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The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England, by Dan Jones

PlantagenetsTitle: The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England
Author: Dan Jones
Year of Publication: 2013
Length: 560 pages
Genre: medieval history
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 3.5 stars

This book is a comprehensive political history of England from the early 12th to the end of the 14th century. Jones opens with the wreck of the White Ship and closes with the deposition of Richard II, and in-between, he charts the evolution of the English monarchy, the rise of the cults of St.s George and Edward the Confessor, and the ebb and flow of English fortunes in French territory. While Plantagenet history is something I’m more than passingly familiar with already, I was happy to get a really solid look at some reigns that don’t always warrant a lot of historical attention — John (apart from Magna Carta), Henry III, Edward I. Jones also provides some anecdotes and small details which flesh out the broad strokes. My favorite had to do with the sinking of the White Ship, and how the heir to the throne would’ve been safely away — had he not gone back to rescue his sister, which led to his lifeboat being overwhelmed by other drowning victims.

Jones does an excellent job of chaining cause and effect together, even when those things are complex, balancing the demands of family and feudalism. Jones relies on a lot of primary sources, though he writes in such a way as to keep them from becoming too dense — those who fear footnotes will not need to cringe at this text. Instead, he offers a bibliography of suggested further reading at the end of the book, and most of those sources date from 2000 and forward.

Jones does a nice job of contextualizing the relationship between the king and the barons and how it changes over time, as well as the complex network of ever-shifting alliances on the continent. Reading this book, you do get the sense — as I always felt about Tudor-era politics — that really everyone was out to screw England all the time. No one can seem to hold an alliance for more than twenty minutes. Similarly, the English don’t seem to be able to keep control over the Welsh, Scottish, and Irish any longer than that.

What’s particularly fascinating from my point of view is seeing the aristocracy take shape underneath the king’s rule. As someone who loves family trees, it’s fun to see when different families wax and wane, particularly once it starts getting into the 14th century and the names become those more recognizable to those of us familiar with Shakespeare’s history plays and with Tudor history — de Bohun, de Vere, Howard, Dudley, Neville, Montagu. In so doing, you also see the entire country become more thoroughly English. Slowly, the Norman and Aquitanian influence bleeds out and the nobility comes from England’s own magnates.

There were, though, ways in which the book was disappointing. For something subtitled The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England, there’s precious little on those queens. This is, still, a male history. Queen Matilda and Eleanor of Aquitaine get a little attention, but nothing compared to their men — and really not much to personalize them. Their deeds are mentioned, not themselves. Joan of Kent, somewhat scandalous wife of the Black Prince, is little more than a tabloid feature. As for the other women crucial to the Plantagenet line, all those wives and daughters and sisters — Phillippa of Hainault, Eleanor of Provence, Isabel the She-Wolf of France, Eleanor of Castile, Princess Joan, Princess Isabella — hardly get any attention but for how they affect the reigning king. Once they’re married out or pensioned off, and thus “off-stage”, as it were, they cease to exist. And it’s such a shame, because they have stories in their own rights. They had will and agency. So many of them defied type, or redefined it. Jones does them a discredit, I think, by relegating them only to the reactionary status women have so typically occupied in histories. Based on the book’s title, I was really hoping for much more. (Jones also goes out of his way to dismiss any whisper of homosexuality or bisexuality as attached to the English crown; I’ll give him that claims about Richard I and II still generate a lot of disagreement, but Edward II? Aren’t we pretty sure about that? Yet Jones waves it all off with no examination whatsoever).

It also ends rather strangely. This book covers up to Richard II’s 1399 deposition, and Jones tries rather hard to make this a conscious stylistic choice, rather than an awareness that going on through the rise of the Tudors would produce an 1100-page book. Except that it rings false. While the essence of kingship may change after Richard II’s fall, Jones simultaneously tries to claim that his ascension somehow breaks the line of Plantagenet kings — which is ridiculous. Henry Bolingbroke had every drop as much Plantagenet blood in him as Richard. They were both sons of Edward III’s sons. First cousins. Jones even points out that Henry was Richard’s closest heir in the male line. So it’s a bit hard to claim that the blood line was broken, any more than it was when King John succeeded Richard I.

So, on the whole, this is an easily digestible compendium, and I could recommend it as a good starting point to someone with no real familiarity with the era. Someone with more background in England’s medieval history might not find much new here, though, and if you’re looking for something incisive that treads new ground, this isn’t it. Jones compiles a rather unchallenging view of English history in a simple presentation — perhaps too simple, really.

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World Without End, by Ken Follett

Title: World Without EndWorldWithoutEnd (Kingsbridge)
Author: Ken Follett
Year of Publication: 2007
Length: 1025 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read? Re-Read
Rating: 4 stars

Kingsbridge of the 14th century is a different place than Kingsbridge of the 12th. Two hundred years does a lot for England, and the sense that you get in World Without End is that it’s more advanced yet less imaginative in some ways, more dogmatic but less truly spiritual. Politics are no more stable than ever, but at least they more or less confine themselves to the nobles, rather than tearing apart the countryside in civil war like in Stephen and Maud’s time. There’s a sense of stagnation. Things are the way they are because that’s the way they’ve been, and few people think to question it. Life is more orderly, and less free.

And then the plague hits, and everything changes.

The book starts about twenty years before the plague, when Merthin and Ralph, sons of a knight who’s fallen on hard times, join up with Caris, daughter of the richest wool merchant in town, and Gwenda, daughter of a landless labourer, playing in the woods on a festival day. They oversee an altercation between several knights. The survivor, Thomas, makes Merthin help him to hide a letter, with the promise to deliver it if he should hear of Thomas’s death. The mystery clearly has dangerous political origins, but Merthin can’t learn anything more about it, and Thomas enters the monastery, determined to live a quiet life from now on.

Ten years later, Caris and Merthin are in love, Ralph is struggling to win acclaim as a squire, and Gwenda is pursuing the serf Wulfric. Their trials are, as you can imagine, many. Caris can’t figure out what her place in the world should be, as a clever woman who would like to be a physician but clearly can’t be, and Merthin is finishing an apprenticeship under a master who is jealous of his talent (a descendant of Jack Builder, Merthin has clearly inherited that genius). Unlike in Pillars of the Earth, the enemies are inside the walls here. The prior, Godwyn, is no righteous protector of the city, but a greedy abuser of it, and he has help from Gwenda’s brother Philemon, a sycophantic kleptomaniac. The townspeople and the nuns both find themselves at odds with the monastery under his leadership, and Merthin and Caris in particular have to battle him for the good of Kingsbridge — particularly when it comes to rebuilding the bridge into town following its collapse. From Gwenda, we see the point of view of the lowest of the low — and the main villain in her piece is Merthin’s brother Ralph, no noble knight, but a raping and murdering brute whose shame over his own failures leads him to oppress his tenants.

It’s hard to talk about a lot of this book without giving away major plot points, but suffice it to say that World Without End does a nice job examining the major social changes happening in England in the early- to mid-fourteenth century. Years of famine and poor weather start the trickle, racheting up the tensions between the peasantry and the nobility, and then the plague turns the tables entirely. For the first time, the lower classes have power, in the form of a labour shortage — with fields going untilled and harvests going unreaped, landless labourers can demand higher wages, and even serfs try to negotiate new terms for their tenancies. The plague also up-ends religion in some major ways, making some people doubt the power of God, leading others to give themselves over to fanaticism. I remember how astonished I was back in high school, when my AP Euro teacher explained to us (with the backing of Simon Schama) that without the Black Death, the Renaissance likely could not have happened. This book doesn’t cover enough of a span of time to really see that happen, but you can see the first snowballs of the avalanche.

I enjoy this book, but I feel like it falls down in a lot of places that Pillars of the Earth doesn’t. For one thing, its villains don’t have the sort of sweeping power that the original’s do. There’s no one with the sort of broad scope and vaulting ambition that Bishop Waleran had. Godwyn and Philemon don’t demonstrate any larger aims — they’re confined to Kingsbridge, and the things they choose to care about are so much more petty, so small, so pedestrian. They’re middle managers, not evil overlords. Even Ralph’s sadism pales next to that of his opposite number from Pillars, William Hamleigh. William at least had drive as an antagonist. He was a brute, no intellectual and no planner, but he had naked hunger and a lust for revenge in him, which made him a more interesting opponent. Ralph is just a thug. His villainy is almost casual.

Caris feels anachronistic in ways that Aliena doesn’t. I don’t know if Follett was attempting to write a heroine that would more strongly appeal to modern female readers, but mostly it just ends up ringing falsely. Her desire for such complete and total independence just isn’t rational inside the world she lives in — but even more than that, it also comes off more as selfishness than as some sort of proto-feminism. I do appreciate that she comes to find satisfaction in her work, as it demonstrates that she’s not totally irreconcilable with her reality, but still, there is so much in her attitude that seems peevish rather than autonomous. She wants people to do as she wishes, but she doesn’t want to give anything back, and she’s hellbent on the idea that forming any sort of attachment to anyone will jeopardize her own sense of self. The secondary female characters — Lady Phillippa, Mattie, Madge — actually give a more realistic view of how a woman could be successful and as independent as possible in the Middle Ages while still being part of her family and community. Unfortunately, as in Pillars of the Earth, we never get any other female POVs, so we don’t get to experience a lot from that angle. I also end up finding the romantic drama between Caris and Merthin tedious, rather than inspiring. Their conflict never really changes, and it takes them rather longer than seems sensible to arrive at the logical solution to their problems.

The book’s views on medicine are also somewhat anachronistic, but I’m more willing to forgive that as cast in the same light as the exceptionalism in Pillars of the Earth. Such wholesale rejection of the theories of Galen wouldn’t start happening in Europe for about another century, though, and it wouldn’t really catch on in the general populace until much later on. The same goes for some of the religious notions that creep in towards the end of the book.

Despite all of that, World Without End is still a cut above a lot of historical fiction. I appreciate how much Follett deals with those outside the aristocratic sphere — townspeople, merchants, nuns, priors, and serfs. Gwenda in particular is a great character: tough as nails, pragmatic, hard-working, and sharp-tongued. Caris’s cleverness is great fun when she’s not being too cantankerous, and through Merthin we get more insights into architecture and principles of building. The world is well-drawn and detailed, breathing in a way that makes it easy to visualise life in a village of the fourteenth century. The book also deals, without much obliqueness, with the idea of homosexual relationships in the medieval period, a topic which gets little treatment, either in non-fiction or fiction. I appreciate Follett’s willingness to combat the erasure. Really it only suffers by comparison to its exemplary predecessor, which is perhaps an unfair mark to hold it against. If you enjoy historical fiction, and if you like a good long epic as much as I do, you’ll enjoy World Without End.

Follett has announced that he intends to write a third Kingsbridge novel, which he will probably begin writing in 2014. I can’t express how fervently I hope that it’s going to take place another two hundred years later, during the dissolution of the monasteries. It would be a perfect way to round out the trilogy — watching how the town deals with the Reformation, factions on each side, trying to protect the books and artwork belonging to the cathedral and the monastery when so many across England were destroyed — there’s just so much potential! I’ll be eagerly awaiting further word.

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The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett

Title: The Pillars of the Earth PillarsoftheEarth(Kingsbridge #1)
Author: Ken Follett
Year of Publication: 1989
Length: 983 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read? Re-Read
Rating: 4.5 stars

I love an epic. I particularly love a historical epic. And The Pillars of the Earth, set primarily during the 12th century civil war between Stephen and Maud, is about as good as they come.

A monk named Philip, who believes God has a mission for him, sets out to reform a tiny monastic cell in the woods, but ends up prior of the Kingsbridge monastery, seat of the Kingsbridge bishopric. He initially thinks of Archdeacon Waleran as an ally, but when he realises that Waleran shamelessly manipulated him in order to get himself appointed Bishop of Kingsbridge, Philip vows never to be blindsided like that again. Though an extremely clever man and a capable organizer, Philip begins the book with almost astonishing naivete — not even in general ignorance, but because he, a man whose intentions are always good and peaceful, has trouble conceiving that not everyone is as honest as he is. Just as he’s taking control of the monastery, his path crosses with that of Tom Builder, a genius architect and master mason. Unfortunate circumstances have left Tom out of work: he had been building a mansion for a local knight’s son, William Hamleigh, who was meant to marry an earl’s daughter, Aliena, but Aliena refuses to have the boorish oaf, and with the wedding off, William cancels the house as well. Tom and his family wander in the woods looking for work, but when his wife died in childbirth in the wilderness, Tom decides to expose the infant they cannot care for. (This infant will later end up in the care of the Kingsbridge monks). In the woods, he encounters the outlaw Ellen and her son Jack. Ellen has been living in the forest for over a decade, after she cursed a monk, a priest, and a knight for unjustly hanging Jack’s father, but she falls in love with Tom and decides to accompany him, also believing that Jack needs exposure to civilization. In order to assure Tom of work and their family of stability, Jack starts a fire in the Kingsbridge cathedral, bringing it to the ground — and Philip gives Tom the job of master builder to design him a new and more glorious building. Meanwhile, Aliena’s father gets involved with the first phase of the rebellion against King Stephen, but the Hamleighs get wind of it and seize his castle. William brutally rapes Aliena and disfigures her brother Richard; Aliena later escapes and finds her father in prison. He makes her swear an oath to help Richard recover the earldom from the Hamleighs — but first she has to keep from starving to death. After several failed attempts at other jobs, she takes to purchasing wool fleeces from peasants to sell to the markets — but immediately finds that she’ll be cheated simply because no one will pay a girl what they’d pay a man. Prior Philip comes to her rescue, buying her wool at a fair price and allowing her to get herself and her brother back on their feet.

And this is all only in the first section of the book. Throughout the novel, Philip and the rest have to contend with the scheming Waleran, the murdering brute William, and his insidious mother Regan, among other petty enemies, all of whom want to see the Kingsbridge Cathedral fail. They find themselves in a delicate balance during the civil war and the Anarchy, when Stephen and Maud trade power, and when, more often than not, the rule of law means next to nothing. And for a lot of the book, the good guys lose. It’s hard to get through at points, because it just seems so damned unfair — but there’s always a glimmer of hope, always some way that the clever, resourceful, loyal people will win out over the vicious and mean-spirited, and so, as a reader, you plunge along with them.

Follett is a masterful storyteller. He nimbly balances the need to convey information about the time period with his character building, something that’s not easy to do. The technical explanations can easily drown the human story if you’re not careful. And make no mistake, a reader of Pillars of the Earth will learn a lot, not just about the Anarchy, but about the social history of the Middle Ages, about the ecclesiastical hierarchy and monastic daily life, about masonry and geometry, about fulling and parish guilds and medieval war tactics. Yet somehow, it all feels naturally conveyed, not like a lecture, because all of those details are integral to the characters’ lives. The cathedral is, appropriately, a framework, but the story is about how people live with each other. 

Philip is incredibly clever and generous of heart, but he’s also somewhat dogmatic and more than a little prideful. He struggles with that, knowing he should learn better humility, but finding it incredibly difficult — which, as any gifted student can attest, is a real challenge when you know you’re a mile smarter than anyone around you. By contrast, Tom Builder is quietly confident and incredibly smart, while being completely illiterate. He yearns to build something beautiful, something to last the ages, but he struggles with the secret of having abandoned his infant son in the woods — and as the boy grows up in the monastery, Tom has to try not to give himself away. He also has a blind spot where his older son is concerned, as Alfred is an unabashed bully, and moreover, not remotely talented. He’s a competent workman, but not intelligent or imaginative; all that he is comes from brute strength, which he has no compunction about using on those smaller and weaker than him — including his sister Martha and stepbrother Jack. That leads to conflict in the family, as Ellen tries to call Tom out on his favoritism. Jack is a strange boy at first, poorly socialized, but he soon proves himself a genius as well, who quickly takes to the intellectual challenges of building. And then there’s Aliena, an incredible woman who pretty much everyone falls in love with, but who rejects all advances. Follett does a nice job conveying the psychological reality of a rape survivor in a world with even less sympathy for that condition than our own. Aliena builds a tough shell around her, but triggers still leap up to surprise her, and they definitely continue to affect her life for years afterwards. Aliena is a Scarlett O’Hara figure in a lot of ways. She comes from privilege but suffers incredible trauma, then has to claw her way back to some semblance of stability, and every time she thinks she’s making advances, something slaps her back down. She keeps going, though, putting her shoulder to the wind and braving her way through every challenge. She also has the misfortune of being a supremely intelligent woman in a world that doesn’t reward that: her brother Richard, while not a fundamentally bad person, is listless and lazy, suited for nothing but soldiership, ungrateful for the assistance he receives and embarrassed to have to take it. The last POV character, interestingly enough, is William — and I do find it interesting that Follett gives us so much insight into his head. He’s not even the prime mover among the villains — that would be Waleran. He’s all muscle, brute force, and senseless violence, a pustule of indignant fury and irrational resentment. I suspect a lot of the reason for making him a POV is to heighten the tension for the heroes. The reader frequently knows that something terrible is about to happen, and the terror of wondering how the Kingsbridge set will defend themselves drives much of the novel.

The book sometimes falls prey to accusations of historical inaccuracy, and there are a few — a very few, and they’re pretty nit-picky details (the name Francis would have been unlikely for a Welsh peasant; sugar was not yet widely available; British squirrels don’t hibernate; etc). Many of the things I suspect most people would take as inaccuracies are actually the result of common misconceptions about the medieval period. Many of the characters have attributes which in the 12th century would have been extraordinary, but not impossible. There was more of a middle class than high school history classes let on. The economic power which Aliena wrests from her society would not have been the norm, but it would not have been even particularly uncommon. Many women took over businesses after husbands, brothers, or fathers died. What makes Aliena more unusual is that she managed it at such a young age without having married first. And we do see that it’s a struggle for her, and we see the traps that religion and economy lay for her — but still, there were women who did as she did. The brilliance of Tom and Jack is likewise unusual, but clearly there were men of such prodigious intelligence and talent. Even Ellen isn’t impossible, and I do thank Follett for not attaching any overt pagan religion to her. She’s anti-Christian and makes oaths “by all the gods”, but there’s no pretense of making her a Druidess or anything. Her curses are firmly grounded in folk superstition. It’s unusual that as many characters in the book would be bilingual as they are, but Follett at least gives plausible explanations in each case. On the whole, this book offers more authenticity than it doesn’t.

There are only a couple of things that ding this book down from being a solid 5 stars, for me. One is is that the delineation between good and bad is a little too neat. While the POV characters are fabulously complex people, they and their opposite numbers still come down very solidly on either side of the morality line. Philip, Tom, Aliena, Jack good; William, Waleran, Alfred, Regan bad. While Follett does a lot to explore various psychological and emotional realities, no one’s really presented as morally grey. I also think that more female characters could use detailed attention. Aliena is, as I’ve said, fantastic, but she’s really the only woman whose head we get a look into — and she’s the POV for fewer pages than any of the other main characters. Ellen, also fantastic, is off-screen for too much of the book, and she’s never a POV character. Regan is barely more than a stock villainess, Martha is broadly overlooked, and no other female characters rank higher than tertiary status.

Overall, The Pillars of the Earth is just flat-out a masterpiece. It’s beyond engaging, it’s absorbing. Follett makes England of 900 years ago seem real and vital, full of believable people, relatable despite its differences from the world we live in now (and, in some cases, he makes it apparent how little people have changed in nearly a millennium). Reading a thousand-page book is always an investment, but it’s one I very seriously recommend that any fan of historical fiction make for The Pillars of the Earth.

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The Sister Queens, by Sophie Perinot

Title: The Sister QueensThe Sister Queens, by Sophie Perinot
Author: Sophie Perinot
Year of Publication: 2012
Length: 503 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 3.75 stars

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.

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Catherine, Called Birdy, by Karen Cushman

Title: Catherine, Called Birdy
Author: Karen Cushman
Year of Publication: 1994
Length: 224 pages
Genre: historical fiction – young adult
New or Re-Read?: many, many times re-read
Rating: 5 stars

This is one of my all-time favourite books, and has been since I first read it at the age of 9. I return to it about once a year, just out of sheer joy.

Catherine, Called Birdy is the tale of a fourteen-year-old girl in England in the year 1290. To please her monk brother Edward, who thinks the exercise will make her more observant and thoughtful, she sets to writing down an account of her life. The reader follows Birdy through a transformative year. The major plot is her attempt to avoid marriage to one of many odious suitors, but there are dozens of smaller plot points as well, threaded in and out of the main story with a casual ease that very much gives the sense of day-to-day life. The best aspect of the novel, though, is Birdy herself. Quick-witted and short-tempered, she grumbles, fusses, and curses her way through her life with a delightful sort of unpolished charm. Sometimes pragmatic, and at other times incredibly soft-hearted, Birdy is above all strong-minded, aching for an independence her world cannot give her, beating her wings against the bars of her cage. She approaches her frustrations head-on, often acting first and thinking later, and her observations on her life, her family, and the villagers are often hilariously funny.

Cushman gives remarkable detail to the nuances, idiosyncrasies, and oddities of medieval life, particularly for a young adult novel. From holiday customs to the cycle of the year, from the tremendous lack of privacy to the mysteries of childbirth, Cushman draws the world out in a way that is educational without being didactic. I appreciate that she treats the period with a sensible perspective: neither doom-and-gloom nor idyllic. Yes, life could be hard, and yes, hygiene was still a few centuries off, and yes, death was a more constant companion than we typically think of it today — but people still celebrated triumphs, fell in love, reveled during holidays (and got hangovers), cherished their pets, and basked in the sunlight. Cushman blends the hardships with the joys magnificently. I also like the status she chose for her main character. Birdy is the daughter of a common country knight, a man with some land but no title, very much a large fish in a quite small pond. This position frees Birdy from the tedium of a serf’s life, but is not elevated enough to allow her true luxury — as she complains:

If I had to be born a lady, why not a rich lady, so someone else could do the work and I could lie on a silken bed and listen to a beautiful minstrel while my servants hemmed? Instead I am the daughter of a country knight with but ten servants, seventy villagers, no minstrel, and acres of unhemmed linen. It grumbles my guts.

Like most teenage girls, Birdy sees almost everyone else in the world as possessing a position more favourable than her own. She envies the villagers for the freedom they have to marry where they will and to be outside in the sunshine rather than stuck indoors, but eventually recognises that their labour is harder than hers, and that their freedoms are few, tied as they are to the land and to their feudal obligations. She envies ladies wealthier than her, but comes to learn that higher rank only brings more responsibilities and entanglements, not fewer. She envies men that they can have adventures, go on Crusade, spit and swear, and generally make their lives what they want them — but later realises that’s really the case for only a few of them, and that adventures are mostly dangerous, Crusades bloody, and responsibilities generally far more numerous than freedoms. She hates her father and eldest brother, but by the end of the book, has seen different sides of each, causing her to at least rethink her assessment and consider them from someone else’s perspective, even if she still doesn’t like them any better herself. Birdy yearns to be someone else — anyone else — a puppeteer, a Crusader, a peddlar, a songmaker, a bird-trainer, an outlaw maid — her fantasy life is rich and vivid, and she shares her daydreams with us without hesitation, then shares her awareness of their impossibilities just as frankly. The major lesson for Birdy is that she has to learn to be happy with who and what she is. As a Jewish woman (on her way out of England, thanks to the purge of Edward I — another interesting inclusion of historical reality) tells her, “‘Little Bird, in the world to come, you will not be asked “Why were you not George?” or “Why were you not Perkin?” but “Why were you not Catherine?”‘” It takes Birdy rather a while to grasp the meaning of that, but when she does, you can see her start to get more comfortable with herself.

There are some inaccuracies in the mix, but considering that this is a young adult novel, not a historical treatise, I really don’t mind. Yes, Birdy would have been an astonishingly unique character in 1290 England — but women like her did exist, even if they were few, far between, and rarely as successful in their rebellions. Cushman doesn’t cheat the typical experience of a thirteenth-century woman, and Birdy has to confront, again and again, what she cannot do. I think Cushman balances the historical reality nicely with the need to appeal to modern readers. Perhaps the greatest fiction is the premise of the novel itself — that anyone would have wasted paper and ink, expensive luxuries, on personal thoughts. But that’s not an anachronism that’s ever going to occur to the target audience, and the conceit allows the reader to enjoy Birdy’s fantastic voice all the way through.

I wish that, at some point, it had occurred to me to keep better track of my reactions to this book throughout my life. I know that from the start, I adored Birdy for being feisty, short-tempered, and impatient — all flaws I could easily relate to. As I said, I was 9 when I first read this (the year it came out), and then, fourteen seems so very far away. I remember re-reading it a year later, to the shock of one of the priggish girls in my class, who had taken great offence at Birdy’s realisation that she cannot run away and become a monk: “…with these apples on my chest, I would not fool even the most aged of abbots. Deus! Last year they were but walnuts and I might have gotten away of it.” Still far away from even walnut category, my prim classmate had been deeply uncomfortable with Birdy’s frank discussion of bodily changes. Well into apple territory already at age 10, early bloomer that I was, I appreciated Birdy’s honesty. Through the years of puberty, Birdy remained a friend, eminently relatable, someone who knew all about the awkwardness, emotional turmoil, and desperate confusion of that span of life. Her temper fits, her sulks, days of euphoric optimism contrasted with days of hopeless despair — What teenage girl doesn’t know precisely what that’s like?

I’m older now, and I look back on my early teenage years with no sentimental fondness whatsoever. Though I’m well past Birdy’s age (indeed, for someone who calls her mother old at thirty-odd, I would seem well and truly past my prime to her, I suspect), her struggles are still relatable, even if some are in hindsight now. Others, though, remain relevant. At 26, I’m still working out the question of how to be the version of myself I most want to be. How do I reconcile my dreams with my reality? How do I find joy in every day of my life? These are some of the questions Birdy tackles, and they’re ones I’m still exploring. And on this read, probably for the first time, I’ve started thinking about how I’ll someday share this book with my own daughters, and how I hope that they’ll find Birdy as true a friend as I always have.

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Sandman, Volume 2: The Doll’s House, by Neil Gaiman

Title: Sandman, Volume 2: The Doll’s House
Author: Neil Gaiman
Year of Publication: 1990 (issues from 1989-1990)
Length: 240 pages
Genre: magical realism – graphic novel
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 3.75 stars

The Sandman collections are all, in their ways, about storytelling. In the first issue of Volume 2 is where it first becomes so patently obvious, though, as a man in the African bush tells a story to his grandson, as part of his coming-of-age ceremony: a tale of the great queen who once ruled their land, when it was a lush greenland instead of a barren desert, when their tribe, the first civilized humans of all, were wealthy and powerful; and how Dream of the Endless loved her, and how she rejected him out of fear; how he seduced her, but when the sun saw what they had done, it threw down a fireball that destroyed her city and blasted the land sterile; how she rejected him again and a third time, and how he then sentenced her to an eternity of suffering in Hell. We’ve met Nada before, when Dream journeys through hell, and says that he has still not forgiven her. The story itself is enchanting, authentically flavoured and authentically degraded from what the truth might have been, with bits of other parables and creation myths bleeding through, but perhaps most tantalizing is the hint at the end of the issue, that the women of the tribe tell another story. We don’t know what it is — it’s never told to men, after all, and the women tell it in their own private language — but the narrative implies that it may well show a very different side of the story.

This collection also includes one of my favourite stories in the series, “Men of Good Fortune”, which introduces one of my favourite characters, Hob Gadling. In 1389, Death coerces Dream into walking the world for a spell, and they wind up in a tavern on the southside of the Thames, listening to the local folk complain about taxes, the welfare system, the imminent end of the world, etc. They overhear Hob claiming that death is “a mug’s game” and that he’ll have no part of it; and so the Endless agree to grant his wish. Hob Gadling will never age nor die, and Dream will meet him, once every hundred years, in the same tavern, to see how he’s getting on. And so they do, through the years. The artwork in this issue is particularly lovely. Penciller Michael Zulli crafts each scene to show the passage of time without the need for any box telling you “1489… 1589… 1689”. It’s all there visually, in the clothes, in the setup of the tavern, in what the customers drink out of. You see the tavern fall into disrepute and then back up again, as London first grows into it and then changes around it. I also love this issue for a sidetrack in the 1589 meeting, when Dream overhears Kit Marlowe talking with the young and thus-far-unsuccessful Will Shaxberd. What William says about his dearest desire is something that, I think, must echo in the heart of any writer:

I would give anything, to have your gifts.
Or more than anything, to give men dreams
that would live on long after I am dead.
I’d bargain, like your Faustus, for that boon.

(It’s worth noting that Shakespeare speaks in iambic pentameter, and Dream does when speaking to him, though I don’t know if that’s as apparent to ears that aren’t as particularly tuned to that rhythm as mine are, thanks to my job). That moment always reminds me of Schmendrick the Magician in The Last Unicorn, saying that he would write his talent a letter, if he knew where it lived. Well, Dream decides to cut a deal with the man who will be William Shakespeare — to open a gate within him and let the stories through. We’ll be seeing him again, and Hob, and some of the others that the undying man’s path crosses through the years.

These stories are not the bulk of the collection, though. The main thread focuses on Rose Walker, who has become something called a dream vortex — precisely what this is or how it happens is never quite clear, but what it seems to mean is that she can make dreams collide with each other, which could, if left unchecked, permanently damage the subconscious minds of an entire version of reality. Her mere existence sets of a chain of coincidences which really aren’t, leading her to find her unknown grandmother (Unity Kinkaid, who we met in Volume 1, who was raped and gave birth to a daughter, Rose’s mom, while she was comatose from the sleeping sickness) and her long-lost brother, and accidentally leading Morpheus to recover four dreams that wandered off from his realm. Rose also wanders into a convention for serial killers, which Gaiman describes as “utterly banal evil” in the Companion, and it seems especially so right after reading the true horror story of Preludes and Nocturnes.

Overall, though I like Rose, I find her main thread a lot less compelling than the side bits. Parts of it become hugely important later on, but the setup is pretty bumpy. Rose will figure in later, as will other tenants of the house where she stays while searching for her brother. Several of the new dreams we meet will have a farther purpose to play. We meet Matthew, a raven (because the Dreaming must always have a raven), who’s new to this strange form of immortality and still adjusting to his responsibilities. It’s the story of Lyta Hall — who managed to gestate a child in the Dreaming for over two years, — that feels the most weird and forced — two of the rogue dreams kidnapped her (dead) husband and put him in a little bubble dreamworld so they could use him; he’s the Bronze Age Sandman, and it still feels too much like Gaiman’s trying to shoehorn in what was supposedly his base canon. This volume clearly demonstrates that the story does better when he shrugs that off.

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The Valcourt Heiress, by Catherine Coulter

Title: The Valcourt HeiressThe Valcourt Heiress, Catherine Coulter
Author: Catherine Coulter
Year of Publication: 2010
Length: 368 pages
Genre: “historical” fiction/romance?
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 1 star

I read this book quickly only because I kept hoping it would get better. There was good material in there, somewhere, I feel sure. It never delivered, though. The characters were flat — no dimension, no development, nothing to make you care about anyone in the story. The story did not hang together at all — no one’s motivations made any sense, there was no sense of cause-and-effect, actions didn’t have plausible consequences… it was a distractingly unsophisticated muddle. The dialogue was distractingly unnatural — stilted in the extreme, not to mention the bizarre accents she had her lower-class characters using, mixing Middle English, early modern slang, and Victorian Cockney cant indiscriminately. And the element of “magick”, as she would insist on spelling it, just plain didn’t make sense. One of the primary mandates of writing fantasy is that magic has to have rules, it has to have constrictions and consequences, and the reader has to know what those are, but there was no explanation whatsoever here. Rather, it felt like Coulter just sort of flung “magickal” themes at the page in the hopes that something would stick. The book would’ve been better off without that element at all — it just made a further mess of an already muddied storyline.

The book also bothered me as a historian — I know that *all* historical romances take certain liberties. You can’t be completely faithful without getting bogged down in details that harm the story. I get that. I’m generally willing to cut fluff fiction a lot of slack — because if it knows what it is, if it isn’t trying to take itself seriously, you can get away with a certain degree of historical vagueness. But this? Coulter goes to the trouble of setting it in a fairly obscure period, or at least one that’s less often dramatized in novels of this kind (late-13th century England, early in the reign of Edward I), setting it up as though that’s going to matter in some way… and then does nothing with it — nothing at all to show that she has any understanding of what late-13th century England was like, or that she did any research on the royal court beyond the names. The personalities of both the time period and the figures in it are just plain wrong. A lot of it was really just painful — the informality of the English court more than anything, for my comfort. Coulter had the king and queen doing things and saying things that the prideful Plantagenets just plain would never have said or done, tolerating horrific affronts to royal dignity, shrugging their shoulders at the ridiculously vulgar way their courtiers were acting… it was absurd. I freely grant, this might not bother someone else, reading the story with less awareness of the historical realities — but compared to some of the really stellar historical fiction I’ve read in the last year, this was a jarring disappointment.

The reason I qualify this book as “romance?” with a question mark is because… well, I know it’s meant to be a medieval romance. I know we’re meant to believe that Garron and Merry have some sort of attachment to each other and will live Happy Ever After. The trouble is that none of that shows in the storytelling. There is nothing in the book to convince a reader that they have any real feeling for each other. They act and react like automatons — and bizarrely programmed automatons at that, taking action only because someone input that stimulus into their systems, not because any emotional or psychological response warrants it. Their “romance” also takes a backseat to the bizarre fantasy elements involving Merry’s mother. The whole story takes a sharp left turn into a ravine about two-thirds of the way through, which only augments the discombobulated feeling of the entire book.

This was my first Catherine Coulter, and, after having heard good things about her, I was really disappointed. I may look for other books of hers that have been more highly rated… but I won’t be bothering with it for a while, at least. Overall, The Valcourt Heiress is a confusing, unengaging, ham-handed quasi-historical mess. I do not recommend it, unless you’ve a penchant for literary masochism.

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