Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Valcourt Heiress by Catherine Coulter — 368 pages

Book CoverWhen the father of Merry the Valcourt Heiress dies unexpectedly, her long-absent mother returns to sell her and her fortune to the unpleasant and malicious Jason of Brennan, a fact which Merry finds repugnant. Running away from both Jason and her mother, Merry, dressed as a stable boy, is kidnapped mid-flight by a vicious man and his band of thieves. After she's rescued by a mysterious nobleman, she again runs away, only this time she decides to hide in the nobleman's retinue and take her chances on a new life. As it turns out, this nobleman is none other than Garron of Kersey, the new earl of Warham Castle. Garron is returning to Warham to take control of the castle and its people after his brother's murder. But when Garron arrives, he discovers the castle largely abandoned and the few survivors tell the tale of the invasion and slaughter of Warham and its people by a man known only as the Black Demon. When Merry comes to understand what's happened at Wareham, she begs the remaining residents to keep her identity secret and sets about repairing the damage wrought at Warham, helping Garron restore order in his lands. Merry is a playful and headstrong young girl who is unschooled in the ways of love, and as Garron's interest in her begins to rise, he questions where this girl has some from and what she is doing ruling the kingdom beside him. But Merry and Garron's new found peace and happiness aren't without obstacles. The faceless Black Demon is still unidentified and on the loose, and Merry's mother, rumored to be a powerful witch, is still ruthlessly searching the countryside for her daughter. The Valcourt Heiress is a delectable romp where historical fiction shares the spotlight with fantasy, melding together to form a tale of both high adventure and taut intrigue.

Once again, I made the mistake of judging a book by its cover. It happens all too frequently that I dismiss a book out of hand because the cover doesn't fit my parameters of what I think I should be reading. And looking at this cover, I expected it to be a bodice-ripping romance that would hold little interest for me. After reading the book, I have two points to make. The first is that I need to be a little more open-minded and less judgemental about the types of books I read, and the second (and I feel more important) is that publishers really need to work on more successfully matching the covers of their books to the material inside. This book has nothing even remotely to do with the design on the cover. There is never even a scene in the book like the one depicted on the cover. Publishers, stop doing this to us! You lose readers this way! Okay, I'll stop with the ranting and get on to the reviewing.

I hadn't been expecting it but this book was a lot of fun to read! Coulter has a way of interspersing her action sequences among the more mild and introspective scenes that I really enjoyed. This tactic made the writing feel very smooth and had the effect of making the books feel very pleasingly layered. A lot of the character creation was done in a progressive way as well, so it felt that as I was reading, I was coming to know more and more about the people who populated the book. Instead of having everything thrown at me all at once, I gradually got to feel more and more comfortable with the characters and all their habits and nuances. I especially liked the budding relationship between Merry and Garron and felt that it also evolved in a pleasing and unique way. It's not often I read books that heavily feature romance, but I kind of felt that the romance between these two characters was almost slipped in casually, and instead of being the prime focus of the book, it came off as a satisfying undercurrent.

One of the things I really liked was the continuing intrigue the Black Demon provided. Coulter had a way of reaching back and pulling this storyline off the back burner several times and bringing it into sharp relief throughout the tale, giving the book more than a hint of mystery and suspense. I also enjoyed that the book had some magical and fantastical elements to it as well, and really, although this wasn't a straight fantasy or mystery novel, it incorporated a lot of diverse elements into the story, making it a bit difficult to house under a a specific genre. It was all very finely wrought and in a way it took the best parts of each genre and formed a thrilling and inviting whole. I confess to being very engrossed with the rebuilding of the castle as well, and the logistics of making soap and fashioning furniture were very appealing to me. Maybe this is because I tend to be enamored of the day-to-day practicalities of this time period, but whatever it was, it kept me entertained.

Another thing I liked was that the pacing of the story was so solid and tight. There weren't a lot of needless sections that dawdled on the scenery and weather and things like that. I confess I often find those things boring and sometimes skim over them. When I'm reading, I like meat and grist, and needless pontification about the scenery just ends up bugging me. Some would say those types of things set the mood and tone of the book but I find them to be a little exasperating at times. This book wasn't bogged down with those kids of details and I really liked that. It was straightforward and honest storytelling, and there was more than enough action and specifics to fill the pages without resorting to what the trees outside looked like. It was great to see that Coulter excelled so beautifully with her intended tale, and though I didn't think I would be, I was very impressed with it all.

I suspect this book will be the first in a series, and for that I'm grateful. I found it to be a delightful way to start off the new year, and much to my surprise, I ended up really liking this book a lot. It was an entertaining escapist read and the characters, setting and plot line kept me avidly turning the pages. This is another instance when I would advise you to ignore the cover and just dig in. It's a book that's great fun and I ended up enjoying it a lot! Recommended!

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.


TheBookGirl said...

I have to confess to being surprised at seeing this cover when I clicked on your blog this morning, and even more surprised to see that you liked it, lol.
Your point is well taken about the disservice done to readers if the cover doesn't approximate the work within, as I surely would have skipped right over this one.

I'm curious as to what made you pick it up?

Zibilee said...

I actually was approached by a publicist about this book, and I wasn't sure based on the cover. I went ahead and read it because the synopsis made it sound like something that I might enjoy. It actually was a pretty good read, and had I relied on the cover alone, I definitely would have passed this one up!

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I too would have rejected it based on the cover. That whole cover thing is infuriating!!!!!!

Sandy Nawrot said...

When I opened this post, I said in my head "Oh Heather! You read this stuff? Really?". So I'm right there with ya. Where, in Jill's recent situation, it might draw someone to the book, in this case, would make all of us run the other way. I mean, that is really fortunate that it turned out to be a good book, but I'd have never gone there!

bermudaonion said...

Your the second person to post about misleading covers this week! Publishers should realize that it's best to get their books in the right hands. I'm not sure this book is for me since you describe it as a blend of historical fiction and fantasy. I'm struggling with a work of historical fiction right now, so I'm suspecting it's not the genre for me.

Suko said...

Zibilee, you make some good points about the effects of book covers. Excellent review, as usual. I do enjoy historical fiction, and this book sounds like something I'd enjoy reading.

Jenners said...

I think I would have made the same assumptions that you did based on the cover. In fact, I probably wouldn't have even picked it up or considered it. It is disservice to authors and readers when a cover seems to make a book appear like something it isn't. Good for you for keeping an open mind!

Aarti said...

I often judge books by their covers. I also (and this is so bad) judge by author names. For some reason, "Catherine Coulter" sounds very bodice ripper to me. Maybe because of the Double C? I don't know! It's horrible.

Darlene said...

I didn't want to read your review too closely as I have this one on my shelf and have been wanting to get to it. I thought though too that it might be a bit of a bodice ripper - lol. Glad to hear it's got a lot more than that. I'm looking forward to it.

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