Thursday, April 06, 2017

Review: The Phantom Tree

The Phantom Tree
By Nicola Cornick
Harlequin UK, December 2016

About the Book

Browsing antiques shops in Wiltshire, Alison Bannister stumbles across a delicate old portrait supposedly of Anne Boleyn. Except Alison knows better. The woman is Mary Seymour, the daughter of Katherine Parr, who was taken to Wolf Hall in 1557 as an unwanted orphan and presumed dead after going missing as a child.

The painting is more than just a beautiful object from Alison’s past. It holds the key to her future, unlocking the mystery surrounding Mary’s disappearance and the enigma of Alison’s son. But Alison’s quest soon takes a dark and foreboding turn as a meeting place called the Phantom Tree harbours secrets in its shadows.

My Review

Alison Bannestre is born in 16th century England to a family distantly related to the famous Seymour clan. Her entire family dies of an illness, forcing her to the Seymour holding of Wolf Hall. There she meets another survivor, Mary Seymour, daughter of Thomas Seymour and the late queen Katherine Parr. Both girls are beholden to their cousin Edward Seymour as they are without family, money, or social standing. The girls are uneasy companions, Alison fiery and rebellious, while Mary is meek and introverted, but the two find common ground in their loneliness and outsider status.

Alison takes a lover and becomes pregnant. When her son, Arthur, is born, the baby is taken away from her, and she is to be married off to a well-to-do but abusive farmer. Mary, on the other hand, has magical powers, namely she sees past and future events and talks to a spirit guide, Darrell.

When an accident kills a Seymour servant, the girls are bundled off to an obscure Seymour relative at Middlecote House, except Alison will not go quietly. She jumps out of the coach, bent on finding her lost child. Before she goes, Alison asks Mary for a promise: Whatever happens to her, Mary must find out what happened to Arthur and find a way to get word to her. Mary reluctantly agrees before Alison runs off to a tavern, where she stumbles upon a portal to the future.

Now hundreds of years into the future, Alison is trapped, unable to return to the past to find Arthur and unable to find any word from Mary about her son. Alison reconnects with a former lover, Adam, and they make their way to Middlecote House, where a portrait of Mary Seymour holds clues that might show Alison the way back to her son. Alison has thrived in the future, living an independent lifestyle that the past never permitted her, but finding her son means returning to that restrictive past and leaving Adam behind. Can she decipher Mary’s clues? And if she does, will she choose her son over the freedom and love she has finally found?

I confess this book has all my favorite elements: Tudor history period, time travel, strong female characters, and a solid romantic arc. Ms. Cornick expertly contrasts the two women, with Alison’s tale being told in third person (which matches her more external challenges) and Mary’s tale told in first person (which matches her more internal conflicts). The two women are terribly different but find common ground as women have across the ages. Both women struggle and then evolve into their own, finding the love and purpose that is denied them at Wolf Hall. The travel from past to present is also fascinating, as Alison’s 16th century perspective contrasts sharply with modern life. In traveling to the future she gains much but loses some too.

Part coming of age, part bittersweet tale of love and loss, this one has many layers and they are all worth experiencing.

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