by Stephanie Barron
Bantam, 2008, 304 pages
Stephanie Barron is best known for writing a series of mysteries where Jane Austen is the detective. This book marked something of a departure for her. I haven't read any of her Austen mysteries, although on the strength of this book, I did just download a free sample of the first one. In that series and in this book, many of the characters are real, while others are not. I know some reviewers knocked Barron's lack of fact-checking in the first Austen book, but this story had a solid feel to it; the language and the manners of the people didn't seem anachronistic. The major events in it all happened; the reasons behind those events are where Barron speculates.
Because it concerns not a writer but a reigning queen, this novel is a sort of an alternate history, except not really, because history itself doesn't change. It's as if Barron points to a closed curtain and makes a guess as to what's behind it, but there's no way to really lift the curtain to see if she's right. A Flaw in the Blood is set during the reign of Queen Victoria and deals with the illness and death of her husband and consort, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.
Barron chose to use multiple point of view characters as the action jumps from place to place. Large chunks are supposed to be from Victoria's secret diary and are written in first person. Most of the third-person narrative follows the actions of a middle aged barrister of Irish origins named Patrick Flanagan, who has a crush on his "ward," the much younger Georgiana (Georgie) Armistead. Georgie was educated by her late guardian, a well known medical researcher, and even managed to qualify as a doctor by studying in Scotland.
The last POV character is the infamous German count Wolfgang von Stühlen. Count von Stühlen has an eye patch, and teeters very close to caricature, but is given some depth because when we are in his POV, we learn about his past, and how he feels unfairly treated by fate, as his childhood friend, the younger son Albert becomes Prince Consort of England while he himself has money worries and no real prospects for improvement.
Patrick and Georgie could use a little more fleshing out. It almost felt as if the author had written another book about them before this, because she didn't seem to feel a need to give much detail on their previous lives. Patrick lapses into standard romance-hero jealousy any time a young man says hello to Georgie. She's more of an enigma; she doesn't really show how she feels until fairly late in the book.
The historical (i.e., real) people, on the other hand, were very well done. Victoria herself was a marvelous, almost chilling characterization; Albert was a mass of conflicting emotions; Princess Alice understood her mother well enough to heartily dislike her; and poor Prince Leopold was just a young boy who had never really been well in his life.
The plot centers on Victoria's need to punish Patrick, a barrister, for defending a young man who tried to shoot her, and her hatred of Georgie, who has never even met the Queen. Georgie did correspond with the Prince Consort, however, and even researched Prince Leopold's illness for him. The modern reader, of course, knows that Leopold has hemophilia (hence the title of the book) and thus will never be cured. It turns out that having the Queen-Empress of England blazingly angry at you is not a good thing, and Georgie and Patrick have to go on the run. The evil Count (he even has an eye-patch!) is on their trail, and our two protagonists have to stay on the move to keep one step ahead as they journey through England, France, and Saxe-Coburg. The story has touches of Jane Eyre mixed with Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (except substitute 19th Century transportation for the planes and cars) and a dash of Georgette Heyer. Georgie was unusual for her era, but at least it was explained in the story, and my only two real quibbles are that Georgie does something really stupid (it seems like the plot needs the Count to find her), and also when she disguises herself as a boy just by wearing boy's clothes, no one notices.
I found the ending mostly satisfying. Things got tied up pretty well. But of course, one reason I bought this ebook is, it cost only $1.87 in the Kindle store! A virtue of ebooks is, they make excellent chum in trolling for new readers.