The Summer Queen by Elizabeth Chadwick

The Summer Queen The Summer Queen is the first in a trilogy of novels telling the story of the medieval queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Eleanor (or Alienor as she is referred to throughout the book) is a thirteen-year-old girl when the novel begins in 1137. Following the death of her father, the Duke of Aquitaine, Alienor is married to King Louis VII of France. At first the marriage is a happier one than either Alienor or Louis had expected, but as the years go by Louis begins to change and their relationship disintegrates. During a crusade to Jerusalem, Alienor makes an important decision regarding her future and with the young Henry, Duke of Normandy – the future Henry II of England – waiting in the background, the scene is set for the next two books in the trilogy, The Winter Crown and The Autumn Throne.

I have read other novels in which Eleanor of Aquitaine has been a character, but in most books the focus is on her relationship with Henry II and their sons (who included two more future kings, Richard I and King John). This is the first time I’ve read about her early life in so much detail, so I found this book fascinating and informative as well as being an enjoyable read.

As usual, Chadwick’s characters feel like people who really could have lived and breathed during the 12th century, rather than modern day characters dropped into a medieval setting. Alienor herself is shown to be a strong and intelligent woman with ambitions of her own, who really cares about the future of her own lands of Aquitaine and the welfare of the people who live there. She is frustrated by her husband’s lack of leadership skills and reliance on his advisers, particularly when she believes they are advising him to make incorrect decisions.

Alienor (or Eleanor) is not always shown in such a positive light as she is in this book and I liked this version of her character. In her author’s note, Elizabeth Chadwick explains some of the choices she made in writing Alienor’s story, particularly how to tackle the questions of whether Alienor may have had an affair with her uncle Raymond, Prince of Antioch, or with one of her own Aquitaine vassals, Geoffrey de Rancon (Chadwick’s answer is no to the first and yes to the second). She also tells us why she chose to use this particular spelling of Alienor’s name and how she decided what Alienor may have looked like.

I thought the breakdown of Alienor’s marriage to Louis was described in a way that felt realistic and believable. As a second son raised for a career in the church, only becoming heir to the throne after the death of his elder brother, Louis proves to be a weak leader and too easily influenced by the stronger personalities around him, particularly the Templar knight Thierry de Galeran. It was sad to see Alienor watch as the young, attractive husband she had once liked and cared for turned into a grim and humourless man, ready to blame his wife for all of his misfortunes (such as her failure to produce the male heir he so desperately wanted). However, Louis is never quite a villain and it’s possible to have some sympathy for the person he has become.

I also loved the portrayal of Henry, although he only really comes into the story towards the end. Being confident, self-assured and ambitious, he is the opposite of Louis in many ways and I was pleased to see Alienor find some happiness after so many wasted years, even though history tells us that this happiness isn’t going to last forever.

As well as being an entertaining story and providing a huge amount of information on Alienor’s early life, The Summer Queen is also a great introduction to the history and geography of medieval Europe and beyond. The route of Louis and Alienor’s crusade can be followed using a map at the front of the book and takes us through Hungary, Constantinople, Antioch and into Jerusalem encountering some of the most important historical figures of the period along the way.

I loved this book and am looking forward to seeing how Alienor’s story continues in The Winter Crown.

The Convenient Marriage by Georgette Heyer

The Convenient Marriage My library has very few Georgette Heyer books and I’ve read most of the titles they do have, so on a recent visit I was delighted to see this one on the shelf – one that I hadn’t read and in such a pretty edition. I think I still prefer the older Arrow covers with the historical portraits, but this one does look very attractive and I’m pleased to say that I thought the story inside lived up to the promise of the cover. Heyer’s novels are always fun to read and this one was no exception.

When the Earl of Rule proposes marriage to the eldest Winwood daughter, Elizabeth, she is faced with a dilemma. Her brother Pelham’s gambling debts are mounting up and she knows that the Winwoods are in need of Rule’s money. However, the man she really loves is Edward Heron, a humble soldier, and the thought of having to marry Rule instead breaks her heart. It is left to Elizabeth’s youngest sister, Horatia, to come up with the perfect solution – she’ll propose to Rule herself, leaving Elizabeth free to marry Edward.

Surprisingly, the Earl agrees to marry Horatia, not put off by her stammer, lack of height and eyebrows that won’t arch. But will the seventeen-year-old Horry and the thirty-five-year-old Rule be happy with their marriage of convenience or will the age difference prove too great to overcome? With a trio of enemies (Rule’s cousin and heir-presumptive, a jealous former mistress, and the vengeful Lord Lethbridge) determined to cause trouble and Horry’s brother Pelham equally determined to defend his sister’s honour, the plot soon descends into a series of farcical misunderstandings and moments of comedy.

Although I have read better Heyer novels and this one hasn’t become a favourite, I did really enjoy it. It was so entertaining, with never a dull moment – there are card games, duels, balls and masquerades, trips to the opera and to the circus, and encounters with highwaymen. This book is set in the Georgian period rather than the slightly later Regency and I loved the descriptions of the flamboyant Georgian fashions – powdered wigs, patches, silk stockings, blue velvet and puce satin, not to mention Crosby Drelincourt’s ill-fated straw hat with pink roses!

My only problem with the book, really, was that I didn’t like Horatia very much. I loved her opening encounter with the Earl of Rule and I warmed to her again by the end, but throughout the middle of the book she irritated me with her stubbornness and immature behaviour. I had to keep reminding myself that she was only seventeen after all.

I did love Rule. He’s one of my favourite Heyer heroes so far. He kept reminding me of the Scarlet Pimpernel, with his ‘sleepy eyes’ and lazy manner hiding a shrewd brain and quick wit. I loved the way he stayed so calm and patient with Horry, always trusting that she would do the right thing in the end. Horry’s brother Pelham, Viscount Winwood, was another great character. Some of the scenes involving the drunken Pel and his friend, Sir Roland Pommeroy were absolutely hilarious. I would have loved to include some examples here, but they really need to be read in context to be able to appreciate how funny they are!

Reading this book has reminded me of how much I love Georgette Heyer and how many of her books I still haven’t read yet!

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

Kindred Kindred begins in 1976 with our narrator, Dana, celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her husband, Kevin. Suddenly Dana begins to feel dizzy and disappears from the room, finding herself kneeling by a river watching a young boy drowning in the water. She manages to rescue the boy before the scene in front of her vanishes and she is back in her own home, wet and muddy. After another similar experience, Dana becomes aware that she is somehow being drawn back in time to the early 1800s and that the boy she has saved is Rufus Weylin, one of her own ancestors.

Dana is transported back to the past again and again to find that on each occasion several years have gone by and Rufus is growing from a man to a boy. It seems that the purpose of Dana’s time travel is to rescue Rufus every time he finds himself in danger – but she quickly discovers that as a black woman in Maryland in 1815, her own life could also be at risk. To make things worse, Rufus is white and the son of a slave-owner. She’s not sure whether she can trust him, but she knows that she must continue to protect him if she wants to ensure her own future survival.

This is the first time I’ve read any of Octavia E. Butler’s work, though I’ve heard a lot about her and knowing that she was one of very few black female authors of science fiction made me even more interested in trying her books. I was particularly interested in reading Kindred, as it’s such a well-loved, highly regarded novel, and I’m pleased to have finally had an opportunity to read it because it was excellent.

At first, with her knowledge of the future and the freedom and independence she has there, Dana feels very different from the slaves she meets on the plantation. But the longer she spends in the past, the more she discovers “how easily people could be trained to accept slavery” and is horrified to find herself adapting to her new life and becoming increasingly reluctant to resist, knowing that it’s the only way to avoid punishment. On one of her journeys back in time, her husband, Kevin, is able to accompany her. This adds another angle to the story as Kevin is just as outraged by slavery as Dana is, but being both white and male he finds himself in an entirely different social position.

The relationship between Dana and Rufus is particularly interesting (as Dana herself muses, “slavery fosters strange relationships”). Although both Rufus and his father before him commit some acts of appalling cruelty, they are not portrayed as completely evil people. There are indications, particularly in the younger Rufus, that he has the potential to be a good person but as the years go by he finds it more and more difficult to think and behave any differently than he has been brought up to think and behave. Even the special bond he shares with Dana is strained as he becomes corrupted by the power he has, as a white man, over those he considers inferior.

I don’t know what Butler’s other novels are like, but this one is as much historical fiction as science fiction. We learn very little about the actual technicalities of Dana’s time travel and are never given a scientific explanation as to why it might be happening. The time travel is really just a device to get Dana into the past and explore what it was like to be a slave from the point of view of a modern day black woman. I have read other novels that deal with the subject of slavery but never from this perspective. It was fascinating and really helped me to understand what slavery was like (as far as it’s possible to understand without actually experiencing it yourself). I loved this book!

I received a review copy from Headline via Bookbridgr

The Moon in the Water by Pamela Belle

The Moon in the Water Pamela Belle’s name first came to my attention two or three years ago when I was looking for lists of novels about Richard III and saw a mention of one of her books, The Lodestar. After discovering that it was out of print, I never actually got round to looking for a copy and forgot about it…until a few weeks ago when I came across one of her other novels, The Moon in the Water. Not the one I had originally wanted to read – and set in an entirely different period – but it sounded good so I decided to try it anyway. And I can’t say that I regret reading this one instead of The Lodestar, as I loved it from the first page to the last!

First published in 1983, The Moon in the Water is the kind of historical family saga I used to love reading – books like Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds, Susan Howatch’s Penmarric or John Jakes’ North and South trilogy come to mind – but haven’t read very often in recent years. It was a joy to discover this one and to know that I have many more Pamela Belle books still to look forward to. The Moon in the Water is the first of her Heron series, following the story of Thomazine Heron and her family, and is set during the English Civil War.

When Thomazine, our narrator, is orphaned at the age of ten, her father’s cousin, Sir Simon Heron, becomes her guardian. Arriving at Sir Simon’s estate of Goldhayes in Suffolk, Thomazine settles into her new life and gets to know the other Heron children – Simon, the eldest and the heir; Edward, who wants to become a soldier; the rebellious, quick-witted Francis; Lucy, an avid reader of stage plays; and six year-old Jamie, the baby of the family. Thomazine soon forms friendships with each of her five cousins, but it’s Francis with whom she feels the closest connection. When a marriage is arranged between Thomazine and another cousin, Dominic Drakelon, Thomazine is horrified but consoles herself with the knowledge that the wedding won’t take place until she is sixteen and a lot can happen in six years.

As time passes and the Heron children grow up, Thomazine discovers that she has fallen in love – not with Dominic, but with her cousin Francis. With Sir Simon now dead, his eldest son, Simon, has become head of the family, but unfortunately he distrusts and disapproves of his younger brother; if Thomazine is to have any chance of escaping from her betrothal to Dominic, she must first find a way to repair the relationship between Simon and Francis. Meanwhile, tensions between King Charles I and his Parliament intensify and the Herons, who choose to support the King, find themselves facing a host of new challenges as civil war breaks out in England.

The Moon in the Water is a romance, but not a silly, bodice-ripping one. There is so much more to this book than just the central love story. Music and poetry are shared interests of several of the characters and we are given fragments of song and verse. The historical background is well researched and there are descriptions of battles, sieges and the ways in which civil war affects not just the people at the heart of the action but also those who have stayed at home. And while it’s sometimes too easy to predict what is going to happen, the story is gripping enough to make this a difficult book to put down.

But going back to that central love story, it’s a great one. Rather than coming out of nowhere, the relationship between Thomazine and Francis develops slowly from friendship to romantic love and it feels believable – although it’s obvious to the reader long before the characters themselves start to become aware of how they feel! It also helps that they are both such great characters. I had a look at some of the other reviews on Goodreads after finishing the book and was intrigued by the fact that several reviewers mentioned that Francis Heron is very like Francis Crawford of Lymond from Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, which is exactly what I kept thinking too, to the point where I started to find it distracting and wished the author had chosen a different name! The intelligent, imaginative young Francis Heron is very much as I would imagine Francis Crawford as a child and as an adult his relationship with his brother Simon is similar in some ways to Lymond’s relationship with his brother Richard.

I also loved Thomazine, which is fortunate as this is really her story, narrated in the first person, which means her personality comes through on every page. Another favourite character was Grainne, the Irish girl who marries a friend of the Herons and becomes almost one of the family. The villains were maybe a bit disappointing – and it was easy to guess who they were going to be, even before they committed any villainous acts – but that’s just a small criticism of such an enjoyable book.

It’s frustrating that these books and so many others that I want to read are out of print, but at least in this age of the internet it’s a lot easier to find copies of them than it used to be! I’m very excited about reading Pamela Belle’s other novels, beginning with the next in the Heron series, The Chains of Fate. With this one ending on a big cliffhanger, I can’t wait to see what the future holds for the Heron family – although I’m sure things aren’t going to go smoothly for them!

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

The Burgess Boys Although the title of this novel is The Burgess Boys, there are actually three Burgess siblings – Jim, Bob and their sister Susan. Jim and Bob live in New York, while Susan is the only one to have remained in Shirley Falls, Maine – the town where they grew up. Jim is an ambitious and successful lawyer, whose defence of the singer Wally Packer has made him a household name. His younger brother, Bob, also has a career in the law but has never matched Jim’s achievements; he has spent his whole life blaming himself for an accident which killed his father, and as a result he doesn’t have a lot of confidence. Susan, Bob’s twin, is a single mother living in Shirley Falls with her troubled teenage son, Zach.

Shirley Falls, predominantly a white community, has recently become home to large numbers of Somali immigrants. Racial tensions in the town are already high and when Zach throws a frozen pig’s head through the door of a mosque during Ramadan, it causes a national scandal. Jim and Bob return to the town of their childhood to support their sister and find out why their nephew has done something so terrible, but in the process they make some surprising discoveries about themselves and about each other.

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher last year but didn’t read it as it didn’t sound very appealing to me and as I hadn’t requested it I didn’t feel under any obligation to read it if I didn’t want to. I do remember reading some positive reviews of it, though, and when I noticed it was named on the shortlist for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction I decided to give it a try. Now that I’ve read it I think my initial reaction was correct because it really wasn’t my type of book at all; I was interested enough to keep reading right to the end and I appreciated the quality of Elizabeth Strout’s writing, but this was a book that I could admire without particularly enjoying.

I found this quite a subdued and depressing novel. All of the characters, even the secondary ones, seem to be such unhappy people, dissatisfied with their lives, their marriages and their jobs. With the possible exception of the good-natured Bob Burgess and one of the Somali characters, Abdikarim Ahmed, I didn’t like any of them. I thought Susan was cold and bitter, Jim was over-confident and insensitive, and Helen (Jim’s wife) was shallow and self-absorbed. There’s certainly a lot of character development and by the end of the book it’s obvious that there is more to each person than originally meets the eye – but they are simply not people that I had much interest in getting to know.

I do think it was a good idea to write part of the novel from the perspective of the Somali immigrants. I was struck by the way so many of the non-Muslim people in Shirley Falls, while not necessarily racist, seem to have almost no knowledge of Islamic culture or the customs of the Somali people who are living among them (they incorrectly refer to them as Somalians, for example, and in some cases have never heard of Ramadan and don’t know why a pig’s head might be offensive to a Muslim). However, I never felt I completely understood Zach and why he did what he did, although the author does her best to make us feel sympathetic towards him by portraying him as a shy, awkward teenager who (slightly unbelievably) was unaware of the implications of his actions.

The Burgess Boys is a thought-provoking read and a good portrayal of a dysfunctional family, but I found the story disappointingly flat and boring, lacking any sort of drama or interesting plot developments. However, despite not enjoying this book very much I haven’t ruled out trying one of Elizabeth Strout’s other books at some point, particularly Olive Kitteridge which sounds much better than this one.

The Collector of Dying Breaths by M.J. Rose

The Collector of Dying Breaths This is the sixth book in M.J. Rose’s Reincarnationist series and although I haven’t read any of the others I think this is the third to feature the character of Jac L’Etoile (the previous two are The Book of Lost Fragrances and Seduction).

The Collector of Dying Breaths is set in two different time periods, one contemporary and one historical. The historical storyline is set in the 1500s and begins with Rene le Florentin, a young apprentice in an Italian monastery, being wrongly accused of murdering his master, the monk and apothecary Dom Serapino. Rescued from prison by Catherine de Medici, who is about to marry into the French royal family, Rene starts a new life in Paris as perfumer to the French court. But while his knowledge of fragrances, potions and poisons makes him indispensable to Catherine, Rene continues to work on a secret project he and Serapino had begun in Italy based on the theory that a person’s dying breath can be captured in a bottle. Rene believes that if he can discover the correct combination of ingredients to mix with the dying breath, he will be able to use the resulting mixture to reanimate the soul.

In present day France, we meet mythologist Jac L’Etoile. Jac comes from a family of perfumers but tries to avoid becoming too closely involved in the perfume industry because certain scents seem to cause her to experience vivid memories of the past – not just her own past, but other people’s too. However, when the rich, eccentric Melinoe Cypros asks her to come to her chateau and continue the work of Rene le Florentin, Jac reluctantly agrees. But as Jac begins to search for the formula needed to reanimate a dying breath, she finds herself haunted by visions of the 16th century perfumer and the woman he loves.

While this is a complete novel in itself and it’s not completely necessary to have read the previous ones, there are frequent references to events from Jac’s past which I’m assuming must have been covered in earlier books and I did feel that I was missing something by coming to the series so late. The author does attempt to give new readers all the backstory we need, but there was too much of this and I found it a bit overwhelming. I did think the historical sections of the novel were well done and I found them more compelling than the contemporary sections. The way Catherine de Medici was portrayed was interesting, if more negative than I’d expected, and I enjoyed the dynamics between Catherine, Rene and Catherine’s astrologer, Ruggieri.

Although it took me a while to get into the present day storyline, once Jac and the others began to work on deciphering lists of ingredients and trying to prepare potions, I became much more interested. I was fascinated by the idea that simply using the same ingredients that Rene used in the 16th century may not work because their properties have altered so much over the centuries. For example, we are told that ambergris (a secretion produced by whales that was commonly used in fragrances) could be slightly different in its modern form because the diet of the whales and the quality of the water in which they live is not the same as five hundred years ago.

This is a very imaginative book, perfect for those readers who like a touch of the paranormal in their historical fiction. I think it was just my unfamiliarity with the series and the characters that prevented me from enjoying it as much as I would have liked to.

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I read The Collector of Dying Breaths as part of the Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour. For more reviews, interviews and guest posts please see the tour schedule.

Empress of the Night by Eva Stachniak

Empress of the Night This is a follow up novel to The Winter Palace, a novel about Russia’s Catherine the Great which I read in 2012. I remember having a few problems with The Winter Palace so I wasn’t sure whether to read this book or not, but I do love Russian historical fiction and in the end I couldn’t resist. Looking back at my review of The Winter Palace, which was narrated by a fictional character, Varvara, I had said that I would have preferred a book written from Catherine’s perspective. That is exactly what Eva Stachniak has done in Empress of the Night, so I was interested to see whether that would help me to enjoy this book more than the first.

The novel has an unusual structure, beginning on the final day of Catherine’s life in 1796. She has just suffered from a stroke and in the hours that follow she looks back on her life in the form of flashbacks and memories. Occasionally we return to the present to see how Catherine and the people around her are trying to deal with what has happened. By the time she takes her last breath we have watched the whole of Catherine’s story unfold, from her early days in Russia at the court of the Empress Elizabeth to the final years of her own reign.

Although this is the second of Eva Stachniak’s Catherine the Great books, the two could be read in either order (for this reason the publishers are describing it as a ‘follow up’ rather than a ‘sequel’). For anyone who hasn’t yet read The Winter Palace, this book (or the first part of it, anyway) covers some of the same events, including the young Catherine’s arrival in Russia as the Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst, intended bride of the Empress Elizabeth’s nephew, Peter, and her relationship with her friend and spy, Varvara. If you have already read The Winter Palace, however, you are seeing everything from a different perspective this time.

Catherine the Great was a fascinating woman but she is not someone I’ve read about in any depth before and this meant that I really learned a lot from this book. But while major events such as Russia’s war with the Ottoman Empire, the Pugachev Revolt and the creation of the Legislative Commission are discussed, Catherine devotes much more time to remembering her relationships with her various lovers. And there are a lot of them! Her marriage to Peter III was not a happy one and ended with his assassination in 1762 after which Catherine succeeded him to the throne. She was romantically involved with many other men, including Serge Saltykov, Stanislaw Poniatowski (the future king of Poland), Grigory Orlov, and her favourite lover, Grigory Potemkin.

More interesting than the love affairs, for me at least, were the descriptions of Catherine’s family life. It was so sad that her son, Paul, was taken from her by the Empress Elizabeth and allowed to spend very little time with his mother so that in later life he is somebody she barely knows and doesn’t like. But Catherine has warm, loving relationships with several of her grandchildren, particularly Alexander and Alexandrine.

Empress of the Night - UK cover The style of the writing in this book seemed to me to be very different from The Winter Palace – it’s very fragmented and probably what you could describe as ‘stream-of-consciousness’. The disjointed narrative meant that at first I struggled to really get into the story and connect with Catherine, but on reflection I can see that a woman who had just had a stroke and knew that she was dying probably would be confused and incoherent. It would have been nice to have been given some dates, though, because I found it difficult to measure the passing of time and would have liked to have had some idea of when various events were taking place and of how old Catherine was.

I didn’t find this a particularly ‘easy’ read because of the way the narrative jumped around and I think maybe The Winter Palace is my favourite of the two books after all, but I did enjoy learning more about this important and powerful woman.

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Empress of the Night is available now published by Bantam in the US or by Traverse Press as an ebook only in the UK. Both covers are pictured above. I received a copy for review from Bantam via NetGalley.

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