Helena is originally from Sweden (where her name is Elin) and comes to England with the Princess Cecelia. She catches the eye of the aging Marques of Northampton, William Parr (Queen Kathryn Parr’s brother) and she decides to stay in order to marry him. But first his somewhat complicated marital situation has to be sorted out and while she waits, the queen kindly gives her a position at court. With a gift for herbal remedies and creating perfumes, pomanders and the like, Helena becomes one of the queen’s favorite and the two form a close friendship. When Helena and William are finally able to marry, she becomes the leading lady of the country after the queen. But unexpected events soon bring change and Helena learns that the price of her position may ultimately be her own happiness.
I’ve read the other two books in the series and liked them well enough but I didn’t care for this one. Although Helena’s life has some interesting pieces, it wasn’t enough to carry the book and the use of first person narration by Helena brings its usual problems. There is a lot of telling and frankly, I found it boring.
There are some good moments though – for instance, Elizabeth and Helena talking about their mothers and Elizabeth talking about why she can never marry Robert Dudley nor have children of her own. These are poignant and emotional, allowing a glimpse of the human being inside the hard exterior Elizabeth presents to the court. The politics and intrigues of the day are interwoven with Helena’s frequent trips home to have children and repeatedly dealing with her second husband’s insecurities and resentments over her position. It's too bad there weren't more of the former (quality scenes with Elizabeth) and less of the latter (Helena's tedious home life).
I thought it interesting that for someone who was supposedly so prominent and court and close to Elizabeth that she doesn't pop up more often in books set during the era. I've read several and don't think I've ever heard of her before, but maybe it's ultimately due the fact that she really doesn't do anything or have much of a story to tell but I give Byrd credit for making her more well known. One other thing struck me as rather odd: the lack of religion. The previous books in the series had a fairly heavy emphasis on the importance of religion in people's daily lives (without coming off as preachy). Since this is something that is missing from most historical fiction, I appreciated Byrd's effort to depict the role of religion more realistically. In this instance however, the references are token at best and I somehow felt like maybe the author had lost her nerve.
In case the FTC asks: review copy from publisher