July 2024
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Review: The Arrow of Sherwood, Lauren Johnson

the arrow of sherwoodWhen Robin, Lord Locksley, arrives home from four years on Crusade, his family is astonished. His fiancée has become engaged to someone else, his mother has re-married a sheriff, and his estates have become entrusted to his young nephew, who has become the ward of the Viponts, one of the most dangerous families in Nottingham. They believed he was dead. Alive, he has to fight to regain what should be his by right. In doing so, he realizes that the Vipont family has been mistreating many of the lowborn families he grew up with; taxes are extremely high and the Viponts are closely allied to the Count of Mortmain, or John, King Richard I’s younger brother, who rules the country while his elder sibling is imprisoned in Germany. Justice is subverted and new laws are created to benefit the lords, not those who suffer under their leadership. Robin is convinced that something needs to be done, and as a lord without any of the benefits of lordship, perhaps he’s the one to do it.

The Arrow of Sherwood is written by a trained historian and it really shows in the best possible ways in this book. There are details which make it clear that this isn’t a tale of modern people in fancy old dresses or a gritty hack-and-slash which shows that the Middle Ages must have been brutal; instead, it’s somewhere in the middle, with scenes at court and scenes of battle and thievery. Johnson recaptures what sort of person Robin Hood might have actually been and the book’s realism, in my eyes, is a huge selling point and definitely set it apart. It’s also a bonus that this isn’t a book about the Tudors or the Plantagenets; it’s a realistic re-imagining of a legend and for that I couldn’t help but appreciate it hugely.

The book is well-written and takes us through Robin’s journey, which is fraught with twists and turns as he struggles with the almost insurmountable authority of the Vipont family. The book gives a really good idea of how much local families were stuck with each other; there are only so many people who have authority within a given region and if one person is higher up, that’s it for everyone else. Justice was a red hot iron pushed into your hand; if it was infected, you were guilty, and if it wasn’t, you were innocent.

The only issue I had with it was actually understanding the feasibility of the set-up behind Robin’s rescued prisoners. Towards the middle of the book we essentially have an entire “hundred” of people in a forest, masked as a leper colony, but one that no one ever finds except a couple of peasants and Marian and Elaine. In addition, Robin is juggling double identities and really doesn’t seem to lie very well. I had a difficult time believing he’d be able to keep the secrets with which he is entrusted and I didn’t understand why none of the Viponts ever think to follow Robin on his travels like some of the more minor characters do. The set-up seemed too convenient, although perhaps this is again just my modern brain not actually understanding the scale of a forest.

Definitely recommended for those who enjoy fiction set in the Middle Ages and, even though Robin Hood is a well-known legend, for something a bit different than the masses out there.

All external book links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.


Review: The Queen’s Man, Sharon Kay Penman

the queen's manJustin de Quincey has received an excellent education for 12th century England, despite the fact that he’s never known either of his parents. Finally at an age to set off on his own, Justin discovers that his father is actually the benefactor he’d already been familiar with, Aubrey de Quincey, nothing less than the Bishop of Coventry. When leaving, his thoughts clouded with anger and betrayal, he stumbles upon a murder scene, and receives a letter meant for Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. The Angevin Empire is in a bad place, as King Richard has gone missing on his return from the Crusades. Justin’s successful delivery of the letter to the queen leads to his assignment – discovering who had this man killed, why, and who might know what’s happened to King Richard.

Despite having read and adored most of Sharon Kay Penman’s books, I’d never actually read any of her medieval mysteries before this one. I bought all four – because, of course, I knew I would probably enjoy them once I read them – but I’ve had this one sitting on the shelf for almost four years. Historical mysteries have been keeping my interest in the overall historical fiction genre keen, so I decided at long last to see what one of my favourite authors had in store.

The Queen’s Man combines Penman’s exceptional talent for evoking the medieval atmosphere with a mystery that was satisfactory. While I’d never really put this on par with one of her epics, not least for the fact that it doesn’t contain the huge range of pure human emotion and historical detail as those do, her skills are still very obvious in this shorter, faster paced format. The main character, Justin, is sometimes a little bit too obtuse, even for a reader that is as bad at guessing mysteries as I am. He’s obviously inexperienced, but he doesn’t always draw conclusions as quickly as I felt he should. The mystery itself isn’t really one that had my heart racing, but it was interesting enough to keep me reading.

I suppose that “satisfactory” really is the best word for the book; it was a nice way to spend the afternoon, a quick read that sent me back to medieval England which is something I always enjoy. If I’d started here with Penman’s works, I’m not sure I’d have fallen in love with her writing as much as I did with The Sunne in Splendour or Here Be Dragons, but as a fan already, I can tell you that I’ll finish the next three, and I expect I will like them as much as I liked this book. Don’t go in expecting another breathtaking historical epic and you’ll enjoy The Queen’s Man - although it looks like the only place you can currently buy the book is used or on Kindle in the US.


Review: The Lady of the Rivers, Philippa Gregory

the lady of the riversJacquetta of Luxembourg is a woman who, according to Philippa Gregory, history has neglected, mainly for lack of information; married first to the Duke of Bedford and then rather scandalously to Richard Woodville, a commoner, Jacquetta was an observer of many of the most important events during the Wars of the Roses, indeed outliving most of the primary players. Her daughter Elizabeth married the English king Edward IV, catapulting her family even more into the spotlight than ever before.

We start off with Jacquetta as a young girl, where she meets Joan of Arc and learns first-hand what can happen to a woman in English hands who is accused of being a witch. Joan, obviously, had a lot more behind her death sentence than supposed witchcraft, but if that’s what they used to have her killed, it’s a threat to a girl who was supposedly descended from Melusina as well. At this stage, however, Jacquetta and the Duke of Bedford get married, and as it turns out, Bedford is only interested in her because she is a virgin and is supposed to have magical powers. Meanwhile, while trying desperately to see the future, Jacquetta is also busy falling in love with her husband’s squire.

While I actually liked both Jacquetta and Richard, and I enjoyed the alternate perspective on the Woodvilles, portraying them as not grasping social climbers but people, there were still too many flaws with this book for me to enjoy it thoroughly. Jacquetta’s constant foreboding and feelings about the future hindered the book and made her a much flatter character; she knew what was coming too often to have an authentic reaction when these things actually happened.

This also contributed to the massive slowdown in the middle of the book. Jacquetta alternates between court and having babies, and while I know having children should be a joyful experience, I really got bored here. Nothing else actually happens to Jacquetta, and the entire war happens outside of her purview. Her husband gets sent off, and then her son, and she frets about their safety, what feels like over and over again. Since I knew what happened to Richard Woodville, as will many people who’ve read anything else about the Wars of the Roses, this got old fast.

Honestly, part of the reason for this is that Jacquetta just isn’t a compelling enough character on her own, for me, to have a fantastic novel written about her. She would have worked much better as an alternate narrator paired with someone on the sidelines than having a book all to herself. There is too much telling and not enough first-hand witnessing. The beginning was interesting, especially the witchcraft element with Joan of Arc and Eleanor Cobham, but the book loses speed after that and peters out to an ultimately disappointing, though predictable, ending.

Philippa Gregory fans will probably want to add The Lady of the Rivers to their collection, but personally I much preferred both earlier books in this series and would recommend in particular The White Queen.

All book links to external sites are affiliate links. I received this book for free from the publisher.


Review: The Women of the Cousins’ War, Philippa Gregory, David Baldwin, and Michael Jones

For as long as men have been writing history, important women have been lost from its pages. Restoring all of them would be an impossible, lifetimes-consuming feat, but that doesn’t mean some historians can’t try. Building on the success of Philippa Gregory’s novels set during the Wars of the Roses (which she calls “The Cousins’ War”), she and two historians have written a book spotlighting three of the most important women during the war – The Duchess, Jacquetta, her daughter Elizabeth Woodville, the Queen, and Henry VII’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, The Queen’s Mother.

While reading this review, it’s probably worth keeping in mind that I know a lot about the Wars of the Roses, even counting what I’ve forgotten since I actually finished studying it intensively, and have read many many books and articles on the subject, both popular and academic history. I have also been trained to write history myself. My experience may not match yours.

I love the idea of The Women of the Cousins’ War in theory, but I’m ever so wary of it in actual historical practice. Unfortunately, this book actually justified my wariness. The introduction, written by Gregory, is very appealing. Starting off first with the difference, in her mind, between history and historical fiction, and followed up by why she chooses to write fiction, was actually a fascinating glimpse into her head. I didn’t agree with everything she said about the writing of history itself, but I appreciated such a bold introduction that really argued her case. It had me looking forward to the book.

At that point, unfortunately, I began to be disappointed. None of the essays use footnotes OR endnotes, which left me wondering where on earth they’d actually got their information from. There is a list of sources and a messy list of acknowledgements and quotes at the end of each, but this is frustrating to wade through when looking for the source of any quote. Without knowing where each got information from, I hesitated to trust anything I was reading.

It didn’t help that it started off with Gregory’s essay about Jacquetta, the Duchess of Bedford who married a lower-class Woodville seemingly out of love and gave birth to the future queen of England, Elizabeth Woodville. To be perfectly fair to Gregory, she has very, very little to work with, but this is one of the fundamental flaws in this sort of “restoration” of some historical women. There just isn’t much there. It’s incredibly difficult to prise out anything about Jacquetta herself besides speculation. Gregory does a decent job of that speculating, but since I didn’t know where any particular bit of information came from, whether it was an original source or not, I had no way to judge for myself what I thought about what she was saying. This particular bit reads, as you would imagine, as a factual tale about the more recorded people in Jacquetta’s life without much genuine insight into who she actually was.

I also was frustrated by the fact that there is no engagement with the sources, particularly the primary sources. Instead of hearing “some say”, I want to know who said it and what their motivation was. I wanted this book to further historical study, to make some sort of impact, not to just flatly tell me what happened. Gregory says she consulted the original sources, but aside from a few notes in the end, they don’t feature.

The second essay didn’t improve much on the situation. Enough is known about Elizabeth Woodville to actually make for an interesting biography, and some biographies have been already written about her, including one by this particular author. She also features heavily in other books about this subject, naturally. The essay was fair, and does include more information about the sources, and would be appropriate for someone who knows almost nothing about the subject. For me, it didn’t help that this essay was the least well-written and I found it very difficult to keep my attention on the page, which is probably why I have little to say either way about it.

The last essay, however, was excellent. Michael Jones very obviously knows his subject, knows his sources, and is a wonderful writer. He rescues the whole book by actually backing up his speculation, thinking about where his information comes from, and considering Margaret’s family history as well as the present. There still aren’t any actual notes, but he amazingly separates the primary sources from the books in his source list (which neither of the others do) and makes it relatively easy to figure out what came from where, particularly since he’s actually engaging with the historical record.

In fact, I feel like the third essay justifies my criticisms of the other two, because it did a whole lot more of everything I wanted without unnecessary length and certainly without becoming as dry as academic history can be. Yes, the book is intended to familiarize readers with these women, not as an academic study for other historians, but certainly they can do so while also writing worthy history. He provided a much fuller, more comprehensive picture of Margaret herself, backed up by everything he knows, and had me eager to read his full-length book on the subject.

I don’t think I would recommend this book for anyone who has some knowledge of the period, as they’ll know most of what’s in it, but for newcomers and those who are looking for more information and a “popular” history this would suit. If you see it in your library and enjoy Philippa Gregory’s books, I’d certainly recommend you read at least the introduction, as I feel it’s really added to my understanding of the way she writes and considers historical fiction.

All book links to external sites are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review from the publisher.


Review: She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth, Helen Castor

Elizabeth I is one of England’s best known reigning queens. Though she was not the first, she set the standard and is widely regarded as a successful ruling monarch. But there were women who ruled, or attempted to rule, England before Elizabeth. There was Matilda, daughter of Henry I, whose cousin got to the throne first; there was Eleanor of Aquitaine, who had plenty of power in her own domains but in many respects is best known for her husbands and sons; there was Isabella, wife of Edward II, who seized a throne for herself in the name of her son; there was Margaret of Anjou, who fought ferociously to maintain her son’s right to the throne; and there were Jane and Mary, Elizabeth’s immediate predecessors. Castor looks at these women and how they ruled and examines the pattern of English thought and how it changed over more than 400 years of history.

I loved this book. I didn’t expect anything less; I gushed about Helen Castor’s Blood and Roses a couple of years ago, so it’s no surprise that I couldn’t wait a second to get my hands on this one. None of these women were new to me as a person obsessed with medieval history, but Castor puts their stories together in a way that makes perfect sense. She looks not only at what happened to each woman and how successful she was at ruling, but what people thought about it and how England became a country that could accept a female monarch.

It’s no surprise that they have almost universally been vilified at one point or another. The medieval interpretation of what it meant to be female and the medieval interpretation of what it meant to be king were completely incompatible. As Castor says in the first section, focusing on Matilda, she just could not win. If she exercised the right of a king, the power necessary to be successful, she was an unnatural woman, but if she didn’t, there was simply no way for her to rule. She could not be a success in her contemporaries’ eyes, no matter what she did – at least, not until she started to fight on behalf of her son, Henry.

And the story is the same for many of the women, with incremental changes. Attitudes do take hundreds of years to change, and while the kingdom was changing, the status of women didn’t go very far towards changing with it. All of the royal power women were actually able to hold in England had to be in the name of a man, even if that man was actually a baby. It’s a fascinating exploration of the very different challenges each women faced while at the same time putting together the universality of their condition.

And it’s perfectly appropriate that they lead up to Elizabeth, because she was the game changer, who ruled in her own name, with her own wisdom, and did a fantastic job. There’s no question that women continued to struggle for rights, and they suffered considerably for centuries, in some respects still doing so. But a number of factors contributed towards her doing so, and she must have felt a kinship towards the women who came before and the strides they made to earn power for women in the English kingdom.

Castor treats all of the women with an even hand, taking a steady look at what was expected of them as women rulers, why they got treated the way they did, and even whether or not they deserved it. Isabella, for example, can easily be dismissed as a poor ruler, but we can also understand why she acted the way she did (at least as far as overthrowing her husband) and the results of those actions in a wider context. While there is still a lot about the men in these women’s lives, they were the actual monarchs and thus had a very large role to play in defining the positions of their mothers, daughters, and wives, so it doesn’t feel as though the women have vanished inside the shadows of the better-recorded lives of the men.

In short, She-Wolves is exceptional, inspirational, and endlessly fascinating. If you’re interested in history, especially that of women, this book is unquestionably for you.

I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free for review (and then bought a copy so I could have it in hardcover!).


Review: Eleanor the Queen, Norah Lofts

Eleanor of Aquitaine’s life is turbulent almost from the start.  At age fifteen she comes into her inheritance as Duchess of Aquitaine and Countess of Poitiers; while she holds both of these titles in her own right, her husband will still be the one who rules them, and as such she’s the most eligible bride in Europe.  For three months, anyway, until the French king Louis VII marries her and makes her Queen of France.  Eleanor’s adventures don’t stop there, however; her marriage with Louis is annulled after her failure to give him sons (and after a crusade), after which she promptly marries the future Henry II of England, and gives birth to a proper devil’s brood of sons who later change the face of Europe.

Older historical fiction, in my mind, has one big problem; it romanticizes everything.  This book was written in the fifties and it’s glaringly obvious to any reader of historical fiction (or student of history).  Everyone is, naturally, noble and kind and beautiful, loyal to the king, and even the merest of peasants can spout long sentences of astonishing fealty when prompted.  Eleanor, despite being lauded, rarely shows any example of her will here.  She seems afloat on the seas of fate; about the only thing she decides to do herself, and which she actually controls, is her decision to go on crusade.  Otherwise, it’s always the men.  I wanted to go back in history and tell Norah Lofts that it’s okay for women to take initiative; pointing out the influence that women may have had, which is almost never recorded, is what historical fiction is for.

Anyway, that doesn’t erase all the problems with the story either.  Most of the book reads like a listing of facts, especially in the beginning.  The few times that Eleanor speaks up, we’re mostly told she does, like when she explains things out to Louis about her lands.  We don’t know what they are, we’re just told that she makes all things clear to him, and that later he’s persuaded otherwise.  The whole book is a lesson in how to write a story by telling and not showing.  Eleanor’s life was long and it’s compressed so much that there’s not space for anything else for most of the book.

Surprisingly enough, the book did pick up towards the end.  I still noticed irritating things, like the fact that Geoffrey is mostly ignored until he dies.  I’m pretty sure that, in real life, Eleanor and Henry wouldn’t ignore one of their children so flagrantly, though I guess I could be wrong.  Richard and John are the bad kids that grew to manhood and kinghood, so I guess when you have only 300 pages, you talk about them.  But the story did get interesting, Eleanor started to stand up for herself a bit more after she got out of prison.

Eleanor of Aquitaine was a fascinating woman and she deserves all the attention she’s getting these days.  Unfortunately, Eleanor the Queen is definitely not the first book I’d recommend reading on her.  Choose Sharon Kay Penman’s books, starting with When Christ and His Saints Slept, or for non-fiction, Alison Weir’s Eleanor Of Aquitaine is both interesting and accessible.  Word on the street is to avoid her fiction title about Eleanor, which I have managed so far!

I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free from the publisher for review.


Review: Company of Liars, Karen Maitland

Nine travelers find themselves banding together, seeking escape from the Black Death that has just arrived in England for the first time.  These nine are not just travelers; they have stories to tell and secrets to hide.  As they increasingly lie to one another while telling their stories, it becomes clear that what’s after them is not the plague, but their own pasts.  Unfortunately for these nine wanderers, the past is not something so easily avoided.

I wanted to like this book more than I think I ended up liking it. I’ve had it for a couple years, and reading it definitely revealed to me why I was waiting; it’s very dark.  It was certainly gripping at times, especially in the beginning.  I enjoyed how each traveler had a story; I knew they were all lying about some aspect of their story and at first it wasn’t easy to figure out what was really going on.  As the story progressed, however, the lies become fairly obvious and the plot starts to unravel a bit.  Even I, who never puts any effort at all into guessing the outcome of a book, found myself predicting what was going to happen.

The story is just very grim and occasionally hard to take.  This is a book set during the Black Death about a bunch of liars, so I suppose this could be expected, but the problem is that the book is also quite long.  Maitland’s writing is very good and she’s quite a storyteller, but there’s only so much Black Death and murders anyone can actually take.  As a result, the book felt like it started to drag, particularly towards the end.  I could mainly see what was going to happen and everything was quite dark and grim – after a few days of reading one book, I felt like I needed a break before it was even over.

That said, there is also much to enjoy with this one.  In particular, I loved the details that Maitland included, and I certainly felt I got a sense of how the Black Death demolished the countryside, turned people against one another, and brought out the worst in some and the best in others.  Other books also do this well, and it’s something that, morbid as it is, I am very interested in.  Doomsday Book by Connie Willis is also an excellent choice if you share my peculiar fascination with the plague and how people reacted to it.  I also liked the main character here, who has plenty of secrets to share over the course of the book.  I figured out the secret, but I liked watching him figure out the other characters’ secrets as the story moved along.

All in all, I expect I’d have liked Company of Liars better if it was shorter, with a tighter plot, rather than the rambling that seems to match how the company traveled.  Still, I think Maitland has talent, and of course the Middle Ages always appeal to me, so I’m looking forward to picking up future books by her.

I am an Amazon Associate. I purchased this book.


Review: Mistress of the Art of Death, Ariana Franklin

A rare female doctor, trained in Salerno, is recruited to head to England along with two men in order to solve an important crime.  Adelia is a mistress of the art of the death; she “reads” bodies in order to find out exactly what happened to them.  In short, she does autopsies, and her skills are essential to try and find out who has been taking and killing small children in Cambridge.  The Jews have been blamed, of course, despite the fact that they’re obviously innocent, and they have even been killed by townspeople, so they are all holed up in the center of town.  Adelia’s job is to find the murderer, without getting murdered herself.

Sometimes being unfamiliar with mysteries is useful, because I just loved this book.  I mean, I’m probably going to spend this entire review gushing about it mostly because I can’t help myself.  I’ve done what I normally don’t do and read reviews prior to composing my own, and have discovered that quite a few people thought the mystery was too predictable for the book to be interesting.  I suppose that some aspects were predictable – the character who commits the murders is always a suspicious character though I didn’t guess which one – but I never read mysteries for the whodunnit aspect.  I usually don’t even guess.  Taking this solely as historical fiction, I just adored it.

I liked it so much that I didn’t even particularly care that Adelia seemed so anachronistic to me.  After all, there were female doctors trained at Salerno (which I knew, but the author kindly clarifies as well) and it’s not outside the realm of imagination that one would develop as independent a spirit as Adelia does, even if it was unlikely.  As a modern reader, I thought she was fantastic all around, and I loved the romance that developed and her eventual response to it.  I loved even more that it was a romance between two imperfect people who never planned on it happening, but were so drawn in by one another that they simply could not resist.

I also enjoyed all the little medieval details that Franklin sprinkles throughout the narrative.  I really felt the atmosphere, which doesn’t always happen when reading historical fiction.  I was particularly pleased with her depiction of Henry II, who she describes pretty much precisely as I’d imagined him to be, as a clever man with an unfortunate temper that betrays his intellect.  He doesn’t show up often, but when he does he quite steals the show, as I think the king would have done in the Middle Ages.

I can easily say that this is the first medieval novel I’ve read in over a year that I wasn’t ready to pick apart with inaccuracies.  The simple truth is that I enjoyed it far too much.  Since everyone in the novel was fictional, apart from Henry II, I didn’t have to worry that something was wrong and I didn’t know about it.  The case itself was fictional.  Even the small details that Franklin includes which didn’t happen she explains in her afterword – including the origin of her idea for the book, a case which genuinely did occur.

I absolutely can’t wait to get to the next book in this series – I’ve already requested it from the library.  I loved Mistress of the Art of Death and would recommend it to anyone interested in historical fiction or historical mysteries.

I am an Amazon associate. I purchased this book.


Review: Katherine Swynford, Alison Weir

Katherine Swynford is one of English history’s best known mistresses.  Her attractions were clearly so strong to John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, that he eventually broke all tradition and gave up the prospect of marital advance in order to marry her, a knight’s daughter who offered very little at that point in her life.  But who was Katherine and what do we know about her?

As it turns out, the answer is not much, and this effort by Alison Weir ended up as a disappointment for me.  I’ve never really enjoyed the history that is virtually all speculation.  I understand some of it is necessary in many pursuits, but I went through this book feeling that Weir didn’t really need to write an entire book on Katherine’s life when she had so little to work with.  As always, it ended up being a book about the men in Katherine’s life and bits about her more illustrious relations and children.  Large sections are devoted to Chaucer, who had an absolutely tiny role in Katherine’s life, but because he’s a well known figure in history and was married to Katherine’s sister, he gets a role, even after Katherine’s sister dies.  I have to say I was disappointed in that; I thought a book based solely on John of Gaunt or Geoffrey Chaucer would have been far more interesting, as Weir could have dug deeper into their lives and drawn a few more relevant conclusions.  It’s a sad reality that medieval women’s lives are so little documented, something we all wish we could fix, but that’s not a case to make a book out of something.

I was also disappointed with the level of scholarship I found in the book.  Weir’s analysis of her sources seems very uneven.  Virtually all first hand medieval sources are unreliable to a degree – you have to take into account bias, propaganda, and so on, just like you would when deciding whether to believe someone today – and she seems to use this when it suits her and ignore it when it doesn’t.  This is especially true in the case of Froissart – I thought she should have addressed his unreliability from the start, so readers had a solid background going in.  I like that she uses so many primary sources, but I would prefer a bit more depth of analysis, even in popular history like this.

I also really disliked how she drew conclusions from what may have been and then just went with them, without considering other options as the text went on, as it severely limited the depths of her continual analysis throughout the book.  It also led to flimsy conclusions built on flimsy assumptions, which all historians should do their best to avoid.  There genuinely isn’t enough here for a book, which is what’s caused this problem.  Some of the assumptions are necessary to keep the history going as a fairly steady narrative, and possibly helps for people who are unfamiliar with the Middle Ages, but I just wanted more from it.  I remember enjoying Weir’s earlier books a great deal more than I liked this one.

That all said, I do think Katherine Swynford is a decent choice for getting a nice, reasonably accurate picture of fourteenth century England.  Weir’s work is very readable, although at times devolves into lists and dates. For the most part she paints a nice picture of the time in which Katherine lived and how she might have thought or felt.  Sadly, it’s impossible to draw any conclusions about Katherine herself, and despite Weir’s flimsy guesses we end up with little picture about the woman herself.  I ended up feeling like the book was lacking, even though I liked it while reading it, and would only really recommend it to someone interested in these few years of English history and not necessarily looking for much detail about Katherine herself.

I am an Amazon Associate. I borrowed this book from my local library.


Review: Virgin Widow, Anne O’Brien

Anne Neville has always known that her future isn’t really hers to choose. But she trusts her father, the earl of Warwick, to provide a good husband for her, and her childhood is generally happy even if she does occasionally fight with her sister Isabel. When Richard, duke of Gloucester, is brought to her home of Middleham to be fostered, Anne immediately develops an interest in him, and they become friends. When her father arranges their marriage, Anne is at first uncertain and then pleased. But politics in England are uncooperative and soon a rift grows between Anne’s father and King Edward IV. Anne is forced to flee to France, where she ends up in a loveless marriage and spends days wondering when she will escape her cruel life and get back to the man she loves.

Anne O’Brien chose to write this novel about Anne Neville because few people actually give the focus to her when writing a novel set during the Wars of the Roses. And she’s right, because I’m not sure I’ve read one which does actually have her as the narrator. As a result, there were some new sections here, particularly the exile in France. I’ve not read a fictional account of Anne’s marriage to the Edward of Lancaster, even though most books mention it. So, O’Brien succeeded in bringing some new material to a story that’s been told many times, which I appreciated.

I also liked that O’Brien chose to cast the novel as a romance between Anne and Richard over an extended period of time. While there’s no evidence that there was actually a romance, and Richard had plenty of greedy motives for marrying Anne, as the author says, there isn’t any evidence that it didn’t happen. And the romance was quite sweet and well-written; I like how both the characters, especially Richard, changed over the period of the novel and the couple acknowledged one another’s faults and flaws when they decided to be together in the end.

Unfortunately, a few things prevented the book from being truly excellent, though it was enjoyable. For one thing, I really feel like the Wars of the Roses are massively overdone in historical fiction, only surpassed by the truly ridiculous saturation of Tudors. Knowing the details of everything that is going to happen in a novel just kills it, IMO – which is why I appreciated how O’Brien did some things differently. I did find some things a little strange, like the fact that Anne referred to her parents as the Earl and Countess even in her own head, but Margaret of Anjou was never really the Queen and Richard was always Richard. While children in the Middle Ages would have been very aware of their parents’ titles, I’m pretty sure they still called their mothers “Mother”, especially when they’re depicted as having a close relationship – Anne’s mother doesn’t seem to be a particularly distant figure to her and she loves and trusts her parents. It added a bit of distance that I don’t think the novel needed.

Lastly, I thought the addition of an incestuous relationship between two of the characters was a little unnecessary; they had already been villainized enough throughout the rest of the novel. It just kind of squicked me out.

Virgin Widow is a good addition to the current offering of historical fiction covering the Wars of the Roses and I definitely recommend it for its different perspective on events.

I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free from the publisher for review.