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. 

Sword of Shadows

47863903Sword of Shadows  by Jeri Westerson (WEBSITE, FACEBOOK)

Her Grace’s rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Genre: historical fiction

I read it as an: ARC

Source: Netgalley 

Length: 224 pp

Published by: Severn House (20 April 2020)

We are nearing the end of the adventures of Crispin Guest, disgraced lord and knight, self-created Tracker of London. In this tale, Crispin and his apprentice Jack Tucker are hired by Cornish treasure hunter Carantok Teague to assist him in finding a long lost sword. It turns out to be none other than Excalibur that Teague seeks. Crispin is, of course, skeptical, but takes the job as he needs money, as always. Teague leads them to Tintagel, the fabled birthplace of King Arthur, to seek the sword. While there, two men in the castle guard are murdered, and Crispin is sidetracked from the search for the sword to investigate the deaths. Along the way, he encounters Kat Pyke, his one-time lover, as well as a host of young women jilted by one of the murdered men, and a hidden village in the forest full of Druids. Exactly what Crispin needs to have an interesting time.

Anyone who knows me at all knows I have a particular soft spot for Arthurian legend. Mixing that in with one of my favorite historical fiction series is like human catnip to me. The murder investigation element of the story takes a fairly normal course, and certainly not all is as it first appears. The Arthurian element was fun because who hasn’t thought about that sword in the stone or of where its final resting place might really be? I did feel that the Athurian sections were not as well fleshed out as the rest, but that just adds to the mystery a bit. And the surprise at the end with the old caretaker was a delight. 

Jack is grown now and Crispin is letting him take the lead on a variety of tasks that he wouldn’t have before. I’ve said it before and will say it again here that it is good to see Jack grow from a mischievous young boy to an honorable, dependable man. If she wanted to, Westerson could easily continue her medieval noir novels with Jack as the protagonist and new Tracker, with Crispin making cameo appearances. I think she has no such plans, but it is still fun to consider, as well as the final story in the series. I know how *I* hope Crispin’s tale ends, but we shall have to wait and see what Ms Westerson thinks about it! 

Strongly recommended! 

Memoirs of a Traitor

41t033qmoel._sx331_bo1204203200_Memoirs of a Traitor by Lee Levin

I read it as an: ARC

Source: HNS

Length: 384 pp

Publisher: Royal Heritage Press

Year: 2018

Presented as a found document, Memoirs of a Traitor is the story of William Stanley, knight banneret, and brother of Lord Thomas Stanley. These brothers played an interesting role during the Wars of the Roses, fighting for the Yorkists at the Battles of Blore Heath and Tewkesbury, but later fighting for the Lancasters at the Battle of Bosworth. Sometimes you just can’t fucking decide who to fight for, you know? Like most others of their peers, they were primarily concerned with keeping their heads securely attached to their shoulders. One managed to do so, the other, not so much. Just the way the cookie crumbles, I reckon. This book tells the tale of William, the younger Stanley brother, supposedly written from the Tower the night before his execution for treason for his role in supporting Perkin Warbeck’s claim to the throne.

This was a very readable book. The style was conversational, engaging, and yet still informative, if somewhat too informal for my usual taste. First-person narratives are kind of hit or miss for me, but since this was supposed to be Stanley’s own written account, there was no other way it could have been written. Sometimes it worked fine and helped draw me into the story more fully; other times it brought me out of the story because I thought it was cheesy or distracting. I do think it really limited the extent to which the other characters were fleshed out. Only a handful of secondary characters were really given very much attention or life. Most were pretty flat, with a couple notable exceptions such as Baron Simon de Rochford and Owen the squire. It would have been nice to get to know them better. I didn’t think the rest had well developed voices and it was difficult to differentiate them on the page.

I think, too, that the pace might have been a little too fast in that some major events or battles happened too quickly with not enough detail given. I get that the premise of the book was that William was hunched over a parchment, scribbling his thoughts in a hurry in one night before going to the block, but it felt like there was too much lost that would have been good to add depth and flavor to the tale had it included more detail. However, all the main points are touched upon and this really would be a great book to use to introduce someone to the Wars of the Roses who isn’t as familiar with it. The overall historical accuracy and engaging writing style make it easy enough to forgive some glossing over of the finer details, especially given the first-person narration.

All in all, I found this to be an enjoyable read and would recommend it, though with some caveats.

^This is a longer, more detailed version of a review my published via the Historical Novel Society.

Traitor’s Codex

42730289Traitor’s Codex (A Crispin Guest Mystery Book 11)* by Jeri Westerson (website, Facebook)

Her Grace’s rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Genre: historical fiction – medieval, 14th century London

I read it as a: hardback

Source: my own collection

Length: 198 pp

Published by: Severn House (June 1, 2019)

**Spoilers below**

In 1394 London, Crispin Guest, self-styled Tracker of London, and his apprentice Jack Tucker are making ends meet with small jobs here and there. But their world gets turned upside down when a mysterious man drops a package in Crispin’s lap and disappears. Inside is a book written in a language Crispin has never seen. Making use of his varied contacts throughout the city, he learns that the book is written in Coptic and contains a secret gospel, the Gospel of Judas, which claims that Judas was the most beloved apostle and that salvation can come from within a person, not through Christ’s sacrifice. Knowledge of this gospel would overturn the Church’s authority and lead to a dangerous heresy, something even skeptical Crispin isn’t willing to allow. When people who have helped him start getting murdered, Crispin finds himself in the middle of a race to get the book to a safe place. In the meanwhile, someone in London is impersonating Crispin and wreaking havoc on his reputation… 

Throughout this novel, themes of loyalty, oaths taken, and reevaluating what we thought we knew take the lead. Crispin and Jack both are forced to closely analyze the things they had always taken for, well, gospel truth, and both come away from their adventure changed in some fundamental ways. I think it was a good, if hard, lesson for Crispin to learn that Jews are people who have a great deal to contribute to his society and he realises he was not very good to them, or not as good as he could have been, only after two of his Jewish friends are killed. 

The subplot with Crispin’s copycat were amusing, and the way he handled it was very inventive. I liked how it came full circle in the end and Crispin used the man the way he did. It made that subplot more meaningful, rather than just a nuisance to Crispin that had no other purpose. 

The concept of loyalty also comes into play a lot throughout this novel. It was good to see Crispin evaluating his past role in the rebellion to place John of Gaunt on the throne and to understand the impact it had on others in ways he had never considered. Assessing one’s own thoughts and actions is an indication of a well-rounded adult and Crispin has really learned a lot about himself throughout the novels, and in this one especially. 

I am looking forward to the next book in the series with both excitement and bittersweetness, knowing it will be one of the last. But also – Excalibur! YES! I am also really, really curious to see how Crispin’s tale will end. I know *I* have my own ideas and hopes for how it will end and what will become of Crispin, Jack, and the rest. But it will be interesting to see if any of those align with Westerson’s plan for our favorite intrepid, disgraced knight. 

Favorite parts (potential spoilers!):

  • The bookseller’s excitement over his books, especially the Launcelot book that was written in London but which he got in the Holy Land. Book nerds from the Middle Ages geeking out about their books is absolutely something I want more of in everything I read! 
  • When Julian of Norwich comes to visit. I loved the nod to her writing when Julian refers to Mother Jesus, and later her most famous quote: All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.. As a medievalist who focuses on the writings of holy women, including Julian, I dig it when someone makes us if them in their own work. Also, the author’s note explains why Julian was in London and not in her cell, which is where she actually would have been, and does so in a way that is believable within the scope of the novel. Nicely done, my lady Westerson!

 

*Amazon affiliate link.

Arthurian Novels Round-Up!

It’s been a while since I did any kind of round-up post, and I’ve been thinking a lot about Arthurian novels. Arthurian legend is probably my absolute go-to favorite for fantasy literature. I love a ton of different kinds of sci-fi and fantasy, of course, but if I had to pick one specific subgenre that really blows my skirt up, it has to be Arthurian. I’ll take it in just about any setting, I’ll read it without forgetting, I’ll read it at school, I’ll read it in the pool, I love stories of Arthur the King… I’ll stop. Ahem. Sorry.

Anyway, in no particular order, below are some of my favorites and I hope some are new to you!

51itaibuaqlOur Man On Earth (The Swithen Book 1) by Scott Tilek. An account based on some of the oldest extant manuscripts describing Merlin.

Black Horses for the King (Magic Carpet Books) by Anne McCaffrey. My beloved author wrote an Arthurian novel (yay!) about horses (winning!!), which is even better. All about the quest to find the perfect breed of warhorse for Arthur and his knights.

51ln1vvcazl._sx331_bo1204203200_The Kingmaking: Book One of the Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy by Helen Hollick. An historic retelling, stripped of magic and placed in a realistic medieval setting. One of the best, on par with Bernard Cornwell’s Arthurian Trilogy (The Warlord Chronicles: Books 1, 2 & 3: Excalibur / Enemy of God / The Winter King), which is also legit.

The Guinevere’s Tale Trilogy (Daughter of Destiny, Camelot’s Queen, and Mistress of Legend) by Nicole Evelina. The Arthurian legends told from Guinevere’s perspective. The tales get a fresh, feminist revision with a fierce new look at Camelot’s queen.

Child of the Northern Spring: Book One of the Guinevere Trilogy by Persia Wooley. Guinevere is a Welsh princess tomboy who was raised to become a queen.

Knight Life by Peter David. Arthur and Morgan in modern Manhattan, as told by the hilarious Peter David, whose Star Trek books I have universally loved. Especially Imzadi.

51gzvucvqfl._sx354_bo1204203200_Song Of The Sparrow by Lisa Ann Sandell. Actually, this is the story of the Lady of Shallott, told in verse, and it is lovely.

The Excalibur Murders: A Merlin Investigation by JMC Blair. Excalibur is stolen and a squire is murdered, so Merlin has to use his magic to solve the crime.

The White Raven by Diana Paxson. An historical setting of the Tristan and Iseult story, placed in medieval Cornwall. It is told from the perspective of Branwen, Iseult’s cousin and lady in waiting. Alas, I think this one is out of print, but I know you can get it from used bookstores and Amazon, because that’s how I got my copy. Just sayin’… 

Misfortune of Time (Druid’s Brooch #6)

40176383Misfortune of Time by Christy Nicholas

I read it as an: egalley

Source: Helen Hollick at  Discovering Diamonds. 

Length: my file only gave Kindle locations, not page numbers. Super annoying.

Publisher: Tirgearr Publishing

Year: 2018

*Minor spoilers ahead. You have been warned.*

In this sixth installment of Christy Nicholas’s Druid’s Brooch series, Etain, a 12th century Irish woman, has the ability not to age thanks to the magic she draws from her Druid’s brooch. The brooch is an heirloom inherited from her mother, passed down the family line, first given to her family by a Druid in thanks for saving his life. Etain is able to change her appearance at will, so she can age herself appropriately over the years, but her natural appearance is of a woman around 30 years old. In truth, she is around 150. She has had many husbands, many children, and has had to leave them all behind in her long life to avoid being discovered and killed as a witch or Fae. Her current husband, Airtre, is a mentally and physically abusive putrescence of a man, a Christian priest whose primary goal is to move up in the Church to a bishopric. Etain stays only to protect her young grandson, Maelan, from Airtre. When events explode, Etain is forced to flee, getting help from some unexpected allies, including other priests and monks, as well as a few kindly Fae.

I have read several books by Christy Nicholas, including some in the Druid’s Brooch series, and I must say I think this is my favorite one so far. The characters were all multidimensional and interesting, for the most part, and I enjoyed seeing a variety of people mingling together in the villages Etain traveled to, even if life wasn’t really like that in 12th century Ireland. I think she captured the fear and ambivalence of an abused woman well, though I hope I never truly understand that. Etain had a horrific life and it speaks to the strength of her spirit that she kept going and trying to survive rather than just giving up and letting some mad horde kill her as a witch, for the brooch can’t protect her from death.

I loved the theme of tolerance woven throughout, as well as the Gaelic hospitality. There were many instances of travelers or even old friends being offered food, drink, and washing water the moment they set foot indoors. I loved that because that’s how I was raised and it felt like home to see it reflected on the page. As well, the tolerance was a thread throughout. Etain has lived long enough to know that belief isn’t what is important, it is people who are important. She tells Maelan that “a little kindness can have unexpected rewards,” and often she herself has to remember her own lesson and take the kindness of others. Later, Maelan’s wife, Liadan, tells her, “Before I met [Aes], I didn’t realize pagans were just normal people like you and me.” Learning that people have more similarities than differences is a vital life lesson that many people today still need to learn.

The one thing I wish was different was that some of the narrative felt rushed. When Etain left Faerieland and settled in the ringfort, working in the kitchens, for example, little time was spent there, little real detail. The same happened before she entered Faerieland, when she was in the village and traded all her herbs for a cow. I wanted more detail and time spent in those places. Doing so, I feel, would give more of a sense of loss, of fatigue, because Etain was happy in both of those places and then was forced to go again. But these are minor quibbles in my overall enjoyment of this very engaging historical fantasy.

Also, it totally made me think of Dar Williams’ song The Christians and the Pagans.

Llywelyn the Great

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Yesterday was the 776th anniversary of the death of Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, also known as Llywelyn the Great. Born in 1173, he began to take control of North Wales when he was about 14 years old. By the time he was about 28, he was effectively the ruler of all Wales. He unified Wales, historically a nation often divided by war and clan fighting, and held the land in peace. Even during the difficult years when he was at odds with King John, Llywelyn eventually managed to regain lands he lost, and he held the respect of his retainers and the nobles. He is one of only two Welsh kings to be given the title Fawr, “the Great.”

As a lover of historical fiction, in particular, medieval historical fiction, some of my favorite novels feature Llywelyn Fawr or his contemporaries. The best novels bring his time to life in the most vivid ways, transport me to his castles at Dolwyddelan, on his campaign trail, at his feast table. It takes a special kind of talent to make history come alive and not turn it into a dry, boring textbook. I’ve ready plenty of historical fiction novels that read like straight history textbooks, and it was awful. All I could think of while reading those was that I hoped other readers didn’t pick those particular books up as their first exposure to the time period. Otherwise, I just couldn’t see how they would ever be intrigued enough to want to learn more about it, and that makes me sad. For those who have not yet discovered good historical fiction based on Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, below are some of the very best.

220px-herebedragons

Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman. Rich not only in (highly accurate) historical detail, but also in the complexities of medieval politics, kingship, and interpersonal relationships, Here Be Dragons is my favorite novel of medieval Wales. One of my favorite scenes in the whole book was the wedding night of Llywelyn and Joanna, the daughter of King John. She was young and scared, and Llywelyn, wanting to earn her trust, offered to delay consummating their wedding and opted instead to cut his arm so that she could show a bloodstained sheet to those wanting proof of her viginity.

61ws0ldb2bdl-_sy344_bo1204203200_

The Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet by Edith Pargeter. This series is about the grandson of Llywelyn Fawr, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, also called Llywelyn the Last. It is a first person narrative told from the point of view of Llywelyn’s scribe and friend Samson. I rather like the first person account since it gives an immediacy to the story and an intimacy into just one aspect that we might not otherwise get to see. After all, we only can see life from our own perspective.

What others have you read?

A Morbid Taste For Bones

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As a die hard fan of medieval mysteries, I feel a great deal of gratitude to Ellis Peters for essentially starting the genre with this, the first entry in the Brother Cadfael series.

And what a treat it is! For a tiny book that inexplicably took me an inordinate length of time to read, this was really a fun story. Cadfael is a terrific character, full of quirks and orneriness. Love it! He’d be fun to hang out with.

The secondary characters were nicely developed. Brother John was awesome, and his minor story arc was delightful. Sioned was a strong, wonderful woman and I was glad to see her story have enough twists and turns to give her some adventure during her journey.

I liked that the bad guys weren’t so blatantly bad that Whodunnit was immediately obvious. There were some nice moral dilemmas and grey areas, which are really still relevant today.

Can’t wait to read the rest of the stories in this series.