Masque of the Black Tulip, by Lauren Willig

Having just talked about how much I like those “Adventures in Research” novels (below) I figured I’d definitely like Lauren Willig’s novel about a history grad student chasing down information about French and English spies in the era of the Napoleonic Wars. The story alternates between the grad student and the historical characters she’s researching.

I didn’t realize till after I had this home that it’s a sequel to Willig’s earlier novel, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, but I didn’t find it hard to pick up the threads. It’s a light, easy read, kind of Adventures-in-Research-meets-chicklit. I was 3/4 of the way through before I realized that the sticker on the spine of the book said “Romance.” I hadn’t realized this was marketed as a romance novel; the fact that it was, means that I had taken Brenda Coulter’s read-a-romance-novel challenge without knowing I was doing it!

Actually, once I knew it was a romance novel (and a much smarter novel than I usually think of romances as being) some of the things that had bothered me about the novel began to bother me less. There’s a definite fluffiness to Willig’s tone and a lack of depth to the characterization which makes more sense in genre fiction than in something intended for the so-called literary end of the bookstore. (Why this should be so is, of course, a whole other topic). The fluffiness bothered me more in the historical sections of the story (which take up the bulk of pages in this novel). While the details of the Regency setting were all there, something about the characters’ tone and attitude seemed oddly modern — like 20th-century chicklit transported to a Regency English drawing room. I’m not saying that if you write about that era you have to imitate the style of Jane Austen, but the reader should believe that your characters are actually living in that era and thinking as people of that era do, and I wasn’t convinced of that with Willig’s historical characters. That being said, while some of the unintentional anachronisms are annoying, there are also a few obviously intentional anachronisms which I found hilarious.

Anyway, it appears I’m willing to cut a book much more slack after I see a few hearts on the spine sticker, because once I started thinking of it as a smart historical romance novel, I was able to stop criticizing and enjoy The Masque of the Black Tulip for the light, amusing romp it is. I would definitely read both the book that came before and the planned next book in the series — The Deception of the Emerald Ring — even if it means being seen in the romance section of the library!

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