Review: The Secret Keeper by Sandra Byrd

Tuesday, June 19, 2012
Author: Sandra Byrd
Genre: historical fiction
Series: Ladies In Waiting #2
Pages: 336 (Nook ARC edition)
Published: June 5 2012
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 5/5

The author of To Die For returns to the court of Henry VIII, as a young woman is caught between love and honor.

Juliana St. John is the daughter of a prosperous knight in Marlborough. Though her family wants her to marry the son of her father’s business partner, circumstances set her on a course toward the court of Henry VIII and his last wife, Kateryn Parr.

Sir Thomas Seymour, uncle of the current heir, Prince Edward, returns to Wiltshire to tie up his business with Juliana’s father’s estate and sees instantly that she would fit into the household of the woman he loves, Kateryn Parr. Her mother agrees to have her placed in the Parr household for “finishing” and Juliana goes, though perhaps reluctantly. For she knows a secret. She has been given the gift of prophecy, and in one of her visions she has seen Sir Thomas shredding the dress of the king’s daughter, the lady Elizabeth, to perilous consequence.

As Juliana learns the secrets of King Henry VIII’s court, she faces threats and opposition, learning truths about her own life that will upset everything she thought she once held dear.

It's easy to feel sorry for all six of King Henry VIII's wives - through either political machinations, religious upheavals, or royal miscarriages, and the subsequent falls from the King's favor, most were not to blame for their less-than-happily-ever afters. Almost uniformly victims of the King himself and his Court, the Katherines, Annes and Janes of King Harry have all been thoroughly explored and reinvented in various novels, plays, movies in the 400 years since the end of the Tudor dynasty. I was a bit hesitant to pick up yet another historical fiction set during this royal family's tenure, but The Secret Keeper has legs and can firmly stand on its own.  Injecting a lot of energy into this well-trod field of history, Byrd makes a compelling case for tragedy for the last, and most overlooked, of Great Harry's matrimonial partners, Katherine (Kateryn) Parr.

A successful, fresh perspective in such a popular time frame has been tried before (with less success) by other authors, yet none had the vitality or believability of Byrd's invented Juliana St. John. The first person POV can often be tricky for historical fiction, but used as it is here, it actually does a lot to illustrate Juliana's multi-faceted character; her inner monologue is lively and intelligent, engaging to read with a clear voice. Pairing this intelligent, though fictional, woman with the last of Henry's queens is a perfect fit: Katherine Parr is well-remembered for her coteries of enlightened and well-read female courtiers and Juliana is a natural fit within such a group. It was a tidy way to create an authentic character who would resonate with the intended audience without creating a large anachronism. Juliana's relationships with others are complex and meaningful, ones that grow and evolve as the novel progresses - particularly, her strong bond with her surrogate mother Katherine and with her love-interest Jamie Hart.

SPOILERS, BEWARE. I want to take a moment to thank Sir James Hart of this novel. Early on, Juliana is raped - viciously - by a member of the Court. She then blames herself for the rest of the novel (for YEARS! it's so sad!), until, (THANK YOU), Jamie corrects this stupid, awful, incorrect train of thought, with just a single sentence.

"You, love, did not bring this upon yourself no matter what you said, no matter what you did, no matter what you wore." 

Major, major kudos to Sandra Byrd for not indulging in, perpetuating or just ignoring rampant victim blaming/rape culture. Well done. It's all too rare that dialogue like that will appear in a historical fiction novel, and I have to applaud a love interest that makes a point to show that. He may be the least developed character of the novel, but he still gets a pass from me for his chivalry. END SPOILERS.

Though the focus of the novel and the narrative is protagonist Juliana, her life is on periphery of Katherine's and as a result, it is constantly, directly affected by the course of the older woman's life. The Katherine shown by this author is more than merely a survivor of King Henry's merciless whims and reversals: she was an accomplished author, in a time when women were discouraged from reading, an tireless supporter of religious reform, and a generous, loving stepmother to her three royal children. Byrd presents a well-rounded, very real woman in her interpretation of the former Widow Latimer, one that is wholly compelling and original. Not content with the "gowned skirmishes" of the Court, this version of Queen Katherine (and the author) focus more on the religious scandals that plagued her marriage to the king. Not only is this a refreshing change of plot from the adulterous, more salacious storylines of Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard, it's quite true to the actual woman Katherine Parr was. Vibrant, actualized characters are the strength of The Secret Keeper, and no characters show this more than Juliana and Katherine herself.

Clocking in at just under 350 pages, this is far from the longest historical fiction I've read this year, but it was the most effortless to read. I could've easily continued with these characters (and that twist!), were there more plot to continue on with. It's nicely paced from the get-go, especially for such a character-driven novel, and Sandra Byrd easily establishes herself as a natural storyteller with an inviting lead. You can even pick it up if you've not read the first in the author's Tudor series, To Die For. As a standalone or as sequel, The Secret Keeper cultivates a nice sense of atmosphere through the intrigue and uncertainty of that world; it's chock full of tension and history. The wording and prose isn't beautiful or jaw-dropping, though every once in a while the author would hit upon the perfect phrase ("Power was beginning to settle like stones cast into the Thames. The heaviest got there first." - p. 200, ARC) to create the image she desired. 

Fast-paced, fun, and with a fresh perspective, Sandra Byrd proves with The Secret Keeper that you don't need a Boleyn or a Howard to make Tudor historical fiction good, involving and worth reading. A nice twist on a true historical mystery was completely unexpected and added an extra flair to the novel that I really enjoyed. For this book, for the scenario that the author so painstakingly crafted and subtly set up, the end was wholly satisfying and believable. I have yet to read the series first novel, but you can be sure it's now in the top 10 of my "buy NOW" list. Fans of Tudor hist fic oversaturated with Boleyns and Howards would do well to pick up this novel.


  1. Thank you SO much for your awesome review, Jessie. I truly appreciate the time you took to read and then review my book!

    1. Thank you for taking the time to stop by my blog! It's a great book and I hope there's more forthcoming in your series. I'll be tuning in for sure!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Copyright © 2015 Ageless Pages Reviews. All Rights Reserved.

Amelia Theme by The Lovely Design CO and These Paper Hearts.