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QUEEN'S RANSOM
By Fiona Buckley Scribner, Hardcover, 288 pages (January, 2000) $23.00

Reviewed by J. Ashley (10/99)

This is the third of the Ursula Blanchard books by Fiona Buckley. The first is TO SHIELD A QUEEN; the second, THE DOUBLET AFFAIR.

Ursula Blanchard, sometime spy for Sir William Cecil, Elizabeth I's chief minister, longs for a holiday from her dangerous duties. She decides to accompany her dead husband's father to France, where he will collect his niece and return with her to England. The journey will also take Ursula near the house of her estranged husband, Matthew de la Roche, though Ursula tells herself that this is not what prompted her decision.

The mundane journey turns dangerous before it even begins. In France, strife between Catholics and Hugenots has increased and Elizabeth worries that France's unrest will hurt England. She gives Ursula a letter to present to Catherine de Medici of France on her behalf, which offers English aid if necessary. Ursula is unwilling to involve herself again in political affairs, but has no choice but to agree.

Once the party reaches France, the danger increases. The Catholic populace is hostile to the party. Ursula's father-in-law falls mysteriously ill and cannot be moved for days. An inn is burned down around Ursula, and the Blanchard party is joined by a strange merchant- adventurer who is running from assassins called the Levantine Lions. Ursula meets and spends the night with her husband, Matthew, and her heart becomes tangled between her love and her loyalty to Elizabeth and England.

Worst of all, Ursula's beloved maid, Dale, is arrested as a heretic, and only Ursula's knowledge of a secret her first husband died with can save her.

I found this book a more lively and interesting read than the previous book, THE DOUBLET AFFAIR. The journey through France and into the Netherlands moves at a fast pace and sometimes takes on the feel of an adventure story. Ursula's personal conflict is moving; her husband is a devout Catholic, and Ursula is torn between her love for him and her fear of Catholic rule in England. In the end, she must make a choice, and as the book closes, neither Ursula nor the reader is certain she's chosen correctly.

Buckley draws both Ursula and the secondary characters in three dimensions. The plot is tightly woven (though predictable in places). My only criticism: sometimes Ursula will repeat, ad nauseam, things the reader already knows, and characters have a tendency to launch into speeches at the height of danger.

But other than these minor points, QUEEN'S RANSOM is satisfying and thought-provoking. Buckley well demonstrates the political and emotional tension between Protestant England and the Catholic states in the early 1560s. I am definitely looking forward to the next volume in the series.


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