the future titles in hopes of being proven wrong. And again, I’m talking about the series as a whole; The Masque of the Black Tulip is just as delightful as Pink Carnation, and while a lack of Richard and Amy is disappointing, Miles and Henrietta compensate wonderfully.

When Eloise isn’t trying to parse whether Colin’s flirting with her, she’s reading the journals and diaries of Henrietta Selwick, Richard’s younger sister. She has been kept in London during her Season while Richard, newlywed to Amy, has retired to the country to run a school for spies. Henrietta, as many younger sisters in literature do, just wants to tag along and do her part for the cause. Richard’s best friend, Miles Dorrington, has been tasked to stay behind and intercept missives from the War Office. Miles also stops by the Selwick household in town daily to keep an eye on Henrietta.

Miles’s mission is to determine who is acting as the mysterious Black Tulip: a French spy on British soil, ostensibly gathering secrets about the British effort against Napoleon. His prime suspect is Lord Vaughn, who is described as a witter version of Lucius Malfoy(*):

… the gentleman approaching was dressed in a combination of black and silver, like midnight shot with moonlight. His hair carried out the theme, a few silver strands frosting rather than disguising the original black. Henrietta wouldn’t have been surprised if he had silvered them intentionally, just to match his waistcoat ….

… Henrietta noticed the silver serpent that slithered along the body of [his] cane, its fanged head constituting the handle. It was an ebony cane, of course. Henrietta had no doubt that, as he drew closer, the silver squiggles on his waistcoat would also resolve themselves into the twining writhing bodies of snakes.

Silver serpents, for goodness’ sake! Henrietta bit her lip on an impertinent chuckle. That was taking trying to look wicked and mysterious just a little too far. [p. 54-55]

(*): Fun Fact!: I have been reading the Harry Potter books for fifteen years, and no matter what I do or how many times I say it to myself as I write, I can never not write Lucius Malfoy as “Lucious” Malfoy or “Lucien” Malfoy first. I guess, at least I don’t write it “Luscious Malfoy”?

Lord Vaughn takes a liking to Henrietta, which sets Miles’s radar off. He wants to protect her out of honor to her brother. Meanwhile, the Marquise de Montvale is getting rather cozy with Miles (to no avail), and that’s pinging Henrietta’s own radar. The more Henrietta and Miles attempt to protect each other from Lord Vaughn and the Marquise, respectively, the more they realize that they love each other. Of course, there are some obstacles to conquer before they get to their Happily Ever After, but get there they do.

Richard and Amy fell in love under what TV Tropes calls the “Loves My Alter Ego“: Amy meets the Purple Gentian and falls in love with the Gentian, whereas she hates Richard while his mask is off. Until she realizes that Richard is the Purple Gentian, that is. Then everything is hunky-dory and they get married almost immediately.

Miles and Henrietta, however, personify the “Friends to Lovers” trope. At least, that’s what call it; unfortunately, after a brief perusal of TVTropes.org (brief – hah! TVTropes is never brief!), apparently “Friends to Lovers” is too broad a category for this — in fact, “Friends to Lovers” doesn’t actually exist as a trope over there, which is shocking to me.

The closest example I can find is “Relationship Upgrade“: where two people who may have experienced unresolved sexual tension in the past decide to announce their love and become official as a couple. Henrietta and Miles have bantered with each other all their lives and felt protective of the other as near-siblings are wont to do, but never attributed their feelings to actual love; Lord Vaughn and the Black Tulip become the impetus for their relationship to be consummated.

I should note here that yes, The Deception of the Emerald Ring takes a third type of trope for its romantic plotline.

I realize that my review sounds rather negative of the series, once you put all the parts together. But I really do like the series – I can state “this happens in this book, and I wish XYZ would happen in future books” while still liking it. My wanting different or more things from something — in this instance, at least — doesn’t diminish my enjoyment of the something. This will be a much different discussion when I read the next Laurell K. Hamilton novel, but when it comes to this series, I’m still interested enough in a positive way to keep reading.

As we shall see.

Grade for The Masque of the Black Tulip: 4 stars

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