The Sister Queens tells the story of Marguerite and Eleanor de Provence, the eldest two sisters in a noble family destined to shape the political (and genetic) future of Europe. Marguerite marries King Louis IX of France, a quiet and introspective young man whose outlook on life is shaped by an overbearing and pious mother. Eleanor marries Henry III of England, a good man but an inefficient king who spends most of his reign struggling to control his barons and to regain some of the territory (and respect) lost by his father, the notorious King John. Though their younger sisters Sanchia and Beatrice would also be queens in time, Marguerite and Eleanor had snagged the great prizes — but neither is entirely fulfilled. Marguerite’s marriage starts well, but Louis grows ever more pious over time, to the point where it seems to begin to fracture his sanity. As his devotion to God increases, his attention to his wife wanes. Eleanor, meanwhile, has in Henry an attentive and faithful husband and an exemplary father, but she finds that his political acumen leaves much to be desired.
The book follows the sisters through nineteen years of their lies, though in chopped bits. Eleanor’s domestic life is largely blissful, though after some years, Henry begins showing more capricious behaviour. She bears several healthy children and cherishes them, but her ambitious nature is often frustrated by Henry’s struggles. Marguerite’s husband, meanwhile, has all the power and prestige one could want, but drifts ever further away from Marguerite emotionally. After a near-death experience, Louis determines to go on crusade to the Holy Land. Though it took a while to get going, it started well, with the capture of Damietta. Unfortunately, Louis made the catastrophic decision to pursue the Ayyubid forces up the Nile towards Cairo, rather than sticking to the coast. His forces were utterly annihilated, a humiliating defeat for Christian Europe and a personal blow to a king who thought there was no way his god would allow him to fail. Throughout this endeavour, Marguerite grows closer to Jean de Joinville, a handsome and charming knight who had attracted her attention back in France. After a bit of moral struggling, Marguerite and Jean enter into an affair, and their love story is probably the most compelling element of the book. Their love feels real and powerful, and watching them negotiate the necessity of keeping their affair secret adds personal conflict to the story. Throughout the novel, the sisters stay close, communicating through letters, too often measuring themselves against each other rather than appreciating what they have, but eventually learning lessons from each other.
I was excited to read this book because of the time period it covers. The thirteenth century is often overlooked in historical fiction, and though I have a passing familiarity, I don’t know as much about it as I would like to. Henry III’s reign gets little attention because it lacks the sweeping drama of both earlier and later Plantagenets. (and though he is often derided as an ineffective ruler, I feel it is worth noting that he managed to hold onto his throne for over fifty years, and held it secure for his dynasty, who would rule unbroken until Richard II’s deposition in 1399, so, y’know, that’s something). As for Louis, my French history isn’t as complete as my English (except where they overlap), and I mostly knew about him from studying the Seventh Crusade. And I always love history as seen through the eyes of women.
Honestly, I give this book almost-four stars a lot on credit, because of my interest in the time period. Thematically, I quite enjoyed it, and I got quite wrapped up in Marguerite’s and Jean’s story in particular. Technically, though, it left a lot to be desired for me. It’s told in first person present tense, swapping between Eleanor and Marguerite each chapter. I increasingly dislike first-person narratives. I think too many authors are using it as a cop-out, and Perinot doesn’t do a great job of differentiating the sisters’ voices. Their experiences are disparate, but their speech and thought patterns are not. I also found the use of the present tense quite jarring — it’s always something that throws me, but it seems all the more out of place in a historical novel.
The book is also very episodic, particularly at the beginning — several chapters have to awkwardly work in reminders of how many years have passed since the last time we were with the narrator. There often isn’t a strong sense of connection between one vignette and the next. This also leads Perinot to glance over a lot of historical details — we spend a lot more time hearing about Marguerite’s and Eleanor’s pregnancies and their thoughts about their marriages than we do about, say, life on Crusade, the rebellion of Simon de Montfort, the tension between Queen Eleanor and the citizens of London. Even the Siege of Damietta focuses more on Marguerite’s childbirth than on the fact that she led the defense of the city. And perhaps that’s just the sort of book it is, but I would have appreciated more history to balance out the domestic feelings — particularly since these women were such powerful political figures in addition to being wives and mothers. Perinot seems less concerned with the former roles than the latter, which was a bit of a disappointment to me, particularly since it obscured exactly the historical depth I was hoping to get from this novel on an era I wanted to know more about. As it was, I didn’t learn much that was new, and I felt like Perinot sold the sisters a bit short.
Overall, though, this book as an enjoyable read. Once I got past the oddity of the first-person-present style, and despite the somewhat disjointed flow of events, I enjoyed the stories that Perinot told. I haven’t read any of Philippa Gregory’s novels, so I don’t know how they stack up against what they’re most often compared to, but I can make the comparison to Jean Plaidy’s historicals — and in that regard, The Sister Queens is definitely lighter fare, but still enjoyable. Readers who enjoy emotional journeys will definitely appreciate this, and if you’re tired of the typical Tudor plotlines, spending some time in the thirteenth century will be a refreshing change.