Once Upon a River

Once Upon a RiverOnce Upon a River by Diane Setterfield (Website, Twitter)

Genre: magical realism/ historical fantasy

Setting: mid-late 1800s

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: my own collection / BOTM Club

Length: 464 pp

Published by: Atria Books (pub date)

Her Grace’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Once Upon a River is the tale of a young girl who drowned, and then didn’t. There is an inn that is known for its storytelling, which is where the drowned girl and her rescuer end up. Her story spreads from there and she becomes three different girls who have all gone missing. The lives of a photographer, a healer, a farmer, and a pub owner all become entwined because of their connections, real or otherwise, to the drowned girl.

I honestly don’t want to write an in-depth review of this book. I fucking LOVED it and don’t want to have to think too closely about it. It was a fairy tale wrapped in a mystery set in a historical fiction. I never wanted it to end, and when it did, I wanted to forget all about it so I could read it again for the first time. The writing was gorgeous – truly evocative of fairy tales – and the characters were well defined and complex, every one of them. The setting was ephemeral and had very much an otherworldly feel to it, which was perfect for the story. I had too many favorite lines and scenes, so I only put a couple below. Otherwise, I’d just be copying down the entire book. I can’t describe it, just go read it for yourself. You will not be sorry you did!

 

Favorite part/ lines (spoilers!):

  • ‘The Swan was a very ancient inn, perhaps the most ancient of them all. It had been constructed in three parts: one was old, one was very old, and one was older still’ (3). 
  • ‘She could lift barrels without help and had legs so sturdy, she never felt the need to sit down. It was rumored she even slept on her feet, but she had given birth to thirteen children, so clearly she must have lain down sometimes’ (5). 
  • The discussion about the word one ought to use to describe a person rowing very quickly up a river. Can’t be haring because hares don’t go in row boats. Can’t be ottering because that sounds worse than haring. It was a very serious discussion.
  • ‘There was a general hubbub of conversation between the windows as the story was discussed, its missing pieces identified, attempts made to fill them in…Fred began to feel left out of his own tale, sensed it slipping from his grasp and altering in ways he hadn’t anticipated; now it had slipped the leash and was anybody’s’ (46)
  • ‘They sat on the bank. It was better to tell such stories close to the river than in a drawing room. Words accumulate indoors, trapped by walls and ceilings. The weight of what has been said can lie heavily on what might yet be said and suffocate it. By the river the air carries the story on a journey: one sentence drifts away and makes room for the next’ (361).
  • ‘While the water lay unperturbed and indifferent all around, the women at the Swan were engaged on the human pursuits of dying and being born. On one side of the wall Helena struggled to deliver her baby into life. On the other side, Joe struggled to depart it. The little Margots got on with everything that needed to be done so that life could be begun and so that it could be ended’ (417).
  • ‘There must be more to stories than you think’ (431).
  • ‘And though eventually there came a day when the man himself was forgotten, his stories lived on’ (457). 
  • ‘How many photographs could a man take in a lifetime? A hundred thousand? About that. A hundred thousand slivers of life, ten or fifteen seconds long, captured by light on glass’ (458).
  • ‘And now, dear reader, the story is over. It is time for you to cross the bridge once more and return to the world you came from. This river, which is and is not the Thames, must continue flowing without you. You have haunted here long enough, and besides, you surely must have rivers of your own to attend to?’ (460).

Chariot of the Soul

Chariot of the SoulChariot of the Soul by Linda Proud (Website, Twitter)

Genre: historical fiction

Setting: ancient Rome and Britain

I read it as a(n): digital galley

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds 

Length: 498 pp

Published by: Godstow Press (23 Oct 2018)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Togidubnos (AKA Delfos or Delphinius) is the youngest son of the Briton king Verica, sent to Rome as a royal hostage as part of a trade agreement between Verica and Rome. Educated in that great city for 10 years by Seneca himself, Togidubnos is then sent back to Britain to help convince his people that their wisest course of action is to fall in line and submit to the might of the Roman Empire. When he arrives, he finds his two worlds – Roman and Stoic, Briton and Druid – at odds, both in the politics of the world and within himself.

Chariot of the Soul focuses on the eventual takeover of Britain by the Roman Empire under Claudius. The author sets the stage nicely. It is obvious that she did some **excellent** research and she shows it with thorough but not pedantic history given as current events in Togidubnos’s young life. The Britons are still rather tribal, and alliances between the various tribes are often unpredictable and ever-changing. Caligula sent an invasion force during his short, disastrous reign, but it failed, the biggest impact being that some British tribes continued trading with Roman territories afterwards. Claudius was smarter about it, using Togidubnos’s knowledge of his home country to try to win the Britons over through more peaceable means. To some extent, this worked as the regions in southern Britain were generally more peaceful under Roman rule than other regions. By the end of the novel, readers have a good understanding of the shifting politics of the period. We are also introduced to Boudicca, that spectacular woman who united the tribes and very nearly kicked the Romans out on their collective asses. Presumably, that part will come in the sequel, as Chariot of the Soul is only the first of a series. 

The characters in Proud’s novel were all deep and well-crafted. Seeing the ways in which Togidubnos grew and changed over time was…not really fun since a lot of bad things happened to him. But satisfying, I suppose, to see how he grew in Stoicism, learned how best to use his knowledge of both Rome and Britain to help as many people as he could, and how he reconnected with the people of his birthplace. His mission was really an impossible one – go back to Britain and convince these very different and almost neurotically independent tribes to submit peacefully to Rome. It is no wonder that he became conflicted in a variety of ways. Togidubnos was a real king, by the way, of the Atrebates tribe. There’s not a lot known about him, but it was enough to give Proud a few good ideas! His British slave, Mandred, was probably my favorite character. I have a soft spot for sarcastic folk anyway, and he was probably the one person who truly kept Togidubnos on a proper path. 

I think my favorite element of character development focused on Claudius himself. He did not have a very large role in this novel, nor was it necessary since the story isn’t about him. But I loved how Proud made him seem a fool prior to becoming emperor, but he always had flashes of the real man underneath, hidden and waiting to be released. She really highlighted the ways in which other people underestimated him. I never really subscribed to the view that Claudius was mentally challenged because I just don’t see how he could have reigned for nearly 14 years if that were the case. I suppose he could have been a puppet but it seems easier and more in line with so much of Roman succession if his handler were just to kill him and take over. I recently read that possible reasons for Claudius’s tremor, slurred speech, and other physical ailments could have been polio, cerebral palsy, or even Tourette’s syndrome. Whatever the reason, I think he was a more successful emperor than many who came before him, and certainly more so than some who came after. 

Another excellent element of this novel was the focus on horses. Yes, I was a horse-crazy little girl. I am probably still a horse-crazy middle-aged woman. But no, that isn’t why I love this part. In a lot of other novels I’ve read set in pre-Roman or Roman Britain, horses were present but treated mainly as tools. Here, they were priceless, with herds going back through generations of painstaking breeding. The warriors loved their horses and when bad things happened to them, they were as grief-stricken as they were when a beloved comrade died. I liked seeing this side of ancient British culture explored more. The author actually has a nice little segment about this on her website.

Proud also did a good job with her handling of the druids. I loved the mystical feel to many of these characters, but it wasn’t so mystical as to be unbelievable. I do wish there had been more here, more detail or rituals. But Proud did very well with the extremely limited sources there are about the druids. 

Honestly, I think the only thing I didn’t care for was the title of the book, and that may not even have been up to the author. It does come from a discussion Togidubnos has with a druid, but we don’t get that until near the end of the book. Initially, the title made me think of some melodramatic bodice ripper with a very buxomy lass spilling out of her dress all over a half-naked Fabio. LOL. It has nothing to do with any of that, thank god, and is a complex and very well researched novel.

Overall, this was an excellent read and I am looking forward to reading the sequel.

Spiteful Bones (Crispin Guest #14)

Spiteful BonesSpiteful Bones by Jeri Westerson (Website, Twitter, Insta)

Genre: historical fiction/ medieval noir

Setting: 14th century London

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: my own collection 

Length: 178 pp

Published by: Severn House (1 Sept 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

In this 14th instalment of Westerson’s Crispin Guest medieval noir series, some fun characters from the past feature in this story. Nigellus Cobmartin has inherited his father’s house upon the death of his older brother. He and his lover, the delightful John Rykener (under the guise of Eleanor) are in the process of restoring it, the house having fallen into disrepair. The workers discover a gruesome scene – a skeletonized body tied up within the walls of the manor house. It is determined that the body belonged to a former servant who the Cobmartin household thought stole a relic and then took off with the wife of another servant. At the same time, Nigellus and John are victims of extortion, under threat of their lifestyle being exposed if they fail to pay the unknown villain. But nothing is as it appears at first glance, and so Crispin and his apprentice, Jack Tucker, find themselves on the hunt for an extortionist who may also be a murderer. 

The character development over the course of this series has been excellent. Crispin is now in his forties and is beginning to feel the effects of a hard and active life, though he rails against it. Jack is taking on more of the lead role in the sleuthing duo and is the image of a young and vital man. There were a few times that he saved Crispin’s neck, literally and figuratively, and while it was lovely to see, I also miss little boy Jack even as I revel in the upstanding man he has become.

Crispin himself has long since accepted that he is no longer nobility and has made a family for himself with Jack, Jack’s wife Isabel, and their growing brood of children. He seems content enough with his lot and takes pleasure in the simple joys in life in ways he was unable to do before. One of his greatest joys is in his son, Christopher, who he is unable to acknowledge. His friends, too, are his joy, and he throws himself into investigating who would murder a friend’s servant, driven to protect those he loves. 

As always, Westerson creates vivid scenery in her settings. It is easy to picture the sights (and, unfortunately, the smells!) of the Shambles and other places in medieval London. The strength of her descriptive writing is exceptional and that, along with complex character development, have made Westerson one of my favorite authors. She creates characters readers genuinely care about and then develops them into rich and multidimensional people, even secondary characters. Take, for example, Nigellus Cobmartin and John Rykener. Nigellus is a fictional character, but Rykener was a real man who dressed as a woman and was a whore and a skilled embroideress. Their relationship, while it may seem implausible to us given the time period they were from, could well have happened. Rykener was listed as having a husband in one of the documents Westerson referenced, though the man was not named. Why not let the husband be Nigellus? There have always been LGBT people, even if they had been vilified, shunned, or even killed at various points in history. A lack of understanding does not mean they didn’t exist, and there is plenty of documentation to prove it. I think it is really important to discuss social issues in all their many elements, but literature is an ideal medium in which to do so. Readers get to know both Rykener and Nigellus over the course of a few books, and can see them as people rather than ideas, mere figures on a page, or solely by their sexual identity. Having other characters like Crispin sometimes struggle with how they see Rykener helps create depth but also gives a nuanced examination of our own society. A long-winded way to say that I love their relationship, the characters themselves, and how Westerson approached it.

I was sad while I was reading this story because I had thought it was the final entry in the Crispin Guest series. But I was wrong! There is one final adventure to share with Crispin, Jack, and friends, The Deadliest Sin, which Westerson’s website says will be released in 2022. 

In the meantime, I highly recommend this book, as well as the rest of the series, to anyone who loves a good, complex, brooding protagonist and a delightful cast of secondary characters.

Soothsayer

SoothsayerSoothsayer by Kathryn Amurra (Website)

Genre: historical romance

Setting: Roman city of Lugdunum (modern day Lyon, France)

I read it as a(n): ARC

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds 

Length: 212 pp

Published by: Kathryn Amurra/ independently published (10 May 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Set in the Roman Empire, Soothsayer is the story of Aurelia, a beloved daughter of a minor nobleman. She is determined only to marry a man she loves and her doting father agrees, allowing her to turn down several potential suitors. His death, which takes place before the book begins and thus is no spoiler, places her in an unstable situation, not just on her own behalf as an unwed young woman, but because of her brother, Angelus. Angelus is what we would consider developmentally disabled, possibly autistic, and Aurelia is desperate to prevent him being inevitably killed during the mandatory military service required of men when they turn 16. The best way to do this is for Aurelia to marry the regional governor, an old friend of her father’s, who can give Angelus a dispensation from military duty.

Sent to bring Aurelia and her unpleasant aunt to the governor’s estate is Cassius, a career military man and captain of the governor’s soldiers. He was told by a soothsayer as a child that his life would be short, so Cassius has spent his whole life to date avoiding close attachments. He figures it would be better for others not to get attached to him only to have him die young. Of course, making a plan is the best way to make the gods laugh, so Cassius finds himself in charge of Aurelia after a series of small disasters separates them from the rest of Aurelia’s retinue and sets them alone on the road to the governor’s estate. 

This novel was a delightful surprise. I chose to read it mostly because I hadn’t read anything set in the Roman Empire in a long time and I felt the urge to, despite the obvious romance elements it contains (I’m NOT a reader of romance). What I found was not the usual predictable romance but rather a very well researched story about ancient Rome that just happened to have a little romance in it. Murra set this story solidly in a historical framework and adhered to the facts we know. 

Aurelia was a complex and well-crafted character. She did not come across as shallow or frivolous, which she could easily have done considering her young age of 19. She was a mature woman by the standards of the time and she was portrayed as such on the page, a fact I highly appreciated. She was the mistress of her own household once her father died, and she took her duties seriously. Her care for her brother would probably have been a pretty rare thing for the time, when no developmental delay was really understood. Many people, including Aurelia, thought Angelus’s defects were a result of his mother’s sins. When he got into some trouble with Cassius’s soldiers, it was evident that they probably would have killed him if Aurelia and Cassius both hadn’t intervened. With that kind of society, Aurelia learns that she has to make sacrifices to save her brother from a horrible life and quick, probably brutal, death. 

The title Soothsayer is interesting considering that the soothsayer in question had a very tiny on-page presence. But the notion of fate and one’s future is prevalent throughout. Aurelia thinks it is her fate to be unhappy but she is willing to make that sacrifice on Angelus’s behalf. Cassius thinks he is fated to die young. The choices each of them makes are informed almost entirely by their interpretation of the soothsayer’s predictions. The cool thing about fate, other than how it doesn’t exist, is that you can interpret a prediction in just about any fucking way you please. Which, in this case, provides a pleasing denouement to the story 

The only thing I didn’t like was that I felt there needed to be a little more description. Murra discussed the clothes the characters wore in that she called them a palla, tunic, or toga, but there wasn’t a lot of describing what those actually looked like. Same with the buildings. Wealthy Roman houses had an atrium with some kind of catchment for collecting water, gardens, various rooms. None of these were really described. It would help bring the story even more to life if these details had more prominence. But their lack did not take away from the story very much, so maybe other readers won’t care. 

Overall, I would definitely recommend this book and would gladly read others by the same author.

The Forgotten Kingdom

The Forgotten KingdomThe Forgotten Kingdom by Signe Pike (Website, Twitter, Insta)

Genre: historical fantasy*

Setting: 6th century Scotland

I read it as a(n): audiobook

Narrator: Toni Frutin, Gary Furlong, and Siobhan Waring

Source: my own collection

Length: 14:07:00

Published by: Simon and Schuster Audio (15 Sept 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The Forgotten Kingdom is the second instalment in Signe Pike’s Lost Queen trilogy. It picks up immediately after the events of the first book. Languoreth is imprisoned and awaiting news of a battle that holds the fates of her brother, eldest son, and husband. The land is divided and her brother, Lailoken, is battling against her husband, Rhydderch. At the same time, Languoreth’s youngest daughter, Angharad, is traveling with Lailoken to become a Wisdom Keeper. IN the chaos of battle, they become separated and Lailoken is drawn into the political and military intrigues while his young niece is lost in the wilderness and left on her own. The survivors of the battle are similarly thrown to the elements, left to fend for themselves in the Caledonian forest. 

This summary does no justice to the depth of this novel. While I liked the first book in the trilogy a bit better, this was a necessary examination of the politics and alliances Languoreth and her kin had to make to survive against the tide of the new Christian religion. Readers are introduced to Artur, who will, I’m sure, become King Arthur later. Angharad, surviving with a relative she discovered among the Pictish folk, may, I suspect, become the Lady of the Lake. I’m very curious to see if I am right, and how this will all play out.

Dumbarton Castle and Fortingal are the modern names for real places in the book. Pike set her story among these locations based on her extensive research. Clyde Rock and the kingdom of Strathclyde, as well as Languoreth’s birthplace of Cadzow, were historical sites, long since lost to history. But, as I have said in other reviews, placing a fantasy in a historical context is the best. It gives us hope that the figures and stories we love so well might not be stories at all, but are part of an actual history that has been lost or overwritten. 

Pike’s term “the forgotten kingdom” regrets to the Picts, the Scots of Dalriada, and other Brythonic peoples. Much of what we know about these people comes from Roman records, which must be taken with a large grain of salt. The Britons of the early medieval period passed knowledge primarily through oral tradition and so their histories were recorded by others. Few relics of their cultures survive. Sometimes, the best we can hope for are post holes from a building; the buildings themselves were mostly made from wood, or wattle and daub, and rotted away. Pike did a terrific job with the use of historical placenames and customs of various groups of people and of bringing the characters to life.

The politics and battles in this book were complex and dramatic. In a way, I wish this period of history was better recorded so we could know more for certain about it. But the very fact that it is not well recorded leaves rich ground for authors to craft stories around the few facts we do have. 

I highly recommend this book (though it is not really a standalone, so you’ll want to read The Lost Queen first, if you haven’t already). The only thing I don’t like is that the third book isn’t coming out until late 2023, per Pike’s website. That is so long! 

*The author’s note made an excellent argument that historical fiction is often miscategorized as historical fantasy, especially if there are references to old or other deities than those found in the Christian tradition. A character will do a chant, prayer, or spell and something happens as a result of it, so they think, and so the story is labeled fantasy. And yet, when Christian characters do the exact same things, the story is labeled historical fiction, as though the religions and beliefs of pre-Christian cultures are somehow less worthy of being considered real. Pike makes a great point with that argument. What we now consider to be mythology was once the official religion of state for the Roman Empire. It would be interesting to see what people in a thousand years will think of Christianity, Islam, or Judaism. Short of having actual magic or dragons or other similar elements of pure fantasy, I will be calling all books like Pike’s historical fiction. She made a convert out of me. Every pun intended.

Of Kings and Griffins

Of Kings and Griffins

Of Kings and Griffins by Judith Starkston (Website, Twitter, Insta)

Genre: historical fantasy

Setting: Hitolia, the fantasy version of Anatolia, the ancient Hittite lands

I read it as a(n): ARC

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds 

Length: 482 pp

Published by: Bronze Age Books (13 Oct 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

In this third instalment of Starkston’s delightful Tesha series based on ancient Hittite culture, Of Kings and Griffins picks up a few months after the events of her second book, Sorcery in Alpara. Tesha, our protagonist, is now Queen of Alpara and has given her husband, Hattu, a baby daughter, Arinnel. Hattu’s brother, the Great King, has died, leaving as heir his untested teenaged son, Urhi, who plots against Hattu’s aid. At the same time, Tesha’s blind sister, Daniti, is called by the griffin king, Bothar, to help him overcome a deadly danger in a way she is uniquely suited for.

This novel opens around a year after the events of Sorcery in Alpara. Tesha and Hattu are at the funeral of his brother, the Great King Muwatti, and Tesha, seeing that Hattu’s young nephew, Urhi, will be a problem for them, uses her magic to influence him to bend to Hattu’s will. Except Tesha, still being very young, wasn’t so subtle and got caught, thus undermining any authority Hattu might have had over Urhi. At odds with each other and his nephew, Hattu and Tesha return to Alpara to regroup. 

At the same time, Hattu’s best friend and military commander, Marik, is dealing with a mysterious illness that is striking down his troops. The court physician believes the illness to be caused by a curse from a powerful sorcerer, and that the ultimate goal is to kill Marik or Daniti next. To stop the magickal illness from killing all his troops, Marik goes on a dangerous spying mission to learn what he can and, with luck, kill the sorcerer responsible for the curse.

There are many layers to this novel, all delicately entwined and teased out over the course of the narrative. The politics involved are interesting and often very subtle. I liked the interplay between Tesha and both Urhi and the Egaryan ambassador, Ahmose. Seeing how Tesha learned to work with and, in some cases, manipulate, these men was fun to read. She has grown as a priestess, a queen, and a woman since we first met her and she’s becoming a very well rounded character. 

I always liked Daniti, so it was great to see her have such a prominent role in this novel. She has begun to manifest magic as well, not as strong as Tesha’s, but she is able to communicate telepathically a little bit over distances. She uses this skill to talk to her niece Arinnel. This ability, as well as her blindness, makes her valuable to the griffin king Bolthar, who brings her to the hidden realm of the griffins to help protect his young cubs. Daniti is certainly kinder than I would be. Bolthar needs her help and yet he is arrogant and disdainful of her practically every step of the way. It would be really hard to want to help someone who treats you like that, but Daniti has a loving heart and throws herself into the project despite Bolthar’s attitude. 

I also liked that Marak played a large role here, even more so than Hattu. Marak was all over the place in this story, from undercover spy searching for a sorcerer to leading military campaigns. It seemed like everywhere you turned, there was Marik, in the best way possible. 

I remain utterly delighted with this series. I read a LOT of fantasy, both pure fantasy and historical fantasy. A series that is based on historical context is almost always going to appeal to me greatly, like Stephen Lawhead’s Robin Hood King Raven series, or Signe Pike’s The Lost Queen Arthurian series. To have a historical fantasy series that is based on ancient Hittite culture is entirely unique. Starkston’s knowledge of the Hittites and the political events of the time period is deep. She supports her characters’ decisions and drives the plot based on her thorough research and understanding of the culture. I have read all three books that are now in the series and can honestly say they are just getting better and better. Also, these books could probably all be read as standalone stories, though you are missing out if you don’t read all of them. Including the author’s notes! Learning the real historical events and people that the Tesha series is based on adds so much depth and meaning to the story. 

Very enthusiastically recommended! 

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

  • When searching through old scrolls and clay tablets for a binding spell, Tesha discovers a whole room of forgotten, ancient tablets. She says the old ones are the best kind. I loved this! Tesha would totally be a book nerd! 

Age of Druids

Age of Druids by Christy Nicholas (Website, Twitter)

Genre: historical fantasy

Setting: Ireland and Faerie

I read it as a(n): ARC

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds 

Length: 284 pp

Published by: Tirgearr Publishing (14 Oct 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Age of Druids is the ninth and final book in Christy Nicholas’s Druid’s Brooch series. In this instalment, readers are taken to early Christian Ireland, roughly 5th century, where Cliodhna struggles to come to terms with the new religion that is invading and pushing out her beloved old religion. She is accustomed to welcoming the day with the sun, feeling the spirit and energy of living things, and communicating a bit with the Fae who live in the woods near her roundhouse. To her dismay, not only do the new religion have no place for the things she loves, but her two eldest children, nearly grown themselves, are drawn to this religion and are changing because of it. On top of that, Cliodhna’s husband has been missing for months, adding a layer of suspicion through which the zealous abbot, Padraic, views her.

To try to hold on to her way of life, Cliodhna begins lessons with Adhna, a man of the Fae. He teaches her how to draw upon earth energy to revitalize plants and animals as well as to protect herself. Cliodhna soon finds herself drawn into Adhna’s world more deeply than she ever imagined possible. She will be forced to make a choice between the mortal world, full of strange new ideas and shifting loyalties, and the Fae world, utterly foreign and frightening. 

It was interesting to see how the various threads from the other books in this series were entwined throughout this novel. We learn how the brooch was created at last and how and why it was gifted to Cliodhna’s family line to begin with. Learning how her family became connected to the Faerie realm was satisfying after so many books preceding it that hinted but never confirmed. 

I have read many of Nicholas’s books and, while I greatly enjoyed this one, it was probably my least favorite of the Druid’s Brooch series. There were a few places, in particular scenes set in the Faerie realm, that I felt I had read before. I spent a lot of time backtracking my old reviews and copies of the other books to see where I had read it before. I couldn’t find any duplicated scenes, so I am clearly wrong. But there was a lot that read in a very familiar way which I hadn’t gotten from any of her other books. Maybe it was just a function of having read the other ones and Nicholas’s writing style has become familiar. That is not in itself a bad thing.

The descriptions were all top notch, both in the mortal realm and in Faerie. I liked the diversity of characters and how they changed over time. The Christian monks in general, and the Abbott in particular, were described in a pretty negative way since they were seen primarily from Cliodhna’s point of view. This negativity was explained in a later part of the plot, but devout readers, which I am decidedly not, may be a little put off by it. The villagers had a few bright spots in terms of character development as well. Ita in particular was an interesting figure and I wish there had been more scenes with her. She added a nice counterpoint to Cliodhna, who was all feisty; Ita was a good balance for her. 

The ending felt a little abrupt, but it makes sense because now the timeline starts to move forward, rather than backward. Readers could tackle the series in the reverse order of publication if they really wanted to and get a sweeping epic fantasy. Which, of course, it is anyway. I really loved the way the entire series moved backward through time to get to the genesis of the brooch that was central to the lives of the characters. I thought that was a really fun way to approach it.

One small quibble I had was the title. There really weren’t any Druids in the book. They were mentioned in passing. Druids are awesome, so I wish there had been more, or a Druid who played a main role. Cliodhna was not a Druid so she couldn’t have been the one the title implies.

Overall, this novel nicely done and provided a satisfactory summation to the entire series. Definitely recommended for fans of historical fantasy and Irish culture.

Isabella of Angouleme: The Tangled Queen 1

27396420._sy475_Isabella of Angouleme: The Tangled Queen 1 by Erica Laine (Website, Twitter, Facebook)

Genre: historical fiction

Setting: 13th century England

I read it as a(n): kindle book

Source: my own collection

Length: 124 pp

Published by: Brook Cottage Books (28 Oct 2015)

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Not many things, fictional or otherwise, are written about Isabelle of Angoulême, so when I came across this trilogy while researching the wives of King John, I was pleased. This first installment covers Isabelle’s life from just prior to her marriage to John, while she was still betrothed to Hugh le Brun de Lusignan, to John’s death in 1216. 

Almost nothing is known about Isabelle’s early life, but Raine filled in some blanks admirably with educated guesses at how a girl of her status would have been raised. There were tons of historically accurate details about daily life in medieval Europe, which made for an immersive reading experience. For instance, Laine often used quotes from various medieval manuscripts, chronicles, or people. They were not always given to the people who actually said the words, but it didn’t make a negative impact on any given scene, and I doubt anyone who hasn’t been up to their eyeballs in medieval research would even know it. But I got a kick out of reading things like “To some it was ugly news, to others, lovely,” which is from the History of William Marshal, and knowing where they were from, who said it, and the context. Raine clearly did her research even while taking some creative liberties.

Similarly, there are several different schools of thought regarding Isabelle and John’s relationship, why he married Isabelle, the reasons for his loss of the continental Angevin lands, and the personalities of each. Raine took some of these various theories and used them to spin a plausible story about this royal couple. It will be interesting to see how the rest of Isabelle’s life plays out in the remaining two books, and how she herself will grow and change. In this book, Isabelle was portrayed as very much a spoiled, somewhat vapid brat, a girl who was raised to be ambitious but who could be distracted with shiny baubles and jewels. 

Overall, a quick and interesting read about a woman many readers would never know about. Recommended.

The Silken Rose

The Silken RoseThe Silken Rose by Carol McGrath (Website, TwitterFacebook)

Genre: historical fiction

Setting: 1300s England

I read it as a: digital copy

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds 

Length: 355 pp

Published by: Accent Press Ltd. (23 July 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 3-4 out of 5 stars*

This novel, the first of a planned trilogy, focuses on Eleanor of Provence, the wife of Henry III, beginning with her journey to England to marry a man who was more than 15 years her senior. In this book, she is called Ailenor. The narrative brings readers along as Ailenor learns first how to be a wife and queen and then a mother. It gives us a varying perspectives, from Ailenor to Eleanor (sister of Henry III, wife of Simon de Montfort) and a fictional embroideress, Rosalind, and covering a variety of the events that plagued Henry III’s reign. The trilogy plans to take a look at the women who have been termed “She-Wolves” for various reasons. This first installment takes care of Eleanor of Provence and her reign as Queen Consort.

First, the good. There were many, many enjoyable things about this book. I loved how much detail there was. In every scene, McGrath evoked imagery, scents, sounds of daily life in medieval London. I especially loved the details with herb and flower gardens. I can practically smell the lavender and rosemary. Similarly, the descriptions of the street scenes in London were pretty evocative as well. 

I also really appreciated other small details, such as the use of relics, in particular the Virgin’s girdle, as charms for a safe childbirth experience. The churching ceremony after giving birth was not given a lot of detail, but it was mentioned a few times throughout the novel and it added extra depth. Also, a queen’s role as intercessor was mentioned several times. I’m fascinated by the queens’ intercessory role throughout time and how it changed, helped, or hindered politics. Little things like this make readers like me happy. I know not everyone cares about historical accuracy when they read a book for pleasure (*horror!*), but I am always deeply appreciative of authors who are accurate anyway. The readers like me will be happy and the readers who don’t care will still read the book and enjoy it regardless. 

A few quibbles. The writing here was clear and easy, flowing smoothly from one perspective to another. The main POV character was, of course, Ailenor, but Rosalind and Nell also got a good deal of time. I was glad, though, that the chapter headings indicated when a change of perspective happened because I didn’t find there was always a lot of variance in the voices between the three women. Ailenor, Nell, and Rosalind often sounded similar and could be hard to tell apart if it were not for chapter headings.

By the same token, I felt that Rosalind was the only one who really had any character development. Ailenor, by contrast, sounded like a fully mature woman even on her journey to meet her husband-to-be when she was only 12 years old. Rosalind, on the other hand, started as a young and shy embroideress but grew into a confident and respected woman, wife, and mother. I did wish a little more of her story had been given to us. She was probably my favorite character in the book. It felt a little incomplete because there were some fairly substantial jumps in the events of her life. However, since she was NOT the primary focus of the novel, it is understandable why the author decided not to make her a larger figure. 

The novel ended with the promised betrothal of Edward to Eleanor of Castile in roughly 1254. This was about ten years before the start of the Second Barons’ War. I was a little disappointed that the novel didn’t cover that time period since I think a lot of interesting content could have been written about Ailenor during that time period. She was considered one of the She-Wolves, and the Barons’ War and Simon de Montfort’s role was a major element within Henry’s reign. It would have been particularly interesting to see Rosalind’s role in that. Even though she is fictional, sometimes those are the best characters through which to explore an historical event or person. Again, I understand why it wasn’t included. It would have been a tome otherwise! 

Overall, I enjoyed this novel. It was a fast, easy read and gives an interesting glimpse into a fascinating period of England’s history. 

*N.B.: I am unclear if the copy I received to review was supposed to be a finished copy or if it was an edited digital galley. The book was already published (in the UK, at least) when I got the file to review, but it was a PDF which is usually how I get galleys. I mention this because if it was a finished copy, then there were numerous places throughout where the text was positively jumbled up and sentences were a mash-up of words. For example: “I think it safer and the apartments there of the City. Without destruction remained have been redecorated.” And “He could not change his mind, had he so wished. as they fell resounding from the ancient A squire always followed his knight.” These are just two of several such examples that were scattered throughout the text. If I got an unedited galley, then never mind, these errors would be corrected upon editing. If it is supposed to be a finished copy, then that is not good and would certainly cause me to greatly reduce my rating of the book. 

The Testament of Mary

The Testament of Mary

 

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin (Website)

Genre: literary/historical fiction

Setting: 1st century Ephesus

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Meryl Streep

Source: my own collection

Length: 03:07:00

Published by: Simon and Schuster Audio (10 Sept 2013)

Her Grace’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars

A first person narrative of some of the events of the alleged life of Jesus, told from his mother Mary’s point of view. The premise is that she is now an old woman waiting to die, and so is writing down her recollections in a factual manner. She is not amused by her son’s choice of friends, who she says are mostly men who can’t even look a woman in the eye. Nor is she impressed with the people who believe her son is the son of God. She definitely has no time for that. She has no interest in collaborating with the authors of the Gospels, who are her keepers as well. She doesn’t think they are ‘holy disciples’ or that her son’s death was ‘worth it.’

I dig this Mary. This Mary has absolutely zero fucks left to give, and she’s not shy about telling you so. She points out the many times she was dismissed or treated badly by her son or others. She is not the gentle, meek, retiring woman portrayed over the centuries in so much art and literature. This Mary has Things to Say™ and she is not happy about the way events played out, nor with the players involved. Here, she is a grieving, bitter old woman, and I don’t blame her. If someone killed my child in any way, let alone in a horrifically brutal way, I’d be bitter and pissed off about it, too. And would likely have a whole lot more to say about it than she did here. Or else I’d be dead because I would attack the people and get it over so they’d kill me. 

I am as atheist as they come and find this a refreshing and realistic portrayal of Mary, totally divorced from centuries of veneration that has been heaped on her. Not that I believe she existed any more than Jesus did. But if she did, I can see her ending up like this. This Mary obviously loves her son but she doesn’t spare him any criticism, either. She doesn’t think he is divine or that he is the son of God. She thinks he didn’t treat her all that well once he was grown. She didn’t like his friends and thought they were a bunch of misfits. She felt that her son’s preaching was dangerous, bizarre, and delusional. She will not tell her keepers stories about her son that weren’t true just so they could fit them in with the narrative they created about him. She simply refuses to play. I loved her, and I felt horrible for her.

Meryl Streep, of course, did an exceptional job narrating this story. She imbues her voice with age, fatigue, bitterness, grief, everything you might expect to find in a woman who has lived far longer than she really wants to, burdened as she is with sorrow and anger. 

I loved this book (novella, really) and recommend it highly. However, if a reader is really religious and isn’t inclined to view Mary or her son in any way other than how they are represented in the Wholly Babble, then it might be better to skip this one. It is NOT an irreverent or heretical book, but it pulls no punches and undermines the whole point of Christianity. Which is why I loved it, naturally.