Sat
Feb 1 2014 11:30pm

Fresh Meat: Mistress of Fortune by Holly West

Mistress of Fortunes by Holly WestMistress of Fortune by Holly West is a debut mystery set in late-seventeenth century London featuring amateur sleuth, sometimes-mistress, and secret fortune teller Lady Isabel Wilde (available February 3, 2014).

Personally, I’ve never been a big fan of historical fiction. Years ago, to me, the genre was bloated by excess period details an author couldn’t seem to let go unshared and that left me turned off.

West hasn’t done that. She’s assembled a well-plotted story with enough setting and description to fully engulf the reader without reading like a textbook. In fact, she so well captures the era, you can almost smell the prisoners when she visits the gaol.

I knew from my incarceration at Marshalsea Prison that the gaoler’s wife had nearly as much authority as he did himself so I said, “I’ll speak to her.”...

She led us into the prison through a narrow hallway, and every step brought back memories of a terrible time in my life. The smells, which were bad enough outside, were now unbearable and I nearly retched, both from the stench and from the memories the surroundings prompted. Even worse was the noise; shrieks, shouts, groans, wailing—even barking dogs—seemed to reverberate from every corner. I wanted to cover my ears and run.

Mrs. Richardson stopped in front of a cell at the end of a dark corridor. Perhaps fifteen shackled prisoners, both men and women, crowded the small cell. There was no furniture, not even a bench, and most of the prisoners sat or lay on the floor. I had a sudden vision of myself lying on that hard stone surface, shivering with cold, the skin around my ankles worn raw by the unforgiving rub of the rigid iron manacles. I closed my eyes tight to shut out the memory.

Mistress of Fortune, like Isabel, Lady Wilde herself (who secretly caters to the elite as fortune-teller Mistress Ruby), is both exceedingly polite and terribly brutal.

For all her lovely silken gowns, Lady Wilde is pragmatic and resourceful, a woman who has survived espionage, gaol, an abusive husband, and living for thirty-plus years in seventeenth century England—alone no easy feat.

When I told Sam what’d I’d discovered about Pembroke, he frowned. “I’ve had the misfortune of meeting him,” he said. “You don’t want to tangle with him.”

I was indeed hesitant to confront a violent man like Pembroke, especially since, if he followed through on his threat to Sir Edmund, he might’ve been the one who attacked me the night before. I still didn’t know if there was a connection between my missing diary and Sir Edmund’s disappearance, but I felt I had no choice but to pursue every possibility.

Sam remained unconvinced when I told him my plan. “How the devil are you going to get him talking about Sir Edmund Godfrey? He might be dull-witted, but he’s not stupid enough to confess to a stranger.”

In truth, I didn’t know how I’d manage it, but I had to try.

I painted my face in the vulgar manner of a prostitute, only stopping when my lips and cheeks were as red as summer strawberries and my skin covered with white ceruse. I covered my red curls with a pale blonde wig and chose a well-worn dress cut so low, I risked exposing my bosom if I dared take too deep a breath. I emerged from my bedchamber to find Sam, disguised as a laborer, waiting in the drawing room.

He let out a low whistle. “It can’t be said you don’t make a damned fetching whore.”

For all the romanticism attributed to the era on film, keep in mind, it was a time of chamber pots and plagues and debtors’ prisons and public hangings. No showers. No wastewater treatment plants (but, also no fracking, so at least the water wasn’t flammable). No modern medicine. No food safety. No condoms. (What? You thought they were chaste? Come on, now. “Mistress” is part of the title. It’s not a euphemism. Isabel totally gets it on with King Charles II.)

The first time I laid eyes on Charles Stuart, I was fourteen years old. He’d been restored to the throne the year before, after spending eleven years in exile following his father’s execution. My family was not of noble blood, but after my father died, my then sixteen-year-old brother Adam used our small inheritance to bring Lucian and I to London. Determined we would not starve, he became apprentice to Sir Richard Winser, a goldsmith commissioned to craft several of the new regalia for Charles’s upcoming coronation at Westminster Abbey. Sir Richard entrusted Adam with the task of helping to deliver the jewels to Whitehall. Eager to catch a glimpses of our new king, I begged Adam to let me accompany him. He agreed so long as I kept my mouth shut and did not cause trouble.

I confess to some disenchantment upon first seeing Charles. Accustomed to the fair Kentish lads of my childhood, his darkness was unappealing. But this did not cut both ways and Charles examined me with the same attention to detail he gave his new regalia. When he dared to brush one of the auburn-colored tendrils from my face with a familiarity that made me blush, his boldness prompted a tart remark but I held my tongue.

... He gave me the seductive smile I would come to know well, and as simply as that I was smitten.

To my disappointment, the king seemed oblivious to my devotion to him. He was kind on the few occasions we met but regarded me as one would an adorable child. It wasn’t until I turned sixteen that I received my first royal summons, and I realized Charles had not been oblivious—he’d only been biding his time.

What? You thought I’d give you the sexy bits? Nah, you need to fire up your favorite e-reader and order Holly West’s book for that. Besides, it’s the best way to find out what happens to Sir Edmund, a fortune telling client involved in a plot to kill the king, and Mistress Ruby’s diary, stolen with details of his confession.

See more new releases at our Fresh Meat feature page.

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Neliza Drew is a tofu-eating teacher and erratic reader with a soft spot for crime fiction. She lives in the heat and humidity of southern Florida with three cats and her adorable hubby. She listens to way too much music, writes often, and spends too much time on Twitter (@nelizadrew).

Read all posts by Neliza Drew on Criminal Element.

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1 comment
Dorothy Hayes
1. DorothyHayes
I love historical fiction and Mistress of Fortune sounds like a good one, with a clever protagonist and written by a savvy writer. Thanks for the review.
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