Dark Angels by Karleen Koen
(Crown, $25.95, PG-13) ISBN 0-307-33991-2
Dark Angels is a prequel to Karleen Koen’s Through a Glass Darkly, which was a bestseller back in 1986. Dark Angels takes us back to the Restoration court of Charles II, as viewed through the eyes of a young courtier, Alice Verney, who was an elderly duchess in the previous book. Alice is a maid-of-honor to Charles’s sister, Princess Henriette, who is unhappily married to her cousin, the younger brother of the King of France. When the story opens, Henriette and her court have returned to England for a visit. Alice is delighted to be back on her native soil, and she is determined to marry the much older, but extremely wealthy, Duke of Balmoral – a move that will give her money, power, and position. While she loves Henriette, Alice would like nothing more than to return to the English court as a maid-of-honor to Portugese-born Queen Catherine, whom she respects and loves as well. Henriette, however, must return to France, and Alice goes with her.

When the princess dies suddenly, Alice suspects she was poisoned by the darkly menacing French courtier Henri Ange on the orders of Henriette’s husband. Hence the “Dark Angels” of the title. She fears his next target will be Queen Catherine. The English court is awash in political machinations and intrigue, and there are few people Alice can trust. One seems to be the powerful Balmoral; another is Richard Saylor, captain of the Queen’s Guard. Richard, lovestruck over a French beauty who will break his heart by becoming Charles’s mistress, forms a tentative friendship with Alice.

Ms. Koen presents the English court as a snakepit populated by courtiers and nobles with multiple agendas. It’s much to her credit that the reader can follow the storyline, because the first few chapters introduce dozens of characters. There are few traditional heroes; even Alice isn’t above scheming to get what she wants, and her youthful self-absorption and occasional vindictiveness bring some tragic consequences. Much of the story is based on true events, and the author doesn’t try to sugarcoat anything. Poisonings, homosexual activity, illegitimate children, and various forms of debauchery are presented as commonplace, and kings are certainly not exempt.

Alice’s imperiousness and certainty that she knows what is best make her a tolerable character at best, and an annoying one at worst. Basically she’s a cocksure girl barely out of her teens, and her youth and inexperience bring about some changes in her character, but she’s not terribly interesting. Richard Saylor exists mainly as a backdrop and as a love interest. Though the story revolves around Alice, King Charles II is really the focus of the book, as he tries to hang onto his precarious position. Readers get a glimpse into the man behind the crown, and the notorious Merry Monarch was all too aware of his failings, and how easily he could lose it all. Even a king has few people he can trust. Ms. Koen’s attention to historical detail brings this part of the novel to life.

Some attention is given to Queen Catherine, as well. She is presented as a woman whom Charles loves and respects, but her barrenness may well force him to divorce her. As for his mistresses, they are simply pretty diversions. Nell Gwynne, the most famous of all, shows up for a few scenes, but it’s Renee de Keroualle, Richard’s love interest (and Louise de Keroualle in real life) who occupies more page space.

While Dark Angels lacks a riveting romance, it’s well worth a read for the vivid glimpse reader will get into a fascinating point in history. Karleen Koen shows she’s a master at bringing the past to life.

--Cathy Sova

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