When Queen Victoria attends a rigged psychic séance, the spirit of her departed husband, Prince Albert, insists that, contrary to her habitual routine, she should spend Christmas at their Scottish home in Balmoral. It seems the old Vicky simply cannot say no to her husband, departed or not. The former Prime Minister Disraeli suspects he knows a reason of the whole request – the Scottish nationalists plan to assassinate the Queen on their home turf. Of course not having any proof he can’t even dream of stopping the Queen; instead he sends the ever resourceful India, disguised as a maid of an old Marchioness of Tullibardine, and the handsome British spy, French, to the Scottish highlands.
After the events of the previous novel, India Black has gone back to her life as the proprietor of a brothel but her life has suddenly become insufferably boring. When the British spy, known to her as French, comes calling and tries to recruit her for a new mission, India jumps at the chance no needing any persuasion or blackmail.
French will take the high road, looking for a traitor among the high-born guests, pretending to be a swashbuckling secretary of Disraeli, and India will take the low road, looking closely at other servants in case an assassin is hiding among the staff. They are joined by Vincent, who will support French working as his valet and stable boy. Soon enough two suspicious incidents make India and her companions certain that someone at Balmoral is determined to make this Her Majesty’s last Christmas…but who?
What I liked:
The whole book was more a comedy than a sleuth or adventure novel. I loved the beginning but I regretted we didn’t see that false psychic (is there a true psychic out there?) and her daughter again. Like the first part of this series, reviewed by me not so long ago, the story is told once again from India’s point of view so of course it is snarky and entertaining. India suffers greatly helping the old Marchioness survive the royal festivities without killing herself during the meals (poor sight makes the old lady kind of accident-prone to say the least of it) but, after some time, she grows to like the old biddy more and more, especially that she seems to have more wits than her temporary maid. Also the portrayal of Queen Victoria, John Brown, Benjamin Disraeli and various other historical personages was hilarious although perhaps a bit skewed. Well, we get it from India’s perspective and she is hardly an apologist of the aristocracy or the Queen.
The cover is, once again, lovely. These colours…
What I didn’t like:
In my humble opinion the first part, despite its plot incongruities, was better, fresher, more funny and edgy. This one was a disappointment – we are offered a watered-down version of old India and the plot didn’t improve, making the whole novel definitely aimed more at YA audience than adults. Well, the personality of India and her blunt honesty was the feature which appealed to me the most from the very beginning. Here you can almost forget that you are dealing with a ‘madam’, an owner of a house of disrepute and a former hooker of the most common sort. In other words India is too sanitized, never revealing her skills, sometimes behaving more like a debutante during her first season than a pro, as if her creator temporarily forgot who and what this woman was supposed to be. She just talks. Empty vessels make most sound – that’s how I felt about her.
The worst damage was done to the character of Vincent – a streetwise urchin from the previous part with personal hygiene issues but great thieving and investigative skills. Here he was reduced to a mere accessory. I resented it very much. Such a waste…and it’s not the end of my carping.
One of the underlying themes of the book is not to underestimate women. A fine conception per se but, unofrtunately, flying in the face of India’s low opinion about her own employees or prospective employees (‘she is stupid and pretty – she would be a good whore’) and other females in general. It was a bit galling, taking into account India’s past. What’s more, India’s sleuthing efforts didn’t present her in a good light either – in this book she is deceived too many times while solving a quite simple mystery; the perpetrator could be guessed easily (well, I am not a great thinker but I had a very precise opinion who might be the hidden nationalistic murderer already in the middle of the first part of the novel…and I guessed correctly – cherchez la femme!)
Mr. French didn’t improve either – instead of character building we got just some hints that he might have a family (like a wife, perhaps also children). It didn’t warm me up to that gentleman and even India, although supposedly falling for his charms, didn’t feel any strong compulsion to find out more about him. Yes, she still doesn’t know his first name although allegedly just because she loves teasing him about it. By the way as the old Marchioness dropped some interesting remarks so perhaps India is going to find out more about her mother soon. Like in the next book. While I am extremely curious how a woman like India became a prostitute I think the author is just fishing for more interest, teasing the readers, promising a good story and more fun… in the future. I am not fond of such teasers, clearly aimed at making you order/buy the next installment, and, to be absolutely truthful, I don’t believe in such promises. I fear a big disappointment unless Ms. Carr returns to the style and rough honesty of her first novel.
India Black and the Widow of Windsor might be an entertaining read but it doesn’t change the fact that it is a novel of middling quality, veering towards the YA market too much for my taste. I wasn’t thrilled by India’s or French’s portrayals in this one and also the ending seemed to me cheap and anti-climatic. I am not sure I would like to buy/read the next installment unless I see some good reviews…