In the midst of his tennis game with Sir Brandon Cavendish, King Henry VIII
announces that Brandon's father, the Earl of Thornbury has begged the king
to arrange a marriage for his son and heir. Henry, much concerned with the
legality of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, is more than happy to
settle the matrimony of one of his gentleman. To that end, he has decided
Brandon will marry the wealthy, twice-widowed Katherine Fitzhugh. Despite
his annoyance and reluctance, Brandon realizes he has no choice but to obey
the king's command. Will he, nill he, he is to be a bridegroom.
When the King's messenger arrives to announce the plans for her third
marriage, Katherine is horrified. After two unhappy marriages – one in which
she was no more than a nursemaid, another in which she endured physical
abuse – Katherine has no desire to ever marry again. She is more than happy
managing her own estate and wealth without the interference of any man,
content in the company of her beloved cousin, Miranda. However, she is wise
enough to know she cannot flout the king. Will she, nill she, she is to be
Brandon's unwillingness to marry Katherine is only deepened when Katherine's
nephew, Sir Fenton Scantling, warns him that Lady Katherine is as old and
wizened a crone as any in England. Brandon decides to visit his soon-to-be
wife, only he will not go as himself. He convinces his best friend, Jack
Stafford, to trade places with him. Jack will go as the putative
bridegroom, while Brandon himself will journey as the bridegroom's friend.
This way he will be able to see Lady Katherine for himself, without her
being the wiser.
Katherine's disgust at being coerced into marriage intensifies when a letter
from her nephew Fenton warns her that Brandon Cavendish is as depraved a
stripling as has ever cut a swathe through the ladies of the court. Though
barely bearded, he has bedded nearly every woman he has met and spent whole
fortunes in games of chance. When Katherine receives word that the boy
bridegroom means to visit her, she convinces her cousin Miranda to act the
part of lady of the manor. Disguised as Miranda, Katherine will be able to
determine the worth of Sir Brandon without revealing herself.
Katherine is not a crone. Sir Brandon is not a beardless boy. No one is
who he or she seems to be, setting in motion a comedy of identity that leads
to "He knows that I know that he knows." How will Brandon marry Katherine
when it is her cousin he wants? How could anyone want Brandon when his
friend outshines him in every way? How will this end?
Midsummer's Knight began as a light and lively near-farce, its dialogue
sparkling with the pun-rich language of the 16th century. The shifts that
Brandon and Katherine are forced into in order to sustain their deceptions
added to the tension and the fun. I read the first half of this book with
an amused smile on my face, delight curling my toes in my shoes. To create
a flavor of Tudor England mainly through the use of dialogue is no mean feat
and one that Tori Phillips should be proud of.
Somewhere around the middle, however, the book started to lose me. The
conflicts turned ordinary, misunderstandings coming between one couple or
another. Brandon and Katherine discover the truth about one another, but
decide to hold their tongues to let the burgeoning romance between Jack and
Miranda continue to bloom. An accident makes Jack and Miranda too
embarrassed to face one another. Katherine falls victim to "I'll believe
the worst interpretation of the conversation I overheard, despite experience
that contradicts that interpretation," syndrome and spends too much time
feeling sorry for herself. Since she had shown herself to be resilient and
creative in overcoming obstacles thrown in her path, her willingness to mope
seemed uncharacteristic. Offsetting this was Brandon's determination to win
his ladylove in the face of danger and opposition.
Given the charm and originality of the beginning of this novel, I was
disappointed by the mundane middle and end. Another reader might find the
entire experience delightful.