The Shadow King
Jane Stevenson
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The Shadow King

Jane Stevenson
Houghton Mifflin
320 pages
November 2003
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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The Shadow King, Jane Stevensonís second effort in this historical trilogy, is as historically flawless and impressive as the first (The Winter Queen). The meticulous research is evident on each page as Stevenson surrounds her characters with authenticity.

Balthasar Stuart is the son of the secret marriage of his father, Pelagius, an educated black man, and Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia, living in Holland in exile. Elizabeth is the sister of the deposed King of England, later restored to the throne. Pelagius and Elizabeth fall in love and wed clandestinely, the only written record of the union saved by a family friend for their lone son, Balthasar. Upon the friendís death, Balthasar receives the marriage certificate, along with his fatherís diary and lifelong work on the merits of indigenous plants.

In 1660ís Holland, Balthasar is in a difficult position; he is a physician, but unable to avoid racial issues when establishing his professional credentials. Balthasar makes the acquaintance of a young married woman, Aphra Behn, who schemes to improve her situation whenever possible. The self-serving Aphraís curiosity settles on Balthasar and she befriends the young man. Balthasar heeds the advice he receives to exercise caution around this woman. Unfortunately, given ample opportunity, Aphra steals Pelagiouís books and takes possession of Balthasarís precious documents. Aphra is pivotal to the story, as she is the only person who guesses Balthasarís true parentage. Aphra becomes his nemesis.

To escape the plague, Balthasar flees from Holland to London, a city he finds cold and unwelcoming. Once again race interferes, impeding the success of his practice. When he marries a young woman bequeathed some land in Barbados, they proceed to the island to take possession of her property. In Barbados, it is clear that Balthasar will never be accepted into planter society and, after a few years of struggle, the couple returns to London, relieved to be away from the heat and burdensome toil of the tropics. Balthasar decides that his life is best spent in diligent care of his steadily growing practice and his family.

Balthasarís most endearing quality is curiosity and an unwillingness to accept conditions at face value. While much of his behavior fits within the strictures of European society, Balthasar expands his knowledge by mixing with slaves and learning the ways of medicines and plants indigenous to the islands. A man of his times, Balthasar is a Christian who believes that all men will benefit from his chosen religion and is driven to Christianize his Barbados slaves, although such instruction is forbidden.

Balthasar consciously chooses a noble and purposeful life, if not one of royalty, accepting his own reality: the son of a king and queen, he is but a simple man of color in a structured society that refuses him a place of his own. Still, I am unsure if this tale stands on its own, or as a stepping-stone to the third novel. Balthsarís standing as the son of a king and queen sometimes interferes with the simple story of a mixed-race doctor making his way in European society. But when Aphraís knowledge of Balthsarís situation suggests other possibilities yet to unfold in this generational saga, I am certainly curious enough to want to read the final chapter of this unusual trilogy.

© 2003 by Luan Gaines for Curled Up With a Good Book

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