The Shadow Queen by Anne O’Brien

Anne O’Brien’s new novel, The Shadow Queen, tells the story of Joan of Kent, wife of the Black Prince and mother of the future King Richard II of England. Although Joan wasn’t actually a queen, she was never far from the throne – as cousin to Edward III, she had Plantagenet blood, and through her husband, Edward’s eldest son Edward of Woodstock (the name ‘the Black Prince’ was given to him later), she was both Princess of Wales and Princess of Aquitaine. When Richard acceded to the throne at the age of only ten, in her position as the king’s mother she was able to have some influence on the early years of his reign. In some ways, then, she could be considered to be a sort of ‘shadow queen’, as the title suggests.

Despite all of this, however, Joan is probably best known for her beauty – she would later become known to history as the Fair Maid of Kent – and for the scandals caused by her three marriages. The novel opens in 1340, with twelve-year-old Joan learning that a marriage has been arranged for her with Will Montagu, heir to the Earl of Salisbury. Joan doesn’t dislike Will and under different circumstances this would have been a good match. Unfortunately, though, Joan is not free to marry anyone – she has already undergone a secret marriage with Thomas Holland, a minor knight who departed shortly after the wedding to fight for the king. Forced to admit the truth, Joan is horrified when her mother insists that her marriage to Will must go ahead anyway. She faces a long and difficult battle if she is ever to prove the validity of her first marriage and to win the right to live with the man she considers her true husband.

Around half of the novel is devoted to Joan’s relationships with Thomas and Will and the challenges involved in disentangling Joan’s first two marriages and deciding who should be her rightful husband. This seemed to go on for a very long time, but I appreciated that it was necessary to give the reader an understanding of the gossip and rumour that surrounded Joan in the early part of her life and how important it was that, when she eventually married the King’s heir, Edward of Woodstock (Ned, as he is called in the novel), her reputation should be clear of any taint.

The other half of the novel follows the years of Joan’s marriage to Ned, their time as Prince and Princess of Aquitaine and, when back in England, Joan’s efforts to ensure that their son Richard will be named successor to the throne. I don’t think it’s a spoiler – as it’s a well-known historical fact – to say that Ned’s life is cut short by illness and as he is outlived by his father, he never has the opportunity to become king himself. I couldn’t help thinking how different things might have been if he had lived and Edward III had been succeeded by a grown man rather than a ten-year-old boy; what we know of the Black Prince suggests that although he was a good soldier he wouldn’t necessarily have made a good king, but still the whole course of history could have been changed. I liked the way Anne O’Brien portrayed him and I enjoyed reading about his relationship with Joan. There was a lot of love between them, but it wasn’t love at first sight – more a love that developed slowly between two people who had known each other from childhood – and, at least on Joan’s part, there was also a certain amount of ambition involved.

Joan herself is portrayed as a strong, proud and courageous person who does her best to take control of her own life, though always within the confines of what it is possible for a medieval woman to do. I’m not sure that I particularly liked her, as she does sometimes come across as a little bit self-absorbed and lacking in judgement, but I did find her a convincing and well-drawn character. I was intrigued by her prickly, hostile interactions with Edward III’s much maligned mistress, Alice Perrers – I know Alice was the subject of one of Anne O’Brien’s earlier novels, The King’s Concubine, which I haven’t read yet, and now I’m curious to see how she approaches Alice’s character in that book.

The Shadow Queen is an interesting, enjoyable novel, if a bit too long and drawn-out in places. I couldn’t help comparing it to the only other novel I’ve read on Joan of Kent – A Triple Knot by Emma Campion – and I think this is definitely the better of the two books.


To Sleep No More by Deryn Lake

I had never come across Deryn Lake’s books until recently, but it seems that she has written a large number of historical fiction novels, detective stories and romances, published from the 1980s to the present day. I decided to try To Sleep No More, a book which first appeared in 1987 under the name Dinah Lampitt and has now been reissued by Endeavour Press as a Deryn Lake novel. It’s an unusual book as it feels almost like three separate novels in one, but with some very important links between the three and all set in the same small community – the village of Mayfield in Sussex.

We begin in the 14th century with the story of Oriel de Sharndene, whose father marries her off to the innocent and childlike Colin, brother of Archbishop John de Stratford. As she tries to settle into married life at Maghefeld Palace, Oriel finds that although she is fond of her husband and captivated by his extraordinary musical abilities, their marriage is never going to be a very satisfying one. The man she truly loves is Marcus de Flaviel, a squire from Gascony who has recently arrived in England and has been appointed companion to Colin by the Archbishop. Colin likes Marcus almost as much as Oriel does, and for a while the three are quite happy. Eventually, though, Oriel’s relationship with the Gascon squire leads to tragedy and at that point the first part of the novel ends.

Moving forward to the year 1609, we find ourselves in the village of Mayfield (formerly Maghefeld) again – and with a new set of characters to get to know. This time we follow the story of Jenna Casselowe who decides to resort to magic to win the heart of the man she loves, Benjamin Mist. Jenna needs to be careful – if anyone finds out what she has been doing she risks being accused of witchcraft. Finally, there’s a third story set early in the 18th century, when the roads and beaches of Sussex are alive with illegal activity. Lieutenant Nicholas Grey arrives in Mayfield on the trail of highwayman Jacob Challice and a gang of smugglers – could another chain of events be about to be set in motion which will again have tragic consequences?

Three stories which all seem very different at first, but as you continue to read some of the parallels and connections start to emerge, although others are not clear until the end of the book. I don’t think it’s spoiling anything (as it’s clearly stated in the blurb) to say that reincarnation is involved and that characters we meet in one time period correspond with characters from another. It’s not always clear who is who as they don’t necessarily keep the same appearance, sex or position in society from one life to the other, but if you’re patient there are eventually enough clues to be able to fit the pieces together.

I have to admit, when I first started to read To Sleep No More I didn’t expect to be very impressed by it (maybe it was the cover of the new edition that gave me that impression) but I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. Although it took me a while to adjust to each new story – as I’ve said, it’s almost like reading three different novels in the same book – and a lot of concentration is needed to keep track of the characters and who they may have been in a previous life, it’s not quite as confusing as it all sounds!

Each section of the book has its own sense of time and place reflecting the different era and the changes in language, culture and attitudes over the centuries. It was obvious that the author had done a lot of research into the local history of the area and into each period in general, although I was not convinced by the work of a doctor who, towards the end of the novel, is carrying out experiments involving hypnosis and regression – his methods were surely too scientific for 1721. On the other hand, without that particular plot development it’s difficult to see how else the various threads of the story could have been pulled together.

Reading Deryn Lake’s author’s note at the end of the book, I was surprised to see how many of the secondary characters and events in the three stories were based on historical fact. For example, Alice Casselowe, Jenna’s aunt in the novel, really was accused of witchcraft and there really was a gang of smugglers operating in Mayfield in the 1720s. The author also incorporates the legend of St Dunstan (allegedly Mayfield’s founder) into the story, with several characters seeing ghostly visions of a monk working at a forge. The supernatural elements of the story are usually quite subtle, though, and are used sparingly to add to the eerie atmosphere of the novel.

Have you read any of Deryn Lake/Dinah Lampitt’s novels? What did you think?

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

the-bear-and-the-nightingale I was drawn to this book first by the cover – and then by the mention of Russian fairy tales and folklore. It seemed a little bit different from the usual books I read and I hoped it would prove to be an enchanting, magical read, perfect for the winter months.

The story is set in the 14th century in Lesnaya Zemlya, a village in northern Rus’.  The village is home to Pyotr Vladimirovich who, since losing his beloved wife in childbirth several years earlier, has lived alone with his five children and their elderly nurse, Dunya. The youngest child, Vasilisa (or Vasya, as she is known), is becoming wild and rebellious and it is partly because of the need to provide a mother figure for her that Pyotr decides to marry again. Unfortunately, though, his new wife – Anna – turns out to be a wicked stepmother who dislikes and distrusts Vasya and believes she can see demons hiding all over the house.

Vasya, who has inherited special abilities from her mother, can also see Anna’s ‘demons’, but she knows that they are not evil spirits – they are household guardians watching over the people of Lesnaya Zemlya. When Father Konstantin arrives in the village, believing he is on a mission from God to stamp out the old traditions and beliefs, the powers of the household spirits begin to fade. Harvests start to fail, winters seem colder and harder than ever before and the evil forces that lurk in the forest grow stronger. Can Vasya find a way to protect her family and restore happiness and prosperity to the village?

The Bear and the Nightingale is a story steeped in Russian myth, legend and fairy tale. Although I loved fairy tales as a child, I seem to have missed out on most of the Russian ones, but that wasn’t a problem at all – and I was surprised to discover how much I was actually familiar with. I particularly enjoyed being reminded of the story of Frost which Dunya is telling the children as the novel opens:

“But what did he look like?” Olga demanded.

Dunya shrugged. “As to that, no two tellers agree. Some say he is naught but a cold, crackling breeze whispering among the firs. Others say he is an old man in a sledge, with bright eyes and cold hands. Others say he is like a warrior in his prime, but robed all in white, with weapons of ice. No one knows.”

Frost, or Morozko to give him his Russian name, is an important presence throughout the whole novel, although he only appears to the characters on a few occasions and we are made to wait until near the end of the book before his true significance becomes clear. Other aspects of the story are slow to unfold too – such as the role of the Bear and Nightingale of the title – which is why I’m not going to say any more about the plot or the characters, even though I would love to! I would prefer to leave some of the novel’s secrets and surprises for you to discover for yourself.

What I will mention is the setting, which I loved. Most of the action takes place in and around Vasya’s village, with lots of vivid descriptions of the harsh living conditions and the bleak, relentless winter weather, but there are also a few sections set in Moscow at the court of the Grand Prince Ivan II. I have very little knowledge of 14th century Russia (or Rus’, as the region was known at that time) so I wasn’t sure how much of this was based on fact, but as this is historical fantasy I tried not to worry too much about that.  I was more interested in the portrayal of the conflict between the old ways and the new, the changing beliefs of the people and the loss of old traditions.

The Bear and the Nightingale is apparently the first in a trilogy – I hadn’t been aware of this when I first started to read, but on reaching the end of the book I was happy to discover that there will be another two and that the next one will take us away from the forests of Rus’ and into medieval Moscow. I hope we won’t have to wait too long for it as I’m looking forward to it already!

Thanks to the publisher Del Rey for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley for review.

The Plague Charmer by Karen Maitland

the-plague-charmer The village of Porlock Weir appears to be under a curse. Janiveer, a woman rescued from the sea following an eclipse of the sun, has warned the villagers that plague is approaching and that only she can save them – for a price. It’s a price that nobody is willing to pay, but it’s not long before the disease reaches their small coastal community and there are some in the village who begin to wonder whether they have made the right choice. The year is 1361 and the horrors of the Great Pestilence of thirteen years before are still fresh in people’s minds.

In The Plague Charmer, Karen Maitland tells the story of Porlock Weir through the eyes of several different characters: Will, a dwarf; Matilda, devoted to her religion; Christina, who has given birth in secret at nearby Porlock Manor; and Sara, a mother trying to protect her two young sons. It’s a complex plot; each of these characters, and others, have storylines of their own, but they all come together to form a dark and magical mixture of myth, folklore and legend, love, murder, religious relics and secret cults.

There were so many things to like about The Plague Charmer. I particularly loved the setting – a little fishing village on the Exmoor coast – and learning about the lives of the people who lived there, steeped in tradition and superstition. It was interesting to watch the people of Porlock Weir deal with the arrival of the plague at a time when so little was understood about the causes of illness and death, a time when even a natural phenomenon such as an eclipse caused panic and terror. Whether or not Janiveer really possessed magical powers, it was easy to see how she was able to take advantage of the fears of the villagers to manipulate the situation to serve her own ends.

Although I can’t really say that I liked any of the characters, I did enjoy getting to know them all, especially Will, the ‘fake dwarf’. Not a natural dwarf, but one created by his master in a most horrific way, to be sold for the entertainment of rich noblemen. Due to his size and the treatment he has been forced to endure, Will looks at the world differently from the other villagers and is in the unusual position of being not quite ‘one of them’ but not quite an outsider either. He’s a great character and one of only a few in the novel who behaved with decency and humanity. I couldn’t help thinking, though, that there were too many characters and too many subplots (one in particular, involving Sara’s sons, Luke and Hob, added very little to the overall story, in my opinion). I found the constant switching between viewpoints distracting and would have preferred to have spent longer following one character before moving on to the next.

Getting back to the positives, I enjoyed reading the author’s Historical Notes at the end of the book. These provided an opportunity to learn more about the background to the story and some of the people and places that are mentioned (most of the characters are fictional, but a few, such as Sir Nigel Loring of Porlock Manor, are based on real historical figures). I was also pleased to discover that we are given the answers to the intriguing riddles found in the headings of Will’s chapters. Some of them were easy to guess, but others had left me baffled!

Finally, I should probably leave you with a word of warning. Like the other Karen Maitland books I’ve read (The Vanishing Witch and The Raven’s Head), this is a very dark story and can be quite gruesome at times; you need to be prepared for bad things happening to the people of Porlock Weir, and that includes the children. It’s not a book for the faint-hearted, but it’s certainly a fascinating and atmospheric one.

Thanks to Headline for providing a copy of this book for review.

Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset

Kristin Lavransdatter I have always loved long books, the sort you can bury yourself in for weeks, becoming immersed in a fully-formed fictional world and getting to know characters who, by the time you reach the final page, feel almost like personal friends. Kristin Lavransdatter, though, is more than just a ‘long’ book – it’s a very long book! With over 1,100 pages in the edition I read, it’s similar in length to classics like War and Peace, Don Quixote and Les Miserables and left me with a similar mixture of feelings on finishing: a sense of achievement at making it to the end; sadness at having to say goodbye to Kristin and her family; and, I have to admit, relief at finally being able to move on to something else. I enjoyed Kristin Lavransdatter – loved it at times – but it’s not always an easy book to read, for reasons which I’ll explain below.

So far I have been describing this as a ‘book’, but in fact Sigrid Undset originally wrote three individual books about Kristin – The Wreath (first published in 1920), The Wife (1921) and The Cross (1922) – which have been combined into one volume in this Penguin Classics edition. It’s still possible to buy them separately (and it would probably seem less daunting that way) but they don’t stand alone very well at all and really do feel like three sections of a longer novel. After finishing the first part I moved straight on to the second and then the third and I was glad I took this approach otherwise I would probably have lost track of what was happening.

Set in the 14th century, Kristin Lavransdatter is, unsurprisingly, the story of Kristin, daughter of Lavrans. We first meet Kristin as a young girl growing up on her parents’ manor at Jorundgaard in Sil, a rural area of Norway. A good, honourable, hard-working man, Lavrans gains respect and admiration wherever he goes and he and Kristin are very close. His wife, Ragnfrid, however, has never fully recovered from the loss of three young sons and as a result her relationships with both Lavrans and Kristin are strained.

Early in the novel, Kristin is betrothed to the quiet, reliable Simon Darre, whose family own a neighbouring estate. She has no reason to dislike Simon, but she feels nothing for him and longs to experience the sort of passion her own parents’ marriage lacks. Her chance comes when she meets and falls in love with Erlend Nikulausson, a man who is handsome, charming and romantic – in other words, everything Simon isn’t. Kristin knows that this is the husband she has been dreaming of and even the knowledge that he has been excommunicated by the church for living with another man’s wife doesn’t change her mind. When Simon finds out about Erlend he agrees to break off the betrothal, but it takes a lot longer for Kristin to persuade Lavrans and Ragnfrid – so long that by the time she is eventually allowed to marry Erlend she is already pregnant with his child.

In case you’re thinking I’ve given away too much of the plot, all of the above happens in The Wreath alone. The other two parts of the book – The Wife and The Cross – explore the consequences of Kristin’s decision to marry Erlend rather than Simon. And the consequences are varied and far-reaching, affecting not only Kristin herself but everyone else around her. It’s a sad and tragic story and this is one of the reasons why, as I mentioned earlier, this is not the easiest of books to read. Whether it’s a death, an illness or an accident, a murder, an act of betrayal or an unhappy marriage, each and every character is subjected to a relentless stream of misery.

My heart ached for Kristin as she discovered that the man she had married was not all that she had hoped he would be – not a hero but a flawed human being – and that making their relationship work was going to be difficult. However, I also had some sympathy for Erlend; he is not a bad man but he is sometimes a weak one, with a tendency to act before he thinks and with none of the skills necessary to manage a farm and household effectively. He makes mistakes and has to live with those mistakes, but so does Kristin and I thought it was unfair of her to place so much of the blame on him. I also felt sorry for their young children, for Simon (who ended up being one of my favourite characters) and for Kristin’s sister, Ramborg. As I said, this is not a happy story for anyone!

Sigrid Undset (1882-1949)

Sigrid Undset (1882-1949)

As we accompany Kristin on her journey through life, we are also given a lot of information on the history and politics of the period. This becomes increasingly important as Erlend finds himself embroiled in a plot against the king and, I have to admit, I found some of this difficult to follow. If I read the book again (as I’m sure I will want to at some point in the future) I’ll have to concentrate more on that aspect of the story. Of more interest to me was the portrayal of daily life in the valleys and mountains of medieval Norway, a way of life strongly influenced by the Catholic Church, but also steeped in superstition and folklore. The publication of Kristin Lavransdatter led to Sigrid Undset being awarded the 1928 Nobel Prize in Literature “principally for her powerful descriptions of Northern life during the Middle Ages”.

Finally, I should mention that Kristin Lavransdatter was originally written in Norwegian. The English translation I read was a recent one by Tiina Nunnally and I had no problems with it; I thought it was very clear and readable. I’ve heard that the earlier translation from the 1920s by Charles Archer and JS Scott is not as accessible, so I’m happy that I made the right choice.

Kristin Lavransdatter was the book selected for me in the Classics Club Spin back in March – and it kept me busy until June! Now I’m looking forward to starting my next Spin book: Prince of Foxes by Samuel Shellabarger.

The People’s Queen by Vanora Bennett

The Peoples Queen They say you should never judge a book by its cover and in the case of The People’s Queen, I have found that to be very true. The image on the cover of this particular book gives the impression that this is a typical ‘royal court’ novel, maybe similar to the sort of book you might expect from Philippa Gregory. If you take away the cover, the novel itself – written in third person present tense and with a focus on politics, money and trade rather than love and romance – feels much more like Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.

Our heroine, if it’s possible to call her that, is Alice Perrers, most famous for being a mistress of England’s King Edward III (who reigned from 1327 to 1377). Alice was never a queen and, as far as I can tell, was never popular with the people either, so I’m not sure where the title of the novel comes from – other than that she was a woman from a humble background who rose to a position of power. I have read fictional portrayals of Alice before, but only as a secondary character, so I was curious to see how she would fare as the protagonist of her own story.

The People’s Queen is structured around the medieval concept of the Wheel of Fortune. As the novel opens, Alice is riding at the top of the wheel, at the height of her power and influence. During her rise, Alice has made a lot of enemies…but also some friends, including the poet Geoffrey Chaucer, who has gained a new position as comptroller of customs for the Port of London under Alice’s patronage. It is said that pride comes before a fall, however, and Alice’s fortunes are about to change.

Aware that the King is starting to grow old and infirm and won’t be around forever, Alice begins to make plans for the future. Knowing that she will lose his financial support when he dies, she enters into an unscrupulous business venture, confident that nobody will discover what she has been doing. Eventually, of course, Alice’s schemes start to fall apart as the Wheel of Fortune begins to turn again.

Alice’s story takes place during an interesting and eventful period of English history: the novel incorporates the Black Death and the Peasants’ Revolt and features characters such as John of Gaunt, the Black Prince, Katherine Swynford and Wat Tyler. Somehow, though, Vanora Bennett manages to make a potentially fascinating story feel boring and passionless. I mentioned a similarity to Hilary Mantel, but the similarity is in the style of writing only. Where Wolf Hall is a compelling and enjoyable novel, The People’s Queen just isn’t, at least not in my opinion. Not being particularly interested in economic history, I thought there was too much time spent discussing taxes, budgets, loans and interest rates. I was also disappointed in the lack of medieval atmosphere; I think the author was trying to draw parallels with modern life and modern politics, but I felt that this came at the expense of creating a sense of time and place.

I do think Bennett does a good job of making Alice a complex, well-rounded character. She is shown to be greedy, ambitious and manipulative, as well as intelligent and shrewd…but she also has a softer, more vulnerable side, and it can’t be denied that she does provide some happiness and comfort to Edward. The way in which she becomes involved with Wat Tyler and the Peasants’ Revolt appears to be completely fictional and does not feel convincing, but I liked the portrayal of her friendship with Geoffrey Chaucer (which forms a major part of the story). There is some historical basis for this as they did know each other and Alice is believed by some historians to be the inspiration for the Wife of Bath in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Despite finding Alice an interesting character, though, I didn’t feel any sort of connection with her. I didn’t expect to actually like her, but it was disappointing to find that I didn’t care at all what happened to her.

I haven’t given up on Vanora Bennett yet because I did like Midnight in St Petersburg a lot more than this book and I also still have Queen of Silks on my shelf to be read. I’ll hope for a better experience with that one!

Kingdom by Robyn Young

Kingdom After reading Renegade earlier this year (the second of Robyn Young’s three novels on Robert the Bruce), I decided to move quickly on to the third and final volume, Kingdom. Having had my interest piqued in this period of Scottish history, I wanted to read The Scottish Chiefs by Jane Porter and possibly Nigel Tranter’s Bruce trilogy – but it made sense to finish with this trilogy first to avoid confusion!

Kingdom continues Robert’s story, picking up where Renegade left off. It’s 1306 and Robert Bruce has been crowned King of Scots at last, the other claimants to the throne now either dead or in exile. His dream has finally been achieved – and yet he is still unable to rule in peace. King Edward I of England, who feels he has been betrayed by Robert once too often, is unwilling to give up control of Scotland and sends Aymer de Valence, Earl of Pembroke, north at the head of an army. Just a few months after his coronation, Robert is defeated by Valence at Methven Wood and is forced to flee. Eight years of conflict will follow, ending in 1314 at the Battle of Bannockburn – and if you don’t know what happens at Bannockburn, then I’ll leave you to find out for yourself.

I enjoyed Kingdom more than Renegade, but not as much as the first book, Insurrection. This one is a bit too heavy on the battle scenes for my taste, although that’s understandable as the period covered – 1306 to 1314 – was, as I’ve mentioned above, a time of constant conflict, with Robert and his men caught up in a long series of sieges, raids, battles and skirmishes. It’s also quite a sad book, as Robert’s friends and family pay a heavy price to enable Robert to fulfil his destiny. Some face execution, some are imprisoned and others suffer the indignity of being caged like animals. There’s cruelty on both sides, but also compassion and that’s one of the things I’ve noted throughout this trilogy: that the situation is not just portrayed as a case of Scotland good and England bad or vice versa. In fact, Robert faces not just opposition from Edward and the English but also from Scottish rivals and rebels, all of whom ensure that his path to the throne will not be an easy one.

Robert himself is a more sympathetic character in this novel than in the previous two. I found him difficult to warm to before – although that was partly a result of all the treachery and betrayal he was involved in, as well as the lack of time he had to spend with his wife and daughter – but it seems that with his coronation has come a new maturity and sense of responsibility. He is still a slightly bland character, though; I prefer my heroes to be more charismatic! I actually thought some of the other characters were far more interesting than Robert – Alexander Seton, for example, a nobleman from East Lothian who finds his loyalties torn between his country and his family.

I was sorry to see the last of Edward I, who had been the driving force behind much of what happened in the first two and a half books. He is succeeded by his son, Edward II, who lacks his father’s military and leadership skills and is a less worthy opponent for Robert. But while I can’t say that I liked either of the Edwards, the real villain in Kingdom is Aymer de Valence. Apparently, though, the historical Valence was not exactly as he is portrayed in this trilogy; Robyn Young admits in her author’s note that she hasn’t been very fair to him and that he probably doesn’t deserve to be seen as villainous at all. I would like to give a word of praise to Robyn Young for her author’s notes, by the way – they are much more comprehensive than most.

I have enjoyed reading this trilogy, especially as I previously had only a very basic idea of the history involved, which meant that most of Robert Bruce’s story was new and unfamiliar to me. Now I’m looking forward to exploring the period further!