It’s 1861, and Irish barrister Patrick Fitzgerald is imperiously summoned to his second-ever audience with Queen Victoria. The Queen’s husband Prince Albert lies dying of “typhoid”, and the Queen is gripped with fear over a murder conspiracy that Fitzgerald investigated years prior as a law clerk. Confused about their conversation, Fitzgerald’s night only gets stranger when the royal coach overturns while carrying him and his beautiful, brilliant ward, Miss Georgiana Armistead, niece of the Queen’s prior personal physician Dr. Snow. The two incidents cannot be a coincidence and Fitzgerald’s suspicions are proven correct when hitmen are subsequently sent after them. Fleeing London to the remote reaches of England and then to the Continent, Fitzgerald’s only hope of keeping himself and Georgiana alive is unraveling why they are being hunted, and all the clues point towards a deadly royal secret – A Flaw in the Blood.
(Mild spoilers ahead)
This book sounded like a thrilling blend of mystery and history, and author Stephanie Barron delivers, at least on the history bit. She provides a thorough background on the prevalent medical theories and socio-political tensions of the time, such as prejudice against the Irish and the working class, though it tends to be infodumped into conversations between the characters. Most of the primary characters – including Fitzgerald, Georgie, and the caricatured mustache-twirling villain Count von Stuben – are invented with slight-to-middling basis in actual historical personages. Queen Victoria, the one real individual we are introduced to and who serves as a narrator, Barron paints as malicious and hysterical, which struck me as unfairly biased as well as inaccurate.
While it doesn’t appear to be part of a series, nevertheless I was very lost on many of the character’s connections and backgrounds, particularly that of the trial that initially brings Fitzgerald and the Queen into acquaintance. But one thing is for sure: creeping on your ward is a bit, well, creepy. Sketchy Fitzgerald had watched Georgiana grow up and I think the way he conducts himself with her is thoroughly inappropriate, especially as he has an alive, if insane and syphilitic, wife – what can I say, I guess I’m quite Victorian in this regard! As a result, I detested Fitzgerald and wasn’t terribly fond of Georgiana, though I liked that (1) she displayed some propriety AND intelligence in not falling for men that want to play the misogynistic protector role with her and (2) that she knew when to toss propriety out the window, such as when she acted as a physician to prostitutes and impoverished women. My favorite character by far though was Fitzgerald’s valet, who was amusing and unflinchingly loyal, with a close second being the precociously kind and brave child prince Leopold.
The first part of the book read quite differently than the latter part, being more laborious and cryptic as opposed to the action-packed, revelatory climax and conclusion. Which is what I guess makes it a proper mystery, though it didn’t feel that way reading it, mostly just sluggish and overly perplexing – I definitely enjoyed the back-end more than the setup-heavy front. The ending also had a stunning twist that initially seemed farfetched but is an apparently legitimate and intriguing conspiracy theory (Google: hemophilia in Victoria’s lineage). I’m not sure I was happy with how everything wrapped up, but at least there wasn’t a cliffhanger and (technically) the heroes triumphed even if history remained unchanged.