Tamar, princess of Georgia, can’t imagine her big, intimidating father ever losing a battle. But when an army attacks her country’s capital, Tamar is sent away to relative safety. Rebellious as she is, Tamar doesn’t stay hidden for long, and returns to the capital only to receive her father’s blessing as his heir, leaving her a female queen of Georgia when he dies. But in the countryside, Tamar met a boy that she can’t forget, even when she is forced to make a diplomatic match for her country’s strength. When the choice comes between the boy she loves and the country she would die for, which will Tamar choose?
I’d never read much about Georgia; to be honest, the only reason I even knew there was a country called Georgia is because it was part of the former Soviet Union, which I learned about when I studied Russian in school. But this book immediately took my interest; it’s set during the Middle Ages, and it’s about a woman who struggles with power. Queen Tamar genuinely existed and is a legend for current Georgians, with some buildings associated with her still standing. But from reading this book about the early part of her youth and her eventual reign, it’s obvious that a long and peaceful rule was by no means guaranteed, or even likely.
Told alternately between Tamar and her second husband, Lord Soslan, the book explores her struggles as the kingdom adapted to a woman on the throne. Tamar often demonstrates her intelligence, wilfulness, and determination to retain her throne and do her job properly. There are, as expected, a few uncertain first steps for her, particularly with a difficult aunt who comes to “advise” her on how to become a powerful queen, but her journey is an inspiring and compelling one. It’s really a coming of age tale, but that coming of age is one that an entire kingdom relies on.
I was completely fascinated by the history of this country I’d never read about before; the author includes touches of other parts of the world, particularly the Byzantine Empire, as Tamar’s sister goes to marry there and finds herself embroiled in, as usual, a succession crisis. This provides some essential context for the time period, but overall I loved reading about somewhere completely different. With deft touches, she shapes great characters in the space of a relatively short novel, making for a very pleasurable read over the course of an afternoon.
The Girl King is definitely recommended for other readers of historical fiction; if you’ve had enough of the Tudors and the Plantagenets, why not let Tamar take you back to 12th century Georgia?
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