After reading Nicola Cornick’s time-slip novel The Phantom Tree earlier this year, I was hoping for an opportunity to read her previous book, House of Shadows – and my chance came when I spotted it on the shelf on a recent visit to the library. Although House of Shadows doesn’t include physical time travel in the same way that The Phantom Tree does, it still features storylines set in different time periods with several close links between them. It’s not my favourite of the two books, but I did enjoy it.
It’s difficult to know where to begin writing a summary of a book like this, so I’ll start in the modern day where we meet artist and glass-engraver Holly Ansell who has just received a desperate call from her niece, telling her that her father (Holly’s brother Ben) has disappeared. Heading straight for the old Mill House in Ashdown, Oxfordshire, where Ben was last seen alive, all Holly is able to learn is that prior to his disappearance he had been researching his family tree and had discovered the diary of Lavinia Flyte, a 19th century courtesan.
Hoping for clues that will lead her to Ben, Holly begins to read Lavinia’s journal and quickly finds herself caught up in the memoirs of a brave, resourceful young woman who once lived at nearby Ashdown House. But before we can understand the links between Lavinia and the Ansell family, we have to go further back in time, to the 17th century, to follow the story of Elizabeth Stuart, known as the Winter Queen. The daughter of James I of England and VI of Scotland, Elizabeth was briefly Queen of Bohemia, through her marriage to Frederick V. However, it is her relationship with the soldier William Craven which provides the connection to the other two threads of the novel.
All three storylines are interesting and I’m sorry I can’t say too much about any of them without straying into spoiler territory. What I can say is that there are two objects which play an important role in each of the time periods – a mysterious crystal mirror and a priceless jewel known as the Sistrin Pearl, both believed to possess magical powers and said to have been used in the divination and prophecies of the Knights of the Rosy Cross. It seems that Frederick and Elizabeth really are thought to have possibly had some involvement with the Knights, so this aspect of the novel is not as far-fetched as it may sound – although I’m assuming the mirror and jewel themselves, or at least their powers, are fictional.
The Elizabeth sections of the novel were my favourites, partly because I know so little about her and partly because I enjoy reading about 17th century Europe. As far as I can tell, there is no real evidence to prove whether William Craven was romantically involved with Elizabeth, but they certainly knew each other and the story Nicola Cornick weaves around them is maybe not beyond the realms of possibility. Lavinia’s diary entries set in Regency England also held my attention – although they are quite brief, compared with the longer chapters devoted to Holly and Elizabeth, she is a vividly written character with a strong voice. I did also like Holly, but I found the contemporary storyline the least interesting – possibly because most of the action takes place in the historical sections, while Holly has more of a passive role, trying to piece together the stories of the other two women.
Ashdown House in Oxfordshire, the house at the heart of the novel and the one pictured on the front cover, really exists; it is now owned by the National Trust and Nicola Cornick volunteers there. It’s always nice to discover that the setting for a novel you’ve been reading is based on a real place – I’ve made a note to try to visit it if I’m in that part of the country.
Nicola Cornick has written several other books, but they seem to be more conventional historical romances, so I think I’ll wait and hope that she writes more that are similar to this one and The Phantom Tree!