Ursula Blanchard is still at the top of her game…
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve been a fan of Fiona Buckley’s Ursula Blanchard series for years – and years – and years. And Golden Cargoes exemplifies what I like most about the series: Buckley’s ability to craft an engaging tale in a detailed Elizabethan setting, all without being boring or coming across like a history professor.
As Cargoes opens, Ursula, who is Elizabeth I’s illegitimate half-sister (and sometime spy), is simply attending a wedding at Evergreens, at the invitation of her tenant there, Joan Mercer. But things are rarely simple for Ursula, and when Joan’s daughter, Arabella, refuses to marry the groom her mother has picked out for her, the situation gets messy fast.
First there’s the flash of fear that Ursula fancies she sees on Arabella’s mother’s face when she speaks of Arabella’s intended. And then there’s the old herbalist on the hill, Mother Lee, who makes wonderful headache potions, but is reviled as a witch by the local vicar, and seems richer than she should be. And Arabella’s two sea-captain brothers, who also seem wealthier than they ought to be. Then Mother Lee is strangled, and no one can figure out who did it or why. However the wedding finally does take place, and although it’s unusual for Ursula, whose self-admitted “besetting sin” is curiosity, to walk away from an unsolved murder, she and her party eventually return uneventfully home.
Of course, there wouldn’t be much of a story if everything ended at this point. But when Ursula goes to court a few months later, to attend Elizabeth as a Lady of the Bedchamber, matters take an unexpected turn. She learns that a trio of pirate ships, apparently captained by Englishmen, have been attacking and looting Elizabeth’s own vessels. This is treason, and it appears that the Mercer family may be involved. So Ursula volunteers to investigate, and together with her long-time servants/companions, Brockley and Dale, she finds out what is going on with the piracy, and who killed Mother Lee as well.
Golden Cargoes is a little unusual for this series in that the setup – in this case, the wedding at Evergreens – takes up almost half the book. And although I very much enjoyed the descriptions of life at the manor, and in the nearby village, and the wedding preparations, and the tension between the vicar and the herbalist, I did wonder a bit about whether there would also eventually be a more traditional Ursula adventure. So I was quite happy when that rolled around in the second half of the book.
All-in-all, it’s fair to note that, as with the previous book in the series, Shadow of Spain, Golden Cargoes is less of a traditional murder mystery, and more of an adventure with a good dose of political and diplomatic intrigue. So although Mother Lee’s murder does get solved, it gets solved almost by accident, as a by-product of the larger piracy investigation. None of which, in my opinion, makes Golden Cargoes any less enjoyable.
As for a ranking, I do feel that the wedding/setup was a little too long, and as a result, I spent a little too long wondering where the story was headed. So I gave it only four-and-a-half stars, not five. But for me, that is still a strong strong recommendation to read this book! And finally, my thanks to the publishers, Severn House, and to NetGalley for my advance review copy, and my apologies to them both for the slightly late review – although things are now okay, Covid-19 decided to intervene in my life quite a bit over the last few weeks…