Marguerite and Eleanor of Provence, close friends as well as sisters, are separated when their husbands are chosen. Marguerite is destined to marry the French King, Louis IX, while Eleanor is sent to England to wed Henry III. At first, quiet and malleable Marguerite seems the luckiest sister, for her husband is handsome and with him she finds what she believes to be love. Eleanor’s husband, Henry, is older and shorter than she is, but she soon gets to know him and falls in love herself, while Marguerite realises that her husband is ruled by his mother and his piety. These two women from the powerful family of Savoy never forget one another, and their bond changes medieval Europe as they begin to wield the only power available to women of their day.
The Sister Queens is precisely the kind of historical fiction I love, and which swiftly absorbed me within its pages. Marguerite and Eleanor haven’t been written to death already; in fact, Henry III and Louis IX are fairly absent from the historical fiction scene themselves, even though massive changes are taking place in both countries through the narrative, laying the ground for history to come which does have more conventional attention. The medieval atmosphere is very appealing, with plenty of smaller details sprinkled throughout the narrative.
Plenty happens, too; the sisters’ husbands go to war, sometimes with the sisters alongside them. Marguerite in particular spends years on Crusade with her husband, at one point making a stand of her own against the enemy with very little on her side at all. Henry III struggles, famously, with his barons, as his poor political judgement leads to problem after problem in the ruling of his kingdom. There are the inevitable lulls as both women have multiple children and time must pass by fairly quickly to excuse their pregnancies, but I found it very easy to carry on reading without feeling like the story bogged down at all.
It’s in part the relationships between the sisters, though, that makes this an excellent book. Yes, they have their children and their husbands, but they also always have one another, and it’s the sort of heartwarming female relationship that doesn’t always dominate mainstream fiction in quite the way it should. The mere fact that it was true, that these sisters really did bring about a peace between their two countries that lasted until Edward III shook things up again, added authenticity to the relationship and made the entire book more absorbing. This truly was a fascinating period in history (although if you listen to me I seem to think all of the Middle Ages is fascinating) and Perinot does it great justice here.
Finally, I must confess that I absolutely love that Perinot used Jean de Joinville’s chronicle as the basis of certain happenings around Marguerite’s court. I immediately had a strong desire to read de Joinville’s work for myself, and it’s an amazing way to fill in the historical blanks without stepping on the toes of what’s already been established.
In short, an excellent work of historical fiction that makes me think again about not remaining in love with the genre. Certainly the best I’ve read this year set in the Middle Ages. Highly recommended.