“My name is Mary Seymour and I am the daughter of one queen and the niece of another.”
Browsing antiques shops in Wiltshire, Alison Bannister stumbles across a delicate old portrait—supposedly of Anne Boleyn. Except Alison knows better…The woman is Mary Seymour, the daughter of Katherine Parr who was taken to Wolf Hall in 1557 as an unwanted orphan and presumed dead after going missing as a child.
The painting is more than just a beautiful object from Alison’s past—it holds the key to her future, unlocking the mystery surrounding Mary’s disappearance, and the enigma of Alison’s son.
But Alison’s quest soon takes a dark and foreboding turn, as a meeting place called the Phantom Tree harbours secrets in its shadows…
THE PHANTOM TREE by Nicola Cornick has a little of everything in it, but far from being an utter mess, it all kind of works—sorta. It helps if you’re already familiar with shows like, OUTLANDER and the like. As The Phantom Tree features time travel, a historic Tudor—think Elizabeth I—setting, and in a roll reversal, someone not trapped in the past. But one of our two MCs, Alison, who’s trapped in our present.
I picked this one up on a whim at my local bookstore looking for something different to read—because I was in a bit of a reading slump—and once I’d read the back cover, well:
“We met at Wolf Hall.
I came there in the summer of fifteen hundred and fifty-seven,
in the fourth year of the reign of Mary the Queen.
I was a Mary too, cousin to the late king, Edward,
daughter to one dead queen and niece to another.
I was ten years old and I already had a reputation for witchcraft.“
Now doesn’t that sound intriguing? I thought so. And yes, I stood in the shop and read the first chapter, you know, just to be sure. And that was that, I was hooked.
I thoroughly enjoyed the historical setting, which is where we start, and where Mary Seymour and Alison Banestre, another orphan like Mary, meet at the historic Wolf Hall. This was, up to a point, shaping up to be another historical romp but then, took a turn. I’m not sure if it was for the worse, or not. As we find out that Mary has the ‘Sight’ and is struck at odd moments, inconveniently, with ‘visions’ that are, in the end, portents of events that then take place.
Immediately the young Mary is labelled a witch, and there’s a lot of the usual political plotting, and, as such, because of her heritage and once high standing, she’s not just beheaded (and end of story) she’s dispatched to a distant—very distant—relative to be kept out of the way.
While all this is happening Alison, who’s 4-5 years older than Mary, is struggling with her own problems, stupidly falling in love with her distant cousin, and Lord of the Manor, Edward, who takes advantage of her. And, at the tender young age of 16, finds herself pregnant.
So far, so good, everything is unfolding in a straight-forward manner, and we’re given plenty of gossip, snippets, and historical setting.
It’s when the two are on the cusp of being banished together, to Middlecote, that Alison runs away, and here, at this point, their stories split.
We’ve had hints of how Alison is able to get away, because, like Mary, who’s having unwanted visions, Alison herself has been experiencing something unusual. But unlike the young Mary, sees these events/happenings as a way to escape her life … and she steps from the past, into the future; our times.
Despite a few hiccups, and seeming inconsistencies, I still enjoyed the story to that point, but then, I found I was enjoying Mary’s story more, set in the 1560s, more so than Alison’s, who’s seemingly adapted very easily to our time, and even found herself in an on and off-again relationship—though that too was handled well.
My one gripe was the way the author chose to close Mary’s thread, though, in the end and not to spoilt it for anyone, Mary did get the last word in, so to speak.
Personally, I know this is supposed to be Alison’s story, but I think I would have enjoyed it just as much if the author had skipped Alison altogether, and made this all about Mary. That aspect for me, was so much more enjoyable.
All in all, Cornick did a great job of story telling with two likeable enough characters, that will appeal to those looking for a historical mystery with time travelling aspects, and a good dash of romance.
THE PHANTOM TREE
Graydon House, 2018
Paperback, 378 pages