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…
Y’all know I’m not the biggest fan of time travel books, but there is just something about the way Nicola Cornick puts it all together that just sucks me in and creates a great sense of pleasure. Here’s the skinny on The Phantom Tree:
Premise: The entirety of this book revolves around Alison Bannister trying to discover the fate of her infant son who was taken from her more than 400 years ago. Inexplicably, Alison is a time traveler who just so happens to be stuck in the 21st century. With no means (yet!) of getting back to the 16th century, Alison has dedicated her present life to tracing history in the hopes of discovering what became of her beloved son.
Characters: The Phantom Tree is filled with a wide range of characters from both the 16th and 21st centuries with the emphasis being on Alison and Mary Seymour. As children, Alison and Mary were certainly acquainted with one another, but not exactly friends. Until Alison loses her son, she has little interest in the younger Mary. It is only after her son is taken and Alison realizes Mary can help her, that Alison has the time for or an interest in Mary. While 16th century Alison isn’t easy to like, 21st Alison is a bit more palatable. On the other hand, Mary Seymour, with her royal lineage and “gifts” is likeable from start to finish. Mary’s story plays out alongside Alison’s and the two are, from beginning to end, entangled. The entanglement, in many ways drives each character, for better or worse, and informs their actions and decisions. Each character, even those beyond Alison and Mary are full-bodied, engaging figures who hold the reader’s interest. More than one character has a secret which makes them far, far more interesting.
Pacing: I must admit, The Phantom Tree is a bit of a slow starter, but once it gets going, it moves like the wind. In fairness to the author, there is a great deal of ground work and backstory which must be established before the “real” work can begin. It is critical to the overall plot and the characters to understand their history, their place in one another’s lives. Getting through all that information takes time and made the first part of the read a bit slower in its pacing. With that being said, once the personalities, the problems, and the histories are dealt with, the pacing picks up considerably and the last part of the book seems to fly by.
Surprises: Yeah, this book has a surprise or two up its sleeve 😊 From characters to plot twists, The Phantom Tree holds secrets that can only be uncovered by reading every last word and page. There are a few things and people who really did take me by surprise, and I like knowing, even after all the books I have read, an author can still surprise me.
The Bottom Line: Far and away, my favorite part of The Phantom Tree are the chapters set in the 16th century. I’m just such a huge fan of well-written historical fiction, and Nicola Cornick understands what it takes to bring the past to life for a reader. Though there isn’t much, historically speaking, related to Mary Seymour, she comes alive in this book and ties everything, past and present together. Mary provides a backdrop for Alison’s quest, an anchor in time which drives Alison’s inquiries. With every new detail related to Mary revealed, Alison comes one step closer to solving the mystery of her lost son. As I said, the two women are entangled, and it is this entanglement that provides so much enjoyment. Apart from the slow start, I found no fault with this book. In fact, once I hit the half-way mark, I couldn’t put this book down. There is something for everyone here, but The Phantom Tree will especially appeal to lovers of historical fiction.