Mistress of Mourning

Written by Karen Harper
Review by Kathryn Johnson

It’s a daunting challenge: how to create a historical novel that accurately depicts a distant era without letting facts and details overwhelm the story or dehumanize the characters? It’s a balancing act, which few authors seem to perfectly achieve. Karen Harper’s new novel, Mistress of Mourning, does a consummate job of seamlessly delivering the reader into the Tudor world while weaving a gripping story of intrigue and treachery.

Varina Westcott is a 26-year-old widow with a young son, in 1501. She has inherited her father’s talent for candle-making, but even more valuable is her ability to carve lifelike figures from wax. Although she has a head for business, she must fight the control of both the wax chandlers’ guild and her would-be suitor, who order her to stop carving her sought-after angel figurines until the guild can determine the appropriate pricing and distribution of her products. Varina’s destiny seems fixed in a male-dominated world where she has no power of her own, until she’s summoned by Queen Elizabeth of York, wife of Henry VII, to create wax images of the queen’s two children, and her two brothers — who may or may not have been murdered.

Once the queen has learned to trust the young artisan, she further enlists Varina to carry out a clandestine investigation into the death of her eldest child, Prince Arthur. Accompanied by handsome Nicholas Sutton, royal aide, Varina ventures into the Welsh wilderness in search of the truth, despite her fears for her own life and the safety of her young son. The story is told through a dual perspective, in first person, alternating between the experiences of Varina and those of Queen Elizabeth of York. Well-paced, peopled with sympathetic and endearing characters, this is a lush and captivating novel not to be missed.