Review: Songbird by Karen Heenan

Songbird by Karen Heenan

Timy reviews Songbird, the first book (and also a standalone) in The Tudor Court historical fiction series by Karen Heenan.

I received an ecopy from the author in exchange for an honest review.

About the Book
Series: standalone, The Tudor Court #1Genre: Historical Fiction, Romance
Date of Publishing: December 3, 2021Trigger Warnings: sex, death, abortion (off the page), suicide (off the page)
Page count: 367Publisher: self-published
Possible The Sound of Madness Reading Challenge prompts:
  • Free Your Mind
  • Are You Gonna Be My Girl
  • I’m Still Here
  • Mindenütt jó (Anywhere is Good)
  • You Look Better When I’m Drunk
  • Shut Up and Dance
  • Keepsake
  • I’ll Be There
  • Centuries
Book Blurb
Songbird by Karen Heenan

Bess has the voice of an angel, or so Henry VIII declares when he buys her from her father. As a member of the Music, the royal company of minstrels, Bess grows up within the decadent Tudor court, navigating the ever-changing tide of royals and courtiers. Friends come and go as cracked voices, politics, heartbreak, and death loom over even the lowliest of musicians. Tom, her first and dearest friend, is her only constant. But as Bess becomes too comfortable at court, she may find that constancy has its limits.

Song of the Book

When I started writing my review, I absolutely had no idea what song I will pick. I opted for something modern, because even though the mood doesn’t fit the era, I think the lyrics are. I had mostly Tom in mind for this one, and so eventually I settled on Broken by Lifehouse. Or so I thought because then I remembered that I recently got into Somebody You Loved by Lewis Capaldi and thought, yes! That’s it! Nope. That song led me to think about The Middle but not the original song by Zedd, Maren Morris & Grey, but the cover by All Good Things. This version never fails to give me goosebumps. I’m sticking with this one. No change of mind. I also have a firm belief that Tom would have been an amazing rock star.

Review

Songbird is one of those books that’s been on the periphery of my awareness for a while, but then somehow I never picked it up. Then I opened my requests for a short while at the end of 2022, and finally, it found its way near the top of my TBR pile. I was supposed to read this a bit sooner, but seeing how long it took me to finally get to it, I don’t think that a few months counts much either way.

There are two reasons Songbird caught my attention back when we hosted Karen Heenan during one of our Pride Month celebrations: 1. the MC is a singer (you can pretty much sell me anything with that), and 2. it’s set in the Tudor court. I love historical fiction, but don’t think that’s anything new by now. And the Tudor era was always close to my heart. That said, it’s an era that’s very popular with all types of creatives (just think about the Tudor series, the countless documentaries on Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, the movies, all the books, etc.) and thus sometimes it can be hard to find something new to say or to fall way too far into fiction. I always pick up things set in that era with caution, because I generally prefer historical fiction to be closer to historical accuracy than fiction. And I also tend to compare everything to the most amazing Shardlake series by C.J. Sansom. And that’s a high bar to jump. Did Songbird make it? Mostly yes. Let me elaborate on that further below.

Songbird is the story of Bess, who arrives at King Harry VIII’s court just before her tenth birthday, sold by her parents and basically left alone in the world. But soon she finds her home within the court, among the people of Music who are responsible to entertain the king and his household whenever they are needed. And since King Harry is an accomplished musician himself and has an ear for it, they are required a lot, indeed. We follow her life through childhood to adulthood as she navigates the court and love in its many form.

History and the court only act as a background, as the main focus is on Bess amid the turbulent times both politically and in her own personal life. We see everything through her eyes, and since she doesn’t have a great interest in politics, nor does she understand/know a lot of things that are going on, we only get as much information as we need for context. And this works, because Heenan assumes that we are mostly familiar with how things went down between King Harry, Queen Cathrine of Aragon, and Anne Boleyn. You don’t have to be a history buff to understand the implications or get the big picture. And honestly, I appreciated that Heenan doesn’t try to push down yet another version of their story on our throats. She takes the readers gently through the years, showing just as much as we need to understand the significance those events make on Bess’ life. And the relationships she makes within the court because her being a musician makes it inevitable that she meets all the fine ladies and lords, partakes in their gossip or merrymaking.

All said, the setting and the people appearing in Bess’ life felt authentic enough, and it was an interesting peek into women’s lives in general, especially since they belonged to different classes, had very similar problems and different solutions. The fact that the ladies here were portrayed as nearly equals to men when it comes to passions and sexuality was definitely refreshing.

The reason though, why I’m not going to give Songbird all five stars, is that I didn’t really like Bess. Nor cared about many of the other characters, with maybe one exception – Tom. I liked quiet, talented, impossibly patient Tom who is loyal to a fault. He is not your typical masculine character and was a very good opposite to Nicholas Hawkins, one of the king’s friends. But the thing is, quick and easy read as it was, to me it felt like Songbird was lacking memorable characters, people who you want to root for, and can get invested in. They just felt all… bland to me. It’s a shame because I still was invested enough to burn through the book in just a couple of days. With a bit better characterization, slightly richer worldbuilding (I wanted a bit more about the court and the intrigues and the whole feel of the era), and smoothing out the sometimes a bit uneven writing, this would have been *chef’s kiss*.

Fortunately, however, Songbird being Karen Heenan‘s debut novel, there is still room for improvement and I’m curious to see how she progressed as an author and storyteller. Because I believe that with some more confidence and experience under her belt, and having a firm grasp of her own author voice, The Tudor Court series could become something special within the historical romance genre. I recommend Songbird for those who are looking for a coming-of-age found family romance story set in the Tudor era, sprinkled with a bit of court intrigue.

Our Judgement
Might Require Their Services - 3.5 Crowns

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