I was not sure how I would approach my review of The Stolen One until I came across this sentence: "My heart began to beat." This comes from the first-person narrator, Katherine "Kat" Bab, who is very much alive. From that point onward, it was open season on Suzanne Crowley and The Stolen One. Until I reached that fateful sentence, I was having difficulty forming any opinion about the book. It certainly wasn't great, but there were also very few problems with it. For the most part, it was just a bland, easy-to-read piece of historical fiction. Which, when I think about it, is not a good thing at all.
Kat and Anna are sisters; their mother Grace adopted Kat when she was a baby and has kept Kat's heritage a secret. It's a secret she takes to the grave, which quickly approaches so that Kat can drag Anna off to London to find her parents. Thanks to her amazing embroidery skills, she gets snatched up to be a maid to Queen Elizabeth I, and there are even rumours that she is Elizabeth's illegitimate daughter. Ooh, spicy!
The mystery of the identity of Kat's parents serves well enough as a kind of backdrop plot, I suppose, but Crowley goes to little trouble to make it interesting. Grace was a maid in the keeping of Katherine Parr during the latter's residency at Sudeley Castle, and excerpts from Grace's journals written at this time intersperse Kat's contemporary narration. These are our main source of clues as to the identity of Kat's parents (mostly the mother, because there is only one candidate for the father). Kat's own investigation is rather lackadaisical, and the identity of her mother becomes clear to us from Grace's journal before Kat herself can confirm it. Worst of all, Kat apparently has possession of Grace's journal the entire time, but she doesn't open it until the end of the book. Smart.
I suppose that if the mystery isn't the most intriguing aspect of The Stolen One, then that must be the relationship between village-reared Kat and queenly Elizabeth. Crowley teases us with the possibility that Kat is Elizabeth's daughter, and that puts us in the right state of mind to compare the two as members of the same family. Alas, Crowley does not really convey a good sense of who the Tudors were. While she puts an effort into characters' dialects, their modes of dress, and the living conditions at the time, she supplies a scant amount of historical background. Perhaps this is justifiable, since Kat can't really be expected to have a degree in the history of the British monarchy. Nevertheless, The Stolen One might be set during the early Elizabethan era, but aside from the need to have a young Elizabeth around and some allusions to the oppression of Catholics, there's very little about this book that makes it stand out as Elizabethan. It verges upon "generic British historical", and while I want to emphasize that it doesn't actually cross this line, it does come close.
The third of three plots concerns Kat's love life. Kat has, ostensibly, three suitors: she abandons her village's pear farmer, Christian, to go off to London; she rebukes the son of the Chief of Wardrobes, Nicolas, who chases all the skirts in the castle; and she flirts with Rafael, Lord Ludcombe, rake, and son of a woman who befriends Kat and Anna when they first arrive in London. Honestly, none of the three men seem like perfect catches: Nicolas and Rafael want her only for her body and her proximity to the Queen, and Christian treats Kat like she's property. Oh, and when he can't have Kat, he marries Anna instead. True love strikes again. It's very disappointing when Kat eventually realizes she is also a victim of true love and decides to settle down with one of them. It's all very sudden, and that makes the entire thing seem contrived.
I will level with you and confess that I might have led you astray in one respect: the copy I have here is an ARC, with the words "uncorrected proof" in big letters on the front cover and "reviewers are requested to check all quotations against the final bound book". So the somewhat unfortunate sentence I quoted in my first paragraph could very well have been corrected in the final printing, and if it has, then it's my bad for making so much of it. Nevertheless, I feel like it's a good synecdoche for my opinion of The Stolen One overall. The flaws in this book might be careless mistakes. They might be well-intentioned attempts at romance and mystery set in the Elizabethan era that just don't succeed. Either way, I don't think it matters. The Stolen One has a surfeit of plot and a dearth of characterization; it is too contrived and not nearly mysterious enough.
I wish I could have liked it more, because the ideas behind it are cool, but Crowley doesn't quite attain them. "Meh" might be better than "this is the worst book ever!!", but sometimes I feel like it's a lot more damning. At least with vitriol a book has done something to make the reader care; apathy is the cruelest reaction.