Every first novel has an interesting story of its road to publication. Interesting, at least, for the author. Few have a story that would interest anyone else. Of the tens of thousands of works of fiction that come into the marketplace every year, few have a tale like A Confederacy of Dunces which was published eleven years after author John Kennedy Toole’s suicide (a suicide widely attributed to Toole’s publishing failures) and only after the book was championed by Toole’s mother. Once released, it won a loyal and rabid fan base, and went on to take the Pulitzer. In the end, it’s a success story, the rarity of which authors everywhere should be thankful for.
Caitlin Scott-Turner’s journey to publication doesn’t rival Toole’s, but it is worth repeating. Her first novel, The Queen’s Fencer was written two and a half decades ago. At the time, it was very nearly published, only to fall through the cracks. After years of languishing, the novel was self-published before finding its way to the small press Five Star. Yes, more than a quarter century later, Scott-Turner’s novel was published.
That’s a success story for certain; a parable for endurance and perseverance, too. What is further curious and interesting is that this happened in romance, a genre that is far from stagnant. What romance was, it is no more. The books, the authors, and even the readers of romance have changed greatly in the time that The Queen’s Fencer waited for publication. Perhaps then not surprisingly, The Queen’s Fencer feels exactly as it is: late to the market.
The plot is a linear succession events held together by its young heroine, Adrys Trevallion, the events of which seem, at times, too unrelated to ever fold back in on themselves. At book’s opening, Adrys, just shy of her twentieth birthday, is upended by her father’s death. Her life as assistant (an unofficial title) to the Fencing Master of the Queen of England (a position held by Adrys father) ends with his death and Adrys leaves the court of Queen Elizabeth to return to life with her mother and family. Before she can reach her destination, the ship she travels on is beset by the Espada, a pirate ship. The Espada’s captain, Desmond Kirkconnel, offers Ardys a deal of sorts: they will fence, if she draws first blood, she can stay with the ship that will take her home, and if he draws first blood, she will yield to him. Whatever that might mean. Their meeting is a fantastic introduction. One the rest of their story doesn’t live up to. Theirs is a romance built between lines of dialog unspoken and the supposition of what fleeing a room really means. What isn’t said and what isn’t done comes to a head one evening when Adrys flirts with Desmond’s great enemy, and fellow pirate, Francois de la Roche (a rivalry without motivation other than an enemy needs to exist). Once together, Adrys and Desmond love each for a few encapsulated months. It all ends when Adrys announces her pregnancy. It seems Desmond has had good reason never to move their relationship into a more permanent union—if an entirely unheroic one—and leaves Adrys, alone, far from her home, and in the grasp of de la Roche.
There are several points of style and execution that mark The Queen’s Fencer as out of step with the genre at present, such as the distant narrative that alienates rather than draws the reader in, but none stand out quite so much as what happens to Adrys once Desmond leaves her. De la Roche rapes Adrys, kidnaps her away to his ship, where he keeps her naked, in his bed and at his physical disposal. He continues to rape her until he realizes the changes in her body are too soon to be his doing. It is a plot point, that if nothing else, will make romance readers thankful that the genre is no longer filled with rape sagas.
Where The Queen’s Fencer succeeds is its attention to historical accuracy and the willingness of Scott-Turner to incorporate history into the story. The main characters are surrounded by the real life people of history books: Queen Elizabeth I, Robert Cecil, Robert Devereux, the 2nd Earl of Essex, and Huge O’Neil, 2nd Earl of Tyron among others. Adrys’ life, from her time at court, to time in Ireland, to time on the high seas is directed by and in keeping with historical events. Adrys’ story is twined into Elizabethan life, from court intrigue, to privateering, to political cheese games.
Adrys and Desmond’s love story isn’t happy, escapist romance, but rather drama that seems to take great glee in slugging through the worst the world has to offer. The lovers’ time together on the page is limited, less than a third of the book, so that the promise their romance begins with is never capitalized on. That alone is enough to sink the book, but coupled with the dated feel, The Queen’s Fencer is too bogged down to ever recover.
You can visit Caitlan here and purchase this book here and here.