Juliana St. John worries that she is a witch. Her own mother, after all, has proclaimed her as such after a terrible, vivid dream comes true. But when Juliana confesses her experience to a kindly priest, he explains that she is not, in fact, a witch, but that she has been blessed with the gift of prophecy. Shortly thereafter, Sir Thomas Seymour arrives in Marlborough and offers Juliana a position in the household of the woman he loves, Lady Kateryn Parr.
Juliana is quite happy to accept the honor, but fears her secret will be discovered. Her prophetic nightmares, however, are only one of the dangers that she will face by associating with Kateryn Parr. And Sir Thomas isn't the only man who has his eye on Kate — the king does, as well. And King Henry always gets what he wants.
The court of King Henry VIII is a perilous place for one such as Juliana. Rarely in favor of women, the definition of allowable religious practice is constantly changing under his rule — and by his whim. And no one, not even the beautiful and pious Kateryn Parr, is without enemies in his court.
In Kate, Juliana finds a friend with whom she experiences the longed-for mother/daughter relationship she never knew with her own critical mother. But that isn't the only form of love she discovers within King Henry's court. It is there that she meets Jamie Hart, a handsome Irish gentleman determined to win his knighthood.
Jamie is a lovely distraction (for more information, see my My Book Boyfriend post about him!), but when Juliana begins to recognize faces at court that match those in her dreams a sense of urgent fear propels her into danger. Entrusted with information that could ruin — or rescue — that which is most precious to Kateryn Parr, Juliana must decide who is worthy of her trust — and if she will allow one final secret to upend the future she had planned.
HITS & MISSES
The Secret Keeper emulates the fast-paced tension of a great romantic suspense novel but relies entirely upon court intrigue to accomplish that pulse-pounding feat. Anchored by the proper but down-to-earth voice of Juliana St. John, the reader remains lip-bitingly engaged in the story and its characters even through the most mundane activities in which they take part.
Juliana is lovely as a first-person narrator. As a lady-in-waiting to Kateryn Parr, Juliana is privy to some of the most delicate and deadly secrets of court, yet it is her own secrets — the prophetic dreams and visions she has — that most frighten her. As Juliana's inner strength develops, the reader quickly becomes invested in her well-being — and in the romantic HEA Juliana doesn't believe possible after an enemy attacks.
With so many villains to choose from at court, Irish-born gentleman Jamie Hart is an entirely refreshing hero with just enough bad-boy charm to make him irresistible. Although we, along with Juliana, are given cause to doubt his sincerity from time to time, Jamie is, in every sense of the phrase, a true romantic hero.
Fans of To Die For: A Novel of Anne Boleyn will appreciate the brief cameo appearance by that book's protagonist. Like its predecessor, The Secret Keeper illumines roles the royals played in the ebb and flow of the English Reformation Movement, but does so in such a suspenseful, romantic fashion that the reader is every bit as entertained as she is educated.
One of the most interesting ways the author marked the passage of time between To Die For and The Secret Keeper, however, was King Henry himself. Here again Sandra Byrd's skill as an author shines, leaving no doubt in readers' minds as to the power of the king's personal magnetism even as his midsection expands and his leg wound (ew) oozes. But even while aging somewhat ungracefully he is charming — and every bit as mercurial and dangerous in this novel as he was in the last.
I looked for a miss in this book — honest! — but I couldn't find one. And I'd be willing to wager that, come December, The Secret Keeper will find a firm ranking on many bloggers' Best Books of 2012 lists — including mine. The Secret Keeper is simply superb. It grabbed me from the start and never let go.
TO READ... OR NOT?
Even readers who shy away from the well-researched historical will get wrapped up in the Tudor trickery and lovely romance within this story. Byrd's tightly woven plot is laced with ever-splicing threads of intrigue that all but tie the book to your hands. Read it!
(This review originally appeared at USA Today's romance fiction blog, Happy Ever After)