Review: The Sunne in Splendour

Sunne in Splendour, TheSharon Kay Penman, The Sunne in Splendour

When most people think of Richard III, they picture a hunchbacked villain who was obsessed with being king and who murdered the princes in the Tower as a result. But in this novel, the last Plantagenet king is portrayed in a very different light: Richard (or Dickon, as most characters call him) is noble and loyal to a fault, and these good traits are ultimately what cause his downfall. The novel begins with Dickon’s childhood, when his father, the Duke of York, is killed in the war against the Lancastrian Henry VI. Dickon’s oldest brother Edward subsequently takes his father’s place in leading the Yorkist faction against Henry; eventually, he is crowned as Edward IV, and Dickon becomes one of his most trusted advisers and most skilled battle commanders. But as Edward obtains more and more power, Dickon becomes disillusioned with his brother’s morally questionable choices, and the struggle of brother against brother mirrors the broader conflict between York and Lancaster.

As always, in this book Sharon Kay Penman manages to bring the Middle Ages to life. I always enjoy her vivid descriptions of daily life during this period, as well as her depictions of medieval religion, warfare, and politics. This book in particular is a fascinating political study, showing that the cutthroat nature of modern politics is rooted in a long tradition. I also like the fact that this novel approaches Richard III from a countercultural perspective. While I don’t know enough about the subject to judge whether Penman’s interpretation is justified, it makes sense to me that Henry Tudor (who acceded to the throne after Richard’s death) would want to do everything in his power to discredit his predecessor. It’s always important to remember that history is written by the victors! All in all, I heartily recommend this book to anyone who is interested in Richard III, the War of the Roses, or the Middle Ages in general.

Review: While Beauty Slept

While Beauty SleptElizabeth Blackwell, While Beauty Slept

This loose retelling of Sleeping Beauty follows the fortunes of Elise, a peasant who dreams of a better life. Growing up, she listened to her mother’s stories about working at the king’s palace and fantasized about going there herself one day. When a tragic outbreak of the pox kills most of her family, Elise decides she has nothing to lose and sets out to follow her dream. But working at the palace turns out to be more complicated than Elise anticipated. She sees that the king and queen, though apparently blessed with both love and riches, are devastated by their childless state — especially because the king’s brother has a jealous eye on the throne. She also observes the complicated relationship between the queen and Millicent, a relative of the king’s who lives in the palace and has a reputation for witchcraft. When an heir to the throne is born at last, Elise is caught up in the turmoil that ensues; eventually, she is the only person who can ensure the future of the kingdom.

I’m a big fan of fairy tale retellings, so I was excited to find a copy of this book at the library. Overall, I really enjoyed it, but I would caution fantasy lovers that it’s much more of a historical novel than a fairy tale. There’s hardly anything supernatural in the book; although Millicent plays the part of the evil fairy in the Sleeping Beauty tale (and even curses the newborn princess), her ultimate strike against the royal family has nothing to do with magic or sorcery. But I love historical fiction, so I very much enjoyed this magic-less tale. And many elements of the Sleeping Beauty story were still incorporated into this book; I especially liked the burning of the spinning wheels. Elise got on my nerves sometimes — she’s a bit too judgmental and superior for my liking — but ultimately I was interested in the story she told. The ending, in particular, packs a real punch! So all in all, I’d recommend this book to fans of historical fiction or fairy tale retellings.

Review: The Raven in the Foregate

Raven in the Foregate, TheEllis Peters, The Raven in the Foregate

In December of A.D. 1141, the Benedictine Abbey of Sts. Peter and Paul in Shrewsbury welcomes a new parish priest to Holy Cross Church in the Abbey Foregate. The former priest was a kindly old man much beloved by his parishioners, so everyone is nervous about what to expect from the newcomer. Father Ainoth soon confirms the monks’ worst fears: although he is a scholar and a scrupulously holy man, he is extremely harsh with his congregation and soon stirs up bad feeling in Shrewsbury. When his drowned corpse is found in the river near the mill, it’s up to Brother Cadfael, herbalist and amateur detective, to solve the mystery. Cadfael also acquires a new assistant, supposedly the nephew of Father Ainoth’s houskeeper, but it soon becomes obvious that the boy is more than he seems. Meanwhile, both the abbey and the town continue to be affected by the ongoing civil war between King Stephen and Empress Maud.

This book is the 12th installment of the Cadfael series, and anyone who likes the series will enjoy this book as well. Once again Cadfael finds himself in the position of having to solve a murder, aid a pair of young lovers, uncover a political secret, and hide that secret from the local authorities in the interest of a higher justice. As a longtime fan of the series, I can’t help but love every Cadfael book, but I must admit that the prose does occasionally veer toward the purple end of the spectrum. Also, because Peters sticks to almost the same formula in every book, I found the plot pretty predictable. I was a bit disappointed that the murder and the political intrigue weren’t more closely connected; I thought more could have been done with certain aspects of the story to make the plot more exciting. Still, I love the series and definitely plan to read the remaining eight books. They’re wonderfully relaxing reads if you enjoy a medieval setting!

Review: An Excellent Mystery

An Excellent MysteryEllis Peters, An Excellent Mystery

In the summer of A.D. 1141, two Benedictine brothers seek refuge at the Abbey of Saints Peter and Paul in Shrewsbury. They have fled the city of Winchester, where their former abbey has gone up in flames, a casualty of the civil war between King Stephen and Empress Maud that still rages on. The older of the two refugees, Brother Humilis, is obviously a nobleman — and just as obviously dying from a mortal wound sustained many years ago in the Crusades. The younger man, Brother Fidelis, is mute, but he tends his fellow traveler with astonishing devotion. Brother Cadfael, due to his knowledge of herbs and their healing properties, spends a lot of time with these two brothers and eventually discovers that there is more to their story than meets the eye. Meanwhile, Cadfael also investigates the disappearance of a beautiful young woman who intended to become a nun but never arrived at her convent.

This book is the eleventh installment of the Cadfael series, but I think it can largely function as a stand-alone; newcomers to the series wouldn’t get lost if they jumped in here, though I still recommend starting with A Morbid Taste for Bones. These books are always comfort reads for me. I love the historical setting of a medieval monastery, and I enjoy seeing how Cadfael’s small world is affected by larger historical events. I also like the fact that these mysteries are firmly on the “cozy” end of the spectrum; there is often murder, but it’s never grisly, and there’s also romance and humor and a lot of lovely descriptions of monastic life. As for this book in particular, I definitely enjoyed it, but I’m pretty sure I read something about the solution to the mystery ahead of time, because it definitely didn’t surprise me. In fact, I think the resolution is fairly predictable even if you haven’t been spoiled. However, I still liked this book a lot and look forward to the next installment of the Cadfael series!

Review: The Last Enchantment

The Last EnchantmentMary Stewart, The Last Enchantment

This third book in Stewart’s Merlin saga picks up right where The Hollow Hills left off: Arthur has just been crowned High King of Britain, and now he must confront the various threats to his kingdom. He immediately engages in battle with the Saxons and attains victory after victory, but the more serious dangers to Arthur’s kingship come from within. First, Morgause has managed to hide away Mordred, the son she conceived during her incestuous liaison with Arthur, who will ultimately be Arthur’s doom. There’s also the necessity of ensuring the succession, which means Arthur must find a bride. And finally, some of the northern kings are chafing under Arthur’s rule, so he faces internal rebellions as well as external threats. Through all of this, Merlin remains by Arthur’s side to give him advice, friendship, and the occasional prophecy.

My biggest feeling on finishing this book is one of relief — I’m finally done with this trilogy! (Yes, there is a fourth book, The Wicked Day, but I don’t own that one and have no intention of reading it.) It’s not badly written at all, but it moves so slowly that I couldn’t wait to be done! I think the pitfall of telling Arthur’s story from Merlin’s point of view is that (at least in this version of events) Merlin likes to go off by himself to read or tend his garden or visit foreign lands, so he’s not by Arthur’s side during all the interesting parts. There’s almost nothing in this book about Arthur’s knights, or his relationship with Guinevere, or most of the famous legends of Camelot. In short, I found this book — and the series as a whole — pretty boring, although maybe Arthur enthusiasts would enjoy it more. Personally, it’s not something I ever need to read again.

Review: Devil’s Brood

Devil's BroodSharon Kay Penman, Devil’s Brood

Henry II, with the help of his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, has created one of the vastest empires known to Europe, and the time has come to parcel it out among his sons. As the oldest, Hal will succeed his father as king of England and will also rule over the French duchies of Normandy and Anjou. Richard, Eleanor’s favorite son, will inherit her lands as Duke of Aquitaine. Geoffrey will become Duke of Brittany through marriage to a prominent heiress. But even though all three boys have grown up, Henry still holds onto the reins of power, convinced that none of them are truly ready to rule in their own right. His sons’ lack of independence soon breeds resentment, and Henry is shocked by its consequence: with the help of their mother, they openly rebel against him. This novel is the story of the conflict between Henry and his sons, between Henry and Eleanor, and between the boys themselves, as their struggle for power leads to almost constant warfare throughout Europe.

I’ve been enjoying Penman’s Plantagenet series, and I think this is my favorite installment so far. It’s hard to believe that the major events in this novel actually happened…there’s just so much drama! I also found the portrayal of Henry and Eleanor’s (adult) sons to be fascinating. Geoffrey was my favorite, which will probably surprise any fans of “The Lion in Winter”; but based on Penman’s depiction, I think he would have made the best king. Sure, he was self-serving and manipulative, but so was everyone else in the book! At least he had a good strategic mind with an ability to make long-term plans, and he managed to win over the Breton nobles so that he could rule Brittany competently. The overarching conflict between Henry and his sons was both sad and frustrating. It seemed to come down to a total lack of communication skills and an inability to see the other side’s point of view. (Hmm, sounds familiar….) I’m glad I finally read this book, and I look forward to reading Lionheart in the future.

Review: Dark Triumph

Dark TriumphRobin LaFevers, Dark Triumph

This installment of the His Fair Assassin trilogy features Sybella, a novice of the convent of St. Mortain whose troubled past has driven her to the edge of madness. Chafing under the convent’s restrictions, Sybella is eager to receive her first assignment…until she learns that she’ll be staying in the household of the traitor D’Albret, who is waging war against the rightful duchess of Brittany. Not only is D’Albret faithless and cruel, but he also happens to be Sybella’s own father, the man who has made her entire life miserable. Sybella’s only hope is that the convent will allow her to kill him, but her actual orders are very different: She must rescue the Beast of Waroch, a skilled knight who is vital to the duchess’ cause, from D’Albret’s dungeons. As Sybella and the Beast engineer their escape, they begin to develop a strong bond. But will they reach the duchess in time to inform her of D’Albret’s latest treachery?

This book is very hard to summarize, mostly because it’s the second book in a series, and it definitely does not stand alone. The action essentially begins where the first book left off, and most of the major players have already been introduced. So if the premise of this book sounds interesting to you, I would definitely go back and read Grave Mercy first! If you’ve already read and enjoyed it, you’ll like this one too. As with the first book, there’s a nice mix of action, political maneuvering, and romance. I liked Sybella’s character but wished that the Beast had been fleshed out more; for this reason, I wasn’t totally captivated by the love story. The overarching plot of the duchess vs. D’Albret continues to be interesting, and I look forward to seeing what happens in the third book. I also want to learn more about the convent and its role in the political turmoil; there is definitely more going on there than meets the eye! As you can tell, I’m invested in the world of this series, and I highly recommend it to fans of YA and historical fantasy.

Review: Time and Chance

Time and ChanceSharon Kay Penman, Time and Chance

This novel, the sequel to When Christ and His Saints Slept, continues the story of Henry II after his accession to the throne of England. Henry and his new wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, seemingly have a charmed life, with all the power and riches they could desire. But their great ambitions come with great costs: Henry is constantly on the battlefield defending his holdings in France and skirmishing for power in Wales, while Eleanor is forced to the sidelines and must undergo the rigors of repeated childbirth. The book tells the story of their tempestuous marriage but also examines another important relationship in Henry’s life — his friendship with his chancellor (and later Archbishop of Canterbury), Thomas Becket.

I read When Christ and His Saints Slept a few years ago, but this book contains enough reminders of past events that I was able to follow along without a problem. Overall I enjoyed this novelization of the birth of the Plantagenet dynasty; it’s what I would term an intelligent romp. Penman does her research, but she also manages to write page-turners that are filled with action, scandal, and intrigue. The parts that focused on Henry’s deteriorating relationship with Thomas Becket were both interesting and frustrating to me. Even though I knew how their argument would end, I found myself hoping against hope that they’d be able to communicate with each other and work things out! As for Henry and Eleanor, I think their story in this book will pale in comparison to the events of the sequel, when their children are all grown up. I will be reading Devil’s Brood this summer, and I’m looking forward to it!

Review: Conquest

Juliet Barker, Conquest: The English Kingdom of France 1417-1450

The title of this nonfiction work is pretty self-explanatory: Barker narrates the progress of the Hundred Years’ War starting shortly after Henry V’s victory at Agincourt. She describes the major battles and sieges in meticulous detail, while also painting a picture of the broader diplomatic situation between England and France. The book depicts the major players during this phase of the Hundred Years’ War, including Henry V of England; the Duke of Bedford, Henry’s brother and the chief military leader in France; Charles VII of France; the Duke of Burgundy, whose relationship with the English informed much of the course of the war; and Joan of Arc. Ultimately, Barker analyzes the course of events and offers an explanation for why England eventually lost its claim to the crown of France.

Honestly, this is a book you’re only going to like if you’re already interested in the subject matter. Personally I’ve always been fascinated by the Middle Ages; I’d also previously read Juliet Barker’s Agincourt, so in some ways I was the ideal audience for this book. Barker is a good writer, and this book appears meticulously researched. The book is told more from the British perspective than the French; I wouldn’t necessarily call it a pro-British bias, but there is definitely more time spent on England than on France, perhaps because of the availability of sources. I will say that I struggled at some points because of the repetitive nature of events (“then X castle was besieged and taken by the English, and then the French got mad and took it back,” etc.). But I would definitely recommend this book as a source for anyone studying the period. For someone with less knowledge of or interest in the late Middle Ages, I’d recommend Agincourt instead.

Review: Son of the Shadows

Son of the Shadows by Juliet MarillierJuliet Marillier, Son of the Shadows

Warning: SPOILERS for Daughter of the Forest.

Liadan, the youngest daughter of Sorcha and Red, loves her home at Sevenwaters and wants nothing more than to remain there with her beloved family. However, it seems the Fair Folk have another destiny in store for her. While paying a visit to a sick farmer, Liadan is kidnapped by a group of mercenary soldiers and forced to use her healing skills on their behalf. Terrified to be held captive by these intimidating warriors, Liadan nevertheless does her best to heal the wounded man. Her quiet determination soon wins the men’s respect, but she frequently finds herself at odds with their leader, a man tattooed with menacing symbols and thus referred to as the Painted Man. The arguments between Liadan and the Painted Man eventually transform into a grudging respect and then something more, but outside pressures continually conspire to drive them apart.

I read the first Sevenwaters book, Daughter of the Forest, a few years ago and absolutely loved it. Soon afterward, I acquired the next two books in the series, but for some reason I never got around to reading them. Now I can say that Son of the Shadows is an excellent read, though not a very quick one. There’s so much lush language and description that the book moves fairly slowly.  While I got a little impatient with the pervasive mystical elements (telepathic communications, mysterious prophecies, etc.), they definitely help to create the full-bodied world of the series. I was also annoyed by the Big Secret involving Liadan’s sister Niamh, which was predictable and should have been revealed a lot sooner than it was. However, I really enjoyed the story of Liadan and the Painted Man, and I look forward to seeing what happens in the next installment of the series, Child of the Prophecy.

P.S. Question time: is this the worst cover ever? It’s definitely one of the worst I’ve seen!